Mission statements are all the rage among church leaders. Ever since business strategies were incorporated as aids to congregational life, churches have felt compelled to devise personal mission statements to guide and direct community life. Our mission statement at Immanuel Church is: "To bring everyone into a joy-filled relationship with Jesus Christ that will transform their lives and make even the impossible possible!"
Mission statements are not necessarily bad, but no matter how creative a community gets, the church's mission must accord with Christ's Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20: "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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Ultimately, Christ's mission can be simplified to this: The Church exists "to be and make disciples of Christ." The mission is "to be and make disciples," for we must be disciples in order to make disciples. Clearly, disciple-making should be the priority in the Church's work.
What, then, is a disciple?
A disciple is a pupil, a student, a learner, a practitioner of his or her master's commands. A disciple is an apprentice to his or her master. A disciple seeks to learn wisdom from his or her teacher in order to imitate the teacher's way of life. The practice of steadfast obedience, faithful following, and radical commitment are all contained in the word "disciple."
To be a disciple is not easy. It is difficult and demanding. It involves discipline, self-regulation, and self-denial. It is a lifestyle, a way of life, a long obedience in the same direction. It calls for devotion and is practiced in community. It is not an easy, comfortable, convenient, or carefree life. It calls for uncompromising determination and complete devotion. Nevertheless, all the effort is worthwhile for it results in a closer relationship with God, a greater personal likeness to Christ, and a more loving relationship with others. Jesus believed that what the world needs most are disciples, committed to following in the way of the Master.
How is this to be done? Jesus tells us. We distinguish ourselves as disciples through intimate identification with the triune God in baptism and we grow as disciples through faithful obedience to Christ's commands. Through baptism we participate in the divine life. We immerse ourselves in the self-giving love of Father, Son, and Spirit. We grow in God's life through faithful obedience to Christ's commands.
If Jesus has all authority, then his teachings are invested with divine authority. Discipleship involves a constant attention to Jesus' teachings in order to implement them in our lives. The purpose of teaching is clear: "to observe all I have commanded you." Teaching is intended to result in obedience. Teaching is not just brain-candy. We learn in order to increase our knowledge and demonstrate this through a transformed and transforming life. This continual process of transformation is to distinguish the community as God's people. Therefore, Christ's teaching must not merely be mentally grasped but put into practice. It must be appropriated by heart, mind, and will so that one can abide in the truth and thus prove to be Christ's disciple (John 8:31).
A Disciple-Making Pastor
The ministry of making disciples is central to the life of the church. There are many possible avenues to pursue this in community: small group fellowships, bible studies, book studies, prayer groups, discussion groups, mentoring relationships, service groups, and so on. Each offers a unique opportunity for disciple-making.
But I want to focus on the practice of disciple-making from the perspective of spiritual leadership, and particularly in regard to my role as a pastor. In 1 Timothy 4:13-16, Paul instructs a young pastor, Timothy, on how to go about the work of making disciples. This passage is central to my understanding of gospel ministry. It provides the raw material needed to be an effective disciple-maker.
However, the principles of this passage extend to anyone in a position of leadership over others. This includes not only pastors, but teachers and parents. Indeed, all of us are in some position of leadership over others. We all share in embodying Christ's great commission, so what's good for the pastor is also good for parishioners.
The Centrality of the Word (1 Timothy 4:13)
Disciple-making begins by holding the sacred scriptures in high esteem. We are called to "obey all that Jesus commanded." In order to do this, we must constantly nurture our faith through active engagement with the four gospels. In the context of Matthew's gospel, from which we receive the Great Commission, the call to "obey all that I have commanded you" is a reference is to Jesus' teaching strewn throughout it. This includes, among other things, the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine what a church would be like if all members committed to living out Jesus' teaching in just the Sermon. We are to be salt and light in the world, live in self-giving love with one another, live chaste and obedience lives, practice forgiveness, love our enemies, give alms to the poor, pray, and fast, entrust ourselves to God's care, refuse to judge one another, seek to live in accordance with God's righteous reign, living according to the Golden Rule, and putting our faith into practice.
