Dr. Daniel Vestal: A Passion for the Great Commission

The Church participates in the "Missio Dei" along with people of other religions and even with secularists of good will. Christians work for justice, advocate for the poor, seek racial reconciliation and care for the environment along with the broader human community. But only the Church is commanded to make disciples of Jesus, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and then transmit and teach His words. Only the Church is sent into the world to gather disciples into worshipping, learning, caring communities for the transformation of the world. Only the Church is tasked with the commission of embodying and proclaiming the good news of God's Kingdom revealed in Jesus the Christ.

Several years ago a German pastor/theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote, "The Cost of Discipleship" in which he distinguishes between "cheap grace" and "costly grace." His famous quote is, "When Christ calls us to follow Him, He bids us to come and die." This truth informs how we fulfill the Great Commission. The making of disciples is not the same as the making of converts. Faith in Christ is not just acceptance of information about Christ. Faith in Christ is commitment to becoming like Christ, particularly in His sacrifice and suffering. Baptism into Christ is baptism into Christ's death, burial and resurrection.

So how do we fulfill this commission? One thing is certain. We cannot help others become followers of Christ if we ourselves are not becoming followers of Christ. The Church cannot form disciples unless the Church itself is being formed and transformed into the likeness of the crucified/resurrected One. This is why the practices of Christian discipleship must be taught and learned within the Church. And make no mistake about it, these practices must be taught and learned if discipleship is to take place.

Later this year Craig Van Gelder's important new book, "The Missional Church in Perspective" will be published. In it he writes:

 "The church cannot witness credibly to or participate effectively in God's mission without faithful discipleship. Christian identity in Christendom was assumed to be transmitted primarily through the broader culture. One learned how to be a good Christian by being a good citizen as well as a faithful family member. Today the culture can no longer be assumed to contribute constructively to Christian formation, and few families are equipped to do so. Thus Christian identity must be cultivated intentionally, patiently, and comprehensively by congregations and other Christian communities. Practices of discipleship are primarily a communal reality, given the Trinitarian understanding of the 'imago dei'..."

If a church is to have a passion for the Great Commission, it must have a passion for faith and spiritual formation in its own membership. In intentional and consistent ways we must be learning the personal/communal/missional disciplines of Christian discipleship.  As we practice these disciplines of discipleship we invite others to join us. Our invitation for others to join us is just that - an invitation. It is offered with humility and grace, and it is offered with the assurance that we will walk alongside one another in learning how to follow Christ.

With all this in mind let me offer some practical suggestions for a church that has a passion for the Great Commission understood in the light of costly discipleship.

  1. Practice hospitality. Open your church building, your home and, most importantly, your heart to strangers and people who are different than you. Share a meal with them. Become friends with your neighbors. 

  2. Recognize/bless/encourage those individuals in the church who have a gift of evangelization. There are Spirit-endowed individuals who can attract and communicate with outsiders in winsome and wholesome ways. 

  3. Plan frequent events on the calendar where the church "gets outside its walls" to introduce itself to the community. Better still, become involved in the life of the community where there is human need and suffering. 

  4. Begin a new church (or a Bible study, or a cell group, or a home fellowship) for the express purpose of making disciples. If you can't do this alone, look to other churches for collaboration. 

  5. Give attention to disciple making that is age appropriate to children, youth, young adult, median adult, senior adult.

  6. Send and support missionaries who are called to make disciples among people in a different geographical/cultural/ethnic context than your own. Again, this is done best in cooperation with others. 

  7. Pray for and receive the Holy Spirit who gives joy, love and wisdom to churches that seeks to fulfill the Great Commission.

In the first mission statement CBF adopted we declared our passion for the Great Commission. Through the years I have witnessed that passion in many places. I have seen it in the tears of missionaries as they have left family and familiar surroundings to immerse themselves in a foreign culture. I have seen it in the risk church planters have taken to form communities of new disciples. I have watched this passion tested in established churches as they have sought to transition to mission-centered ministry. I have listened to pastors and laity express their frustrations because of what they feel as a lack of effectiveness in making disciples.

Deep within the hearts of Fellowship Baptists there is a yearning and longing for authentic discipleship. We ourselves want to follow Jesus, and we want to help others follow Jesus. We know that we live in a different culture than our predecessors, and we want to have integrity in our efforts. But we do love and embrace the Gospel, and we want others to embrace it as well.

Daniel Vestal is executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, serving since 1996.

[Taken with permission from "Words from the Executive Coordinator," March 2, 2011. [Cooperative Baptist Fellowship website.]](http://www.thefellowship.info)