A close friend asked me recently whether I thought that the mandate of Christ was to “make disciples” or to plant churches. His question came out of observing the often poor efforts to plant churches around the world. This is not a new question as many ministries focus on evangelism and discipleship while others focus on church planting. For those of us involved in missions it is a fundamental and crucial question.
Jesus commanded us to make disciples – people who would wholeheartedly follow Him. This is the heart of the Great Commission. What is interesting is how the apostles took that mandate. Their response to the Great Commission was not simply to do evangelism and to disciple new believers (which they did) but it was focused on church planting as their fundamental strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission. Indeed, they came out of a Jewish background where the worship of God was never simply an individual affair but was focused around the synagogue where they gathered for worship, prayer and teaching.
In the New Testament, the church is called “bride of Christ” and Paul writes that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-30). One could argue that this was simply the “church universal” but the New Testament is clear that each local church is a manifestation of the global church. Paul not only planted churches but several of his letters were addressed to individual churches (Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians Philippians, and Thessalonians).
Jesus himself addresses letters to seven individual churches in Revelation two and three. The history of Christianity is a history of church planting wherever and whenever the church has penetrated populations where the Gospel was not present. Christianity has never spread without the spread of local churches.
What is clear is that the local church is God’s chosen method to reach the world for Him. At least that was the understanding of Christ’s disciples and their response to His command to make disciples was to plant churches where believers could gather for teaching, prayer, worship and the celebration of communion – and it was this gathered body of believers that made such an impression on both Jews and Gentiles in the years following Christ’s ascension.
Studies of conversions around the world show that a large percentage (often over 50%) of those who make a profession of faith are not following Christ three years later when they are not connected to a local church. Indeed, many campus ministries in Russia have seen disappointing results because while their efforts at evangelism were fruitful, a high percentage of those who made those professions are no longer following Christ because of the lack of healthy churches around those campuses.
Indeed, it is through the church that disciples are truly made – if the church is healthy. Now to my friends point: often our conception of the church is seriously flawed. We think of church as being defined by real estate, buildings and full time staff who have degrees. In a poor world where half of its population lives on three dollars a day or less, that definition of “church” does not work.
Nor is it the story of the early church. If we define a church as a group of believers (small or large) who gather together regularly for worship, teaching and prayer and the celebration of communion under some sort of leadership we have a Biblical definition. In our organization we simply call these kingdom communities. It may be five former Muslims gathering in a home in secret, or a hundred believers worshiping under a large tree in Congo or a large congregation in the West in a fancy facility.
Often the reason for lack of success in “church planting” is that we are trying to plant a western version of a church rather than a Kingdom community of believers who gather together regularly for worship, prayer, teaching, the sacraments and to spread the gospel in their community. Multiply Kingdom communities and you multiply the church and one multiplies disciples.
Flawed as it is, Jesus chose the church as His method of reaching a lost world and each of those kingdom communities, large or small are a part of His bride that shines His light in their community. Disciple making is the job of the local church. Evangelism is the job of every believer and every local church. But everything revolves around healthy churches – kingdom communities – whether a congregation of three or a congregation of 300.
The mandate of Christ was to make disciples. The Apostles understood that the means of making disciples was to multiply local congregations where in Christian community believers grow together and together carry out the mandates of evangelism and disciple making. Those kingdom communities are His bride – for which He died and by which He intends to reach a lost world.