"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 end of the age.” Matthew 18:18-20
From the outset, we notice this charge from the Lord is a singular mission. There is no concept of ministry in which we go out and preach the gospel and, when people are converted, we simply move on to more unconverted people. The entire idea from the Lord, as backed up in the Book of Acts, is that we preach, and when people are converted, they are ushered into the local church where they will be taught “to observe all I have commanded” (v.19). Evangelism and discipleship are not to exist sealed off from one another.
However, we have seen throughout history the practice of separating these two sections of the Great Commission. If we look at them as separate entities, one is naturally more appealing. The idea of being able to be a part of the Lord ushering one of His children into the Kingdom is a joyous one. As pastors, it is also self-fulfilling. We can sit back and feel good that our ministry is having an effect on the kingdom, because there are new believers to prove it.
There is a truth and a danger in that kind of mentality. It is absolutely true that if we are presenting the gospel accurately, lives should be affected. The Lord proclaims in Isaiah, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11). The danger, however, is when we think that it is only through Salvation that His word is proven effective. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Look at how much of Paul's instruction here is directly about discipleship!
The danger, then, for pastors is to think that new believers coming to Christ is better than older believers being made more into Christ's image. It’s easy to see why we fall into this trap. We can quantify new believers; we can give concrete statistics and be able to see from conversions and baptisms how effective our ministries are. As Southern Baptists, we pretty much wrote the book on this mindset. We go to state and national conventions and, when trying to talk about what God is doing in our church, find it’s a lot easier to say we have seen 15 people saved and baptized then to talk about how Mrs. Davis is really leaning on God through her health issues and growing in faith.
We need to fight this temptation. We rightly celebrate when a new believer comes to Christ and we rightly celebrate when someone is baptized. Ed Stetzer has said, “What you celebrate you become.” As pastors, we should be just as willing to celebrate the growth of someone who once was afraid to share their faith and now talks about the Lord to people regularly. We should be apt to celebrate when a brother or sister has the testimony that, through a trial in their life, God has shown them their need for His Word, or when an older believer takes a younger believer under their wing and teaches them what it means to follow Jesus.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we really consider the growth of the believers we already have to be as important as our desire to see more people come to know the Lord? Another way of asking it might be: if you served the rest of your ministry and never saw another convert, would you be content with watching the spiritual growth of your congregation?
Let us not elevate one part of Christ’s commission to the church over the other. Let us desire to see both unbelievers come to a knowledge of the truth and believers become more like the Christ they serve!