Our task of making disciples is an urgent one. I want to look afresh at the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” and its implications for church-planting today.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)
Make disciples of all nations
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert say this about the mission of the church:
The mission of the church—as seen in the Great Commissions, the early church in Acts, and the life of the Apostle Paul—is to win people to Christ and to build them up in Christ. Making disciples—that’s our task.1
I agree with this statement, albeit with two important clarifications:
- Prior to making disciples of men our purpose is to glorify God. In Matthew 28:17, prior to Jesus’ words of commission, when they saw the crucified Christ now risen, “they worshipped him”. Being redeemed for the vertical life of worship precedes and issues in the horizontal activity of making disciples. Our primary purpose is the worship of God expressed in discipling people.
- I’m not sure it is uniquely the mission of the church to make disciples, for in verse 16 it was the disciples who were told to make disciples. When we gather in church we disciple each other by edification with the gospel-focused Word. When we head into the world we disciple people by evangelism with the gospel-focused Word. So disciples make disciples with the gospel both in the church and in the world.
Disciples are those who trust, follow and learn from their master—not just consumers attracted by the offer of cheap grace, or admirers entertained by biblical knowledge. Disciples are surrendered followers of Jesus, not us, our church or our tribe. Making disciples therefore means people not programs.
In Marshall and Payne’s brilliant book, The Trellis and the Vine, the image of a vine growing against the supportive structure of a garden trellis summarizes the book’s message: we often spend too much time on supportive structures like programs and buildings to the detriment of patiently training people with the Bible to make disciples of all nations. Listen to some of the ‘ministry mind-shifts’ they explore: from running programs to building people; from organizing events to training people; from using people to growing people; from filling gaps to training new workers; from solving problems to helping people; from clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership; from focusing on church policy to forging ministry partnerships; from relying on training institutions to establishing local training; from focusing on immediate pressures to aiming for long-term expansion; from engaging in management to engaging in ministry; from seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth. I think the book under-emphasizes the importance of a quality preaching ministry in discipling and leading a church (corrected by the subsequent publication of Philip Jensen and Paul Grimmond’s companion volume, The Archer and the Arrow), but the corrective is invaluable for me. Programs and structures are important for enabling ministry, but they are not the ministry itself: the goal and mission of a church is about growing the vine, not the trellis.
There’s no command in the Bible to plant churches—but in order to make disciples we see first Jesus, and then the church in Jerusalem, and then the Apostle Paul, going out to do evangelism and then gathering believers in to plant new churches. A church is therefore both the result of the gospel and the source of the gospel. I never planned to plant churches. I planned to preach the gospel to make disciples. But planting new churches has proved to be especially good for making disciples.
Planting churches is good for making disciples
Planting reaches more disciples
It’s well established that new churches are generally better at evangelism than established churches for the following reasons:
- Planted churches are usually more focused on reaching the lost because they feel small and their most urgent need is for growth. The planting group are often selected, or volunteer, because they have gifts and passion for evangelism and can tolerate their own needs being neglected for a while.
- Planted churches can adapt their culture to be more attractive to the community they hope to reach.
- Outsiders often feel more welcome in a planted church than trying to fit in to the long-established traditions of an existing church.
- Younger outsiders and those with negative past experience of church are more easily persuaded to try a new church—although in Britain, middle class families and the privileged establishment can feel safer in a new church that has a familiar traditional Parish or Community church feel, rather than a student church that seems worryingly cultish.
Now we don’t always want to cut up large churches into numerous smaller churches, partly because we rarely have enough trained teachers and venues available. And larger, established churches with historical flagship status can provide regionally beneficial training and resourcing—churches like All Souls, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate or Westminster Chapel. But the sum of people reached by lots of smaller, effective churches is usually greater than that reached by one larger church. This is due to geographical spread, and because of a cultural aversion to larger church dynamics and preference for smaller local community dynamics. So let’s keep planting to reach the lost, even if it means planting close to other thriving gospel churches.2
Planting trains missionary disciples
Being involved in a church plant often provides a significantly better missionary-training context than a more comfortable established church context prone to a consumer outlook. The people who’ve been involved in our plants have grown spiritually through having to develop an especially missionary outlook. They have developed a clear understanding of the gospel and the urgency of proclaiming it, courageous prayerful dependence upon God, sacrificial commitment to the church community, and a lively sense of being part of God’s growing kingdom work in the world. It’s advisable to keep planting to train mission-hearted disciples willing to carry their cross in following Jesus.
Planting rescues marooned disciples
We used to talk only about reaching the un-churched. But the spiritual condition of many of the mainline denominations is now so bad that we must talk more openly of reaching the ‘post-churched’ as well. We need to be rescuing believers who find themselves marooned, drifting away from a church that has drifted away from the gospel. This is very likely to be the case in many Anglican parishes if the Christian Research statistics are true: of Anglican clergy ¼ no longer believe that Christ died for our sins, ¹⁄³ no longer believe that Christ rose bodily from the grave, and ½ no longer believe that Christ is the only way to salvation.3 There are other cases where a free church has fallen apart in an acrimonious split and believers are left travelling far and wide looking for gospel ministry.
So it’s common to find marooned believers in communities where there is no credible gospel church, either longing for a gospel plant to arrive or lapsed but ready to be recruited by a local gospel outreach. This is not sheep-stealing but sheep-rescuing.
Many don’t plant because they hope to do more discipling by growing a bigger church. If God enables you to grow a church of a million new converts then I certainly wouldn’t be pressuring you to plant! But for most of us there are inhibiting factors, often subtle or inexplicable, that keep our churches below a certain ceiling. This is sometimes connected to our own personal godliness, abilities and profile, but often it is the more subtle issue of a hardened local context. This could be a church in a very wealthy suburb whose population departs for the weekend, or on a socially dysfunctional estate. We can wait for years, hoping that our church will break through this invisible ceiling, when we may be better planting and replenishing. And of course, behind it all is the mysterious sovereign hand of God who is more concerned with teaching us Christ-like godliness than fulfilling our plans to grow big churches or plant for our own glory!
So, although there’s no command to plant churches, we find that planting reaches more disciples, trains missionary disciples and rescues marooned disciples—and all planted churches will grow as much as God wants them to.
Now given that making disciples is the heart of the Great Commission, the four great universals—the ‘alls’ that dominate Jesus’ words—have a direct effect upon how we plant churches to make disciples.
1. “All authority”: going everywhere!
Our motivation in making disciples is the resurrection of Christ to enthronement in heaven, with absolute and eternal supremacy over heaven and earth (i.e. everywhere!). Because of his humble, substitutionary self-sacrifice on the cross, the Father has raised and exalted him, as promised in Daniel 7, to be publicly recognized as the Lord of heaven and earth. Just as her Majesty the Queen addresses Parliament each year to publish the reform program of her government, here in Matthew 28 Jesus outlines his plans for his people throughout all the world in all generations. This little speech is his global reform program and has impacted our planet more than any other speech in history, because it has launched the gospel movement which is transforming the planet. In particular, his claim to authority over all of heaven and earth has three major implications:
Everywhere belongs to Jesus
There are no nations that don’t belong to Jesus. Africa can declare itself Muslim and China can declare itself Communist and Britain can declare itself secular—but in truth, they all belong to Jesus. Every community and post code belongs to him. The departing Archbishop of Canterbury was quite wrong to suggest that some post codes be surrendered to Sharia law and Trevor Philips and Lynne Featherstone are completely wrong to suggest that God has no role in the public sphere such as defining marriage for modern British life—Britain belongs to Jesus!
Everywhere must be reached for Jesus
This Commission is not a suggestion or invitation but a command—and we shall be judged by our obedience to it. Even if the penalty for our disobedience has been suffered by Jesus, we shall be rewarded in eternity for our efforts to obey him. We’re obliged to try to reach into the unreached communities and post-codes of our world and not leave it to others if we can do something—everywhere must be reached for Jesus.
Everywhere can be reached for Jesus
Because Jesus rules every area, and nowhere is beyond his resourcing and protection, even if he permits us the honour of suffering opposition to become more like him, he is more protective than the police, more influential than Mayor Boris Johnson, with more money than the Bank of England. It is not David Cameron, but Jesus, who governs our nation. So everywhere can be reached for Jesus!
This means several things in practice. We do need to plant in student/young worker hubs like the City or Mayfair, especially to train gospel workers, and in middle-class resource rich areas, especially to raise funding for other gospel ministry. We also need to plant in difficult housing estates and not just in a narrow upper middle class stratum.
We may need to plant across parish boundaries, even if we’re Anglican. I’m reminded here of Rev. William Haslam who—famously converted during his own sermon as a high churchman in Cornwall—journeyed down to become an evangelical in Mayfair. Committed to preaching the gospel wherever it was needed, he was hauled up before a good Bishop and told to stop invading other parishes. He wrote, “I felt discouraged, and hurt in mind, that he did not understand me better; that such as he, for the sake of legal and ecclesiastical technicalities, should take part with some unconverted men, who neglected their parishes and the souls of their people, as if parish boundaries were of more consequence than the salvation of souls”.4 How familiar! Jesus is Lord and Archbishop over all parishes, and we’re commanded to make disciples—working together if possible, alone if necessary.
2. “All nations”: seeking everyone!
It was a shock for me to realize that making disciples of all nations was not a command just for some disciples with an interest in overseas mission. Rather, it is a fulfillment of the creation mandate to fill the earth and subdue it, of the promise to Abraham to bless all peoples through him, and of the role of Israel as a light to all nations. Christ is now enthroned over all peoples and sends us all to follow his apostles as his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We are all “knots in the net that Jesus has thrown over his world”, as the Bishop of London once colourfully observed. Even if the word ‘Go’ is the participle ‘going’ (meaning as we go through each day and go through our lives), the word still has a sense of movement because it is attached to the imperative to make disciples. In some sense, as disciples of Jesus, following our cross-cultural missionary king, we must be constantly leaving our comfort zones to make new disciples. Now a church doesn’t go out—church is the gathering of God’s people that welcomes those who are being brought in by the gospel—but the members of the church must go out into the world to search for the lost sheep of Christ and invite them to follow Jesus in the community of his church. We can’t simply wait for unbelievers of all nations to find us.
That’s why a constant attractional and missional outlook, as well as seasons of intensified mission—like the “A Passion for Life” missions—are necessary. It’s why we need to invade different social communities with the gospel to plant more churches. While heaven is one gloriously multicultural church, the pagan cities in which we live are populated by segregated communities. I don’t think we can choose either a homogeneous unit principle or heterogeneous principle but must adopt a gospel integration process. In other words, to reach the people of a community we need to contextualize our church cultures as far as we can without contextualizing the gospel. We translate (but don’t contextualize) God’s gospel that Jesus is Christ the Lord for all cultures and ages. As we teach the Bible, and as people are transformed by the gospel, they will become increasingly tolerant and adaptable—and then we can encourage increasing regional and network cross-cultural gospel partnerships, as we prepare for the perfect integration of heaven. This too has three implications:
Support international mission agencies
We need to support, rather than drain, international mission agencies like Crosslinks/AIM—especially where specialist ministries such as theological education can support local nationals in their planting. And we need to help foreign missionaries to our own countries (e.g. Nigerians and Koreans in the UK) who are having minimal impact on the prevailing culture and are losing their teenagers from church.
Reach international visitors
We need to be reaching internationals who visit us. The nations come to us in London for business, education, and the Olympics, and we rejoice in immigration even if some will take jobs from the British. We find that agencies like Friends International, and church-based student cafes which befriend foreign students, provide good practice for our church plants.
Plant churches among ethnic minorities
In London—a city with 40% of its population born outside the UK—we need to employ ethnic evangelists and adopt ethnic churches to reach into the world with strong links to their homelands. Our Korean congregation at Dundonald is one joyful (but all too rare) example of this.
3. “All that I have commanded”: obeying everything!
Baptizing believers into the trinitarian name of God, we’re to teach them not part but all of Jesus’ teaching relayed to us through the writings of the apostles in the context of the Old Testament. As we do this, it may be wise to take our time over some more difficult aspects of the Scriptures, like predestination and the origin of evil (though even these are powerful in turning worldviews upside down), and it is best to avoid confronting the most politically incorrect issues—homosexual practice, male headship, the eternity of hell, and the idolatry of other religions—in our first talk. But we are not at liberty, in the name of planting, to tear out of the Bible pages that are unpopular, or to declare someone a Christian before at least explaining to some extent all the elements of the gospel—that Jesus is Christ our Lord (Romans 1), came as the king, died for our sins, rose to rule and is returning to judge (Mk 1; 1 Cor 15; Rom 1:16). Again, I think this has three particular applications for church planting:
Gifted teachers should lead plants
We need to ensure that gifted and trained Bible-teachers lead church plants. It is possible to over-train, and I don’t think that the leader of a small bi-vocational plant (where there is network accountability and oversight) needs the same training as a large plant leader. But you can also under-value the growth dynamic of the Spirit through the Word clearly taught and applied. Although I will look for planters with a gifting that is generalist more than specialist; leadership that is driving more than supporting; skills that are relational more than professional; delight that is in people more than crowds; planning that is tactics more than strategy; appearance that is confident more than anxious; a capacity that is extensive rather than focused; a culture that is adaptable more than traditional; and a wife who is involved more than background—nevertheless the first requirement is the ability to teach the word and the godliness to show how it applies.
Don’t overburden church plants
We mustn’t burden church plants with expectations or financial difficulties requiring speedy numerical growth. Deep quality planting will tend to grow slowly at first. If plants are really discipling unbelievers, rather than just gathering Christians, then while the sending church will be replenished with its existing growth dynamic, the new church will probably take time to teach the gospel carefully, especially among the hardest cultures to reach (for example Muslims, Hindus and English liberals in Britain today).
Don’t send out unhealthy plants
We mustn’t plant with shallow-rooted, diseased or tangled plants. If we plant shallow plants (immature Christians) they will give up when it costs to follow Jesus. If we plant diseased plants, with serious theological misunderstandings, we’ll soon have division and conflict within the church as factions compete for control of the new church. If we plant tangled plants, with people who are choked by the worldly concerns, we’ll soon have a church with some people exhausted and resenting the lack of commitment in others. We need to plant with a well-taught core—especially the senior elders who model being disciples.
4. “Always”: taking every opportunity!
The power for planting is the presence of Christ. “And surely I am with you always” is the wonderful assurance of the presence of the Spirit of Christ whenever we’re engaged in making disciples for him. We’re never alone, and never abandoned. Indeed, he is not joining our mission—we’re joining his—and the greatest joy of planting churches is watching him at work. God can and does provide miraculously for our needs. If you really want to get to know Jesus well, throw yourself into making disciples for him. This also liberates us to attempt apparently impossible plants in confidence that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. I see three final implications:
Weariness need not stop us
God’s power is made perfect in weakness—and we need serial planters and serial planting churches, who don’t just plant one, but many churches. Ed Stetzer identifies momentum and bi-vocational leadership as critical to thriving church-planting movements.
Risks, perfectionism, and conservatism need not stop us
There’s always a risk that something might not work, or a temptation to wait until we have everything sewn up—but with Christ, anything obedient is possible. I recall, when we planted Christ Church Mayfair, being shown a letter listing all the faults with our plan—it was the wrong people in the wrong place in the wrong venue. The criticisms were all valid, but I still prefer our imperfect church plant to the perfect plant of that letter which, as far as I know, has never been started!
Costs need not stop us.
Often it isn’t the costs to our own health (the stress and pressure we bear when we plant) that worry us most, but the costs we perceive to our wives and kids who won’t have the supportive groups we wanted for them. However, apart from allowing them the privilege of accepting the costs of planting for Christ, we also need to trust Almighty God to provide for them as much as for us—Christ is with them too. Those who quote the decisive moment in Hudson Taylor’s decision to go to China often do not realize that the last hurdle was not fear for himself, but for those who would go to China with him:
“I feared that in the midst of the dangers, difficulties and trials which would necessarily be connected with such a work, some who were comparatively inexperienced Christians would break down, and bitterly reproach me for having encouraged them to undertake such an enterprise for which they were unequal.
On Sunday, June 25th 1865, unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security, while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual agony; and there the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself for this service. I told him that all the responsibility as to issues and consequences must rest with him, that as his servant, it was mine to obey and follow him—his to direct, to care for, and to guide me and those who might labour with me.”5
In closing then, plant more churches. Let your motive be that all authority is given to Jesus—so go everywhere! Let your goal be to reach all nations—reach everyone! Let your ministry be teaching all that Jesus has commanded—teach everything! And let your confidence be in the presence of Christ always—take every opportunity! Go… and make disciples of all nations by planting churches!
This article is an edited version of Richard’s opening talk given at the Planting for Christ 2012 conference held at Dundonald Church in March.
- K DeYoung and G Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, Crossway, Wheaton, 2011, p. 63. ↩
- Phil Allcock’s plant into Clapham is a case in point. ↩
- PW Brierley (ed.), UK Christian Handbook: Religious Trends, No. 3: 2002/2003, Christian Research, London, 2001. ↩
- W Haslam, Yet Not I, Morgan and Scott, London, 1882, pp. 225-26. ↩
- JH Taylor, A Retrospect, China Inland Mission, Toronto, 1898, p. 119. ↩