Top Ten Mission Trends in the 21st Century: Church Planting

The gospels record that the last act of Jesus prior to His ascension was to deliver a final commission to his disciples.  Today, this is known as the Great Commission.  A close examination of the gospels reveals that Jesus issued the Great Commission on several occasions to his disciples between His Resurrection and His ascension.  He delivered the Great Commission at least twice in Jerusalem, once in Bethany and once in Galilee.[1] One of the most striking facts about these final commissions from our Lord is that the emphasis is not merely on making converts around the world, but the incorporation of new believers into the redeemed community of the church!  For example, the most well-known of the Great Commissions is found in Matthew 28 where Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you, and surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The only imperative in the entire passage is the command to ‘make disciples’.  That is the central core command around which the entire passage is structured.   In several of the Great Commission passages Jesus mentions the central role of baptism which is not merely referring to being baptized into an individualized faith, but being baptized into the community of those who declare that “Jesus is Lord.”
One of the challenges we face in the current globalization of the Christian movement is that the evangelistic-conversion thrust is moving at a much faster rate than the church-planting – discipleship thrust.  The result is that people are being brought to faith at a rate much faster than they are being effectively incorporated into a local church and at least initiated into the discipleship process.  This is of great concern for several reasons.  First, if someone is not quickly incorporated into the church they are more likely to succumb to doctrinal errors.  Many new Christians who have not been incorporated into a Christian church have been lured into heretical movements such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism (LDS) or other groups which have not been faithful in preserving and defending historic Christian faith.  Second, if incorporation into a church does not happen quickly, new believers are more likely to fall away altogether and leave their newfound faith.  While it is difficult to document how widespread the problem of retention in the faith is, we know that the problem is large because the number of reported conversions in some countries far exceeds the number of actual worshiping Christians.  Once someone who has made a profession of faith in Christ falls away, they are – statistically speaking – far more difficult to reach than someone who has never responded to the gospel.
Western Christians, in particular, too often assume the presence of an existing infrastructure of church bodies which are within easy driving distance of any city or town in America.  However, this is seldom the case on the mission field.  What are the implications of this for a local church?  I have found that it is far easier to raise money to fund a purely evangelistic enterprise as opposed to the more difficult task of raising money to train and disciple existing believers.  Nevertheless, the church must keep the entire goal and scope of the Great Commission in mind as we pursue missions in our local churches.  We need to do a better job explaining to our members that to lead someone to Christ without also thinking about their incorporation into a body of believers is irresponsible and, frankly, a direct disobedience to the Great Commission which calls us to baptize new believers into a community of faith and to teach them everything he has commanded us.  We have, I fear, been guilty of under-interpreting the Great Commission through viewing it as a call for us to evangelize all over the world.  It does mean that, but it also means much more.  It is also a call to plant viable, self-replicating churches among all people-groups.   Our vision must be nothing less than a commitment to “disciple the nations.”

[1] The major Great Commission passages are as follows:  Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:46-49, John 20:21 and Acts 1:7, 8.


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