But a firm grasp of the gospels demands an immersion in the whole of sacred scripture. The epistles elaborate on the significance of Christ and his teaching. And in order to rightly understand Jesus' commands, we must place them in Jesus' Jewish context, that is, we must read them in respect to the whole sacred canon of Scripture.
Paul writes, "Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching." The Greek word translated "give attention" is prosecho, and it means "to attend or be attentive to, to apply one's self, to be devoted." Timothy is to "give attention" to three things: (1) the public reading of scripture; (2) exhortation, and; (3) teaching.
First, scripture should be read publicly. Public reading of scripture was essential in the ancient world because of the high illiteracy rate and the rarity of books. Books were costly and few were able to read. Oral teaching was the chief means of learning. Public reading made the text of scripture accessible to all.
Exhortation is a broad and rich term that includes rebuke, warning, advice, comfort, and encouragement. Exhortation challenges people to apply what they have heard to their lives. Timothy was to encourage the people to respond to the scriptures.
Teaching is the communication of doctrines that arise from the reading of scripture.
Putting these together: The reading of scripture must be accompanied with earnest attention to learning and application. Hearing is not enough. It must be accompanied by thoughtful application of truths taught. To put this in modern terms: Preaching must be expository (arising from the sacred texts), practical, and doctrinal. It should communicate truths to believe and practice.
Clearly, the word is central to disciple-making. Exhortation and teaching should arise from a continual immersion in the text of Holy Scripture. Ministry is ministry of the word. The Spirit transforms us through means of the word preached, received, and practiced.
In order to fully carry out this task, the preacher must prepare in advance. He or she must stand under the scripture, seeking to read and learn in order to communicate the gospel and its significance to the people of God. This demands a commitment to study and preparation. A faithful pastor must always be a student. Calvin asked, "How shall pastors teach others if they be not eager to learn?" For this reason, worthy of double honor who labors at teaching and preaching.
If we seek to be and make disciples we should constantly ask ourselves, How are we being transformed through our active engagement with the Holy Scriptures? Furthermore, how are we shaping people by the word to become like the Incarnate Word through the grace of God's Spirit?
Faithful Stewardship of God's Gifts (14)
Paul admonishes Timothy, "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders" (1 Timothy 4:14). The Greek word translated "do not neglect" is ameleo and means "to be careless of, make light of, to disregard or ignore." God's gifts must never be neglected or left unused. Timothy must not grow careless in the use of his gift. He must remain steadfast in his "attention to" reading, exhortation, and teaching.
God's gifts should be used in service to God's people. To allow them to remain unused is to betray the church's recognition and approval.
Though you may not be ordained, all are called to the ministry of disciple-making. What is your gift? How are you using it to make disciples? Perhaps you can't quite put your finger on your unique gift, but you can commit yourself to being a gift to others. When we all faithfully steward our own unique gifts for the common good, we grow together in christlikeness.
Single-Minded Devotion (15)
Disciple-making demands a single-minded devotion to the message and mission of Jesus. "Put these things into practice" is more literally translated "take pains with these things." Meletao carries the idea of thinking beforehand, planning, premeditating, and sustained reflection. This could be paraphrased: "Fasten these things deeply in your heart, and let all your conduct flow from this inward conviction."
Timothy is to deeply consider the significance of his ministry. The ministry of the word for the purpose of disciple-making is to be his perpetual care and study. He must be devoted to this end. Timothy must apply himself earnestly with all his might. This takes time - it does not come instantly. It demands meditation, deep thought, and careful reflection. Sound teaching is not like biting straight into a Charms pop to get the gum. It is more like sucking (savoring) the pop in order to fully appreciate the gum center. It demands sustained theological reflection. It is not fast food, but a well-prepared meal. Meditation allows truths to be impressed upon the soul and stamped upon our hearts so that we live out of the fullness of the Spirit.
The extent of devotion is revealed in the next phrase, "Devote yourself to them." Literally, the Greek, en toutois isthi reads, "You be in them" or more polished, "Give yourself entirely to them" or "Your very being must be immersed in them." This Greek construction expresses absorption in something. "The mind is to be immersed in these pursuits as the body in the air it breathes" (Guthrie). The call is for entire self-dedication. As in all pursuits, this is the secret of effectiveness. A great musician or athlete is great because of their devotion to their gift. Gifts, therefore must be nurtured through sustained commitment.
