Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matt. 28:19, 20, NKJV).
We recognize these verses in the Gospel of Matthew; they are the words of Jesus in the passage called “The Great Commission.” Notice that Jesus gave three commands in this Great Commission, after exhorting us to go make disciples, baptize, and teach them to observe all things as Jesus taught/commanded.
When He spoke, Jesus didn’t “wing it.” He gave thought to what He was saying, how He was saying it, and in what order He was saying it. We should not take these imperatives lightly, nor should we ignore the order in which they were given.
First, Jesus said to make disciples. Bible dictionaries and other sources define a disciple as a “devoted follower of a great religious leader or teacher.” When we “bring people into the church” are we preparing “devoted followers of Jesus?” Are we making sure that they are true disciples of Jesus? Sometimes I wonder if we start with the teaching part, baptize individuals when they “know” enough, then hope they become disciples after they have joined the church.
That’s not the order that Jesus gave us, is it? I hear much too often that people are leaving through the proverbial “back door” of the church. Could this be happening because we haven’t prepared disciples for baptism?
Please don’t get me wrong, teaching people to observe all the things Jesus has commanded is very important. It is a part of the Great Commission. But it is much more difficult to get someone to accept fundamental beliefs when they aren’t devoted to Jesus first. The important beliefs become rules to follow — a list of do’s and don’ts when we teach first. We are much more motivated to get involved in something when we know the leader, believe in the vision, and feel affirmed.
That’s where small group ministry comes in. Ellen White wrote: “The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort is a plan that has been presented before me by One who cannot err. If there is a large number in the church, let the members be formed into small companies, to work not only for the church members, but for unbelievers also.”* People listen to their friends. People accept counsel and prayers from their friends when they know they genuinely care about them. Healthy small groups (HSG) ministry is designed to accomplish this very thing: establish relationships with friends from the community through love and compassion, allowing the Holy Spirit to produce growth and ultimate surrender to Jesus. HSG fulfill the first crucial goal of the Great Commission — make disciples!
As a former youth pastor, I remember a fundamental principal for teaching the Bible to young people. It went like this: “Tell me, I’ll forget, show me I’ll remember, walk with me and I will understand.” That’s the key to get people to understand the beauty of Jesus, to get them to be devoted to the Savior. Of course, this includes education as we share the Bible with them.
My hunch is that when we follow the Gospel Commission as it has been outlined by Jesus in Matthew, we will have many disciples ready to take on leadership roles in the church as they embrace the Gospel Commission as disciples of Christ, then go, and make new disciples for God’s honor and glory.
*Ellen G. White, Australasian Union Record, Aug. 15, 1902.
— Tony Anobile is vice president for Multilingual Ministries for the North American Division.