With the missional emphasis in the past decade, there has been a renewed emphasis in defining the mission of the church. The Great Commission is all about making disciples, but how do we do that? Within the missional genre of literature, there’s a growing stream of resources revisiting the practice of disciple-making, and I’m encouraged to see this take place.
Growing up, I only understood discipleship in one sense: discipleship training. That is the 5:00PM time slot where the really dedicated church members attended church (that is, after Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, then discipleship training). During that time, I participated in things like bible drill and youth choir. For all I knew, it was another period and program provided by the church that dedicated Christians should participate.
Going off to college, I did not understand the relationship of evangelism to discipleship, and I was making converts, not disciples. I would make it my goal to lead X number of people to Christ and was determined to do whatever it took to see that happen. When the goal was reached, I thought I was really getting somewhere as a Christian. But then I began to look back and realize that hardly, if any, of the people I led to Christ were discipled, growing, and flourishing in their relationship with God. There was little to to no “fruit that remains.”
It was “fruit that remains” that was a central concern to the ministry of the apostle Paul.
To the church in Corinth, he warned them not to believe in vain (1 Cor. 15:2) and not to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 6:1).
To the church in Galatia, he was deeply concerned that he may have labored over them in vain due to their waffling on the gospel (Gal. 4:11).
To the church in Philippi, he pleaded with them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling so that “in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil. 2:16).
To the church in Thessalonica, he sent Timothy to this church facing persecution out of fear that their labor would be in vain (1 Thess. 3:5).
It is clear that one of Paul’s overarching concerns and fears is that his life and labor among the people of God would be found useless and bear no fruit in the end. If we were to embrace this kind of concern for the souls of men and women, how would this affect our evangelism and disciple-making? What measurables would need to change?
Whatever might be said on this topic, we are dealing with souls that will never die. We must hear the words of Jesus who said that we have been appointed to go and bear fruit and that fruit should remain (John 15:16). The Great Commission is not just about sinners being made Christians, but sinners made saints and ushered into the presence of God.
Perhaps one of the most glaring failures in evangelical life today is the absence of Paul’s concern that Christians remain faithful and finish strong to the end so that no one would “receive the grace of God in vain.” His concern was not so much how many were being converted in but that not a single “child” in the faith would fail to make it to maturity. Like a father, he could not envision a single child orphaned and departing from the faith. Perhaps this is what Paul was talking about when he said “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).
Fathers don’t bring children into the world and leave them once they are born. Shepherds don’t ignore the one sheep leaving the ninety-nine. Soldiers don’t abandon the trenches when fellow comrades are in battle. Athletes don’t beat the air or run aimlessly when training others to win the prize. These are all illustration of discipleship from Scripture intended to remind us of the Great Commission. Make disciples. Run. Labor. Fight. Shepherd. Because all of them are people for Jesus shed his blood and appointed to bear fruit that remains.