This self-dedication should be so great that "all may see your progress." Timothy's progress should be apparent, plainly recognized by all. This begs the question: Progress in what? Management techniques? Rhetorical skills? No. Timothy's progress should be in christlikeness. He is to evidence growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Guthrie writes, "Timothy is to ensure that what most impresses other people is his true Christian development, and not some lesser thing such as brilliance of exposition nor attractiveness of personality."
Note that the goal is progress, not perfection. The minister of God is not perfect, and never will be. However, he or she can show signs of spiritual life, growth, and maturity. This is not the work of a single day, but of a lifetime. There is no need to hide flaws from people; only the need to strive to make daily progress. As the puritan Richard Baxter once said, "Imperfect or none, must be thy service here." I would never minister to anyone if I waited until I was perfect. Instead, I do my best, and pray for God's grace to use my efforts.
If we seek to be and make disciples we should constantly ask ourselves, Are we making progress in our faith? Are we growing in christlikeness? Can others see our growth in the Spirit?
Persevering Watchfulness (16)
This kind of devotion demands long-term watchfulness: "Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching." Paul warns against sluffing off. He exhorts Timothy to keep a strict eye upon his behavior and his doctrine. This warning is not hypothetical. There would be no need for a warning if there was not a clear danger in failing to maintain watchfulness in these key areas.
The two key areas of utmost importance are personal purity and doctrinal soundness. These two stand together. One's teaching will not be effective unless one's life is in accord with it. Likewise, personal purity will be ineffective unless one is diligent to maintain sound doctrine. We teach by word and example. These two cannot be separated.
The importance of a godly example and sound doctrine in disciple-making could not be emphasized more. If people misunderstand our teaching, we must flesh out the truth for them - present a model. If people misunderstand our model, our teaching is a helpful corrective. To summarize: Our teaching must be strong so our example is not misunderstood. Our example must be strong so our teaching is not misunderstood.
Paul concludes with the exhortation: "Continue in these things." Timothy is to persevere in his pursuit of personal and doctrinal purity. He must abide in this stance. He must not ever grow weary of this, but remain constant with this as his focus. Many things will attempt to veer him from this course, but he must remain resolute, steadfast, unmovable. He cannot demand that his listeners persevere in the faith if he is unwilling to do the same.
The exhortations so far have been demanding and difficult. They speak of a high and noble calling. Why would anyone put themselves through such an intense and unyielding workout? In his final phrase, Paul presents the grand reason for such diligent labor, commitment, and perseverance - salvation! "For in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Paul holds out the most inviting carrot before Timothy's eyes. It is the engine that drives him, the goal that energizes him. There is no greater purpose in a minister's eyes than that his or her own discipleship results in making disciples of others - allowing people to share in the salvation of Jesus Christ. If this doesn't spur a minister to devotion and perseverance, nothing will!
Although salvation is God's gift alone, human ministry is God's ordained method of administering salvation. God has always used broken, flawed vessels to mediate divine grace and accomplish the divine purpose. We stand in a long line of people God has used to minister grace and bring divine light to life.
In this sense, every sermon is a "salvation sermon." Its aim is to stir and preserve holy affections, and ultimately to make disciples, or more poignantly, to make saints! Saints are people who walk in God's salvation, and mediate the life of salvation to others. In his final letter, Paul writes from prison near the end of his life and reveals what drives his ministry: "For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory" (2 Timothy 2:10). Paul's job is not done until the saints he ministers to reach glory. Paul recognizes that his ministry is one of the means God uses to this end. His ministry matters! His ministry is of the utmost importance!
Because this is the greatest goal, the greatest effort must be expended! Not only working out his salvation (cf. Phil. 2:12), but also assisting others to do the same. He must be growing in order to help others grow!
This mission is clear: to be and make disciples. We are not in the human potential business. We are in the saint-making business. We seek to be and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We long to be people who reflect Christ in our daily lives - people who love God and love others. We must remain committed to this mission, for according to Jesus, what the world needs most are faithful disciples of Christ.
 It is important to note that this command - and every other command in this passage - is in the present imperative, which implies continual action.
 Isthi is the second person imperative present of eimi (to be, to exist).
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008