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Do we really need to qualify Christian disciples by the term missional?

Do we really need to qualify Christian disciples by the term missional?

Most Christians would readily agree that one of the primary tasks of the church is to make disciples. However, not as many would affirm that these should be missional disciples. They would hold that some disciples are of the “common variety of church-goers” who do not necessarily engage in mission. This group would affirm many positive aspects. Most Christians would readily agree that one of the primary tasks of the church is to make disciples. However, not as many would affirm that these should be missional disciples. They would hold that some disciples are of the “common variety of church-goers” who do not necessarily engage in mission. This group would affirm many positive aspects of disciple-making such as need for conversion, biblical knowledge, learning spiritual disciplines, and growing in communion with God, but they would not require engagement in mission as a necessary practice of a Christian disciple.

On the other hand, there are those who ask: Do we really need to qualify Christian disciples by the term missional? This group advocates that the modifier missional is redundant and unnecessary because all disciples are sent on mission, whether near or far. The idea of a “non-missional disciple” is absurd. This group holds that all disciples are commissioned with a task to make disciples and are by nature missional. While the scope may vary, there is no such thing as a mission-less Christian.

The adjective missional serves to highlight the mission-dimension of the Christian disciple’s life. In this way, the expression missional disciple is not intended to describe any particular kind of disciple but all Christian disciples—all who believe in and follow after Jesus Christ, regardless of whether their missional field is across the street, across the region, or across the ocean. The word missional is used to emphasize disciple-making that leads to more than personal holiness and more than equipping disciples to serve in the local church. Rather, missional disciple-making implies that the Christian disciple’s life extends outward to join the triune God in his mission in the world—locally, regionally, or globally. Thus, while personal and church-based applications of disciple-making are necessary, they are not sufficient by themselves. Disciple-making includes the missional dimension.

Of course, today’s missional disciple-making conversation is tied closely with the missional church conversation. In today’s late-Christendom or post-Christendom world, one can neither assume nor expect people in the broader society to have a sense of obligation to attend divine services, as was the case during the height of cultural Christendom. With the shift toward post-Christendom, the west is again a mission field. As Kevin J. