There is an enduring line from the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke that I hear repeated from time to time, and which I use myself in certain situations. The prison warden speaks to Luke, who has been re-captured after having escaped briefly. He has been returned to the chain gang and after an incident in which the warden strikes him in a fit of angry frustration over Luke’s stubborn refusal to silently submit to the warden’s cruel disciplinary measures, he delivers the line:
“What we’ve got here is [a] failure to communicate.”
In what must be regarded as one of the most powerful directives for the ministry of The Church after Christ’s ascension (the other being Acts 1.8), Jesus makes it crystal clear, in Matthew 28.19,20, what the modus operandi of the believer is to be when it comes to accomplishing the Great Commission. The local church and the believers who comprise it are to be about the business of reaching the world with the Gospel and teaching those who believe all the things that Jesus has taught. We call it, “evangelism” and “making disciples”.
I think it might be said that the Great Commission, and its twin engines of evangelism and discipleship, has been the focus of more discussion, teaching and writing than perhaps any other ministry activity; especially in recent years. Why is it then that the ministry of so many local churches bears little resemblance to the emphases which Christ set forth in His final instructions to the disciples. It was their obedience to those instructions that “turned the world upside down” as the Gospel spread like wildfire, creating an ever multiplying number of disciples from all walks of life and the establishment of new churches wherever it was taken.
Is it possible that, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate?”
Clearly there was no question in the minds of the Lord’s disciples concerning what Jesus meant when He said, “make disciples.” They understood what was involved and how, in the power of the Spirit, to go about it without the benefit of books, conferences, seminars and clinical studies. Why don’t we? They knew how to make it happen with almost breath-taking efficiency, even in spite of some tremendous hardships. Why don’t we? Why is it, that in spite of all the communicating; cajoling, threatening, guilt-laying, pleading, manipulating and whatever else we’ve tried without success, we see such a meager response?
The Great Commission is not a facet of the church’s ministry. The Great Commission IS the church’s ministry. Evangelism and Discipleship are not optional side-dishes on the menu of the church’s mission. They ARE the local church’s mission; it’s raison d’etre (reason for being). But with frustrating frequency, local churches are often locked into a desperate mission to simply maintain the status-quo as they struggle to meet the budget; as leadership organizes, formalizes, criticizes and supervises but never re-vitalizes; as they fret over who is going to direct the Sunday School program this Christmas who will be offended if they are not asked!
Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a little, but not a lot. It is said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned (although the veracity of that is questionable). A large portion of The Church is fiddling while the lost continue to drop into the fires of eternal torment (the veracity of that is not questionable). Who is more culpable?
The solution to this serious deficiency involves more than can be treated in this short essay. There is, however, something I would suggest for your careful and prayerful consideration.
When Jesus told his disciples to “make disciples” they knew exactly what He meant. I believe that the reason they knew was because they WERE disciples. They knew exactly how disciples were made because they had been made such by Jesus, himself!
When the responsibility of the Great Commission is proclaimed today and, indeed, when we hear it outselves, is the low level of fruitful response due to the fact that while they hear the words, the hearers haven’t the first clue as to how to make disciples because … not being true disciples ourselves … we don’t know what a disciple is. Could it be that we don’t know how to make them because we’ve never been made one in the first place?
“Every disciple fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6.40). Discipleship is, literally, the art of imitation; becoming like the teacher. When the disciple is fully trained, he becomes the teacher and passes on the teaching to those whom he disciples, who in turn, when fully trained become teachers and begin the process with the next generation of disciples.
We have the same commission. We have the same Spirit. People are just as lost now as they were then. We have even better communications technology now than they had then so we should have an advantage! What is different now? Could it be that those who received the Commission in the first century were genuine committed disciples and that the line of discipleship succession has deteriorated to the point that today, genuinely committed disciples … those who have been discipled and are like their teacher … are in short supply?
If so, then the church has a tremendous challenge before it. The first step in meeting that challenge will need to be taken on our knees. It will require more careful consideration and thought before suggesting much beyond that. But I believe it starts with the question, “Am I truly a disciple?”
Leave a reply below. Tell me what you think. I’d be happy to hear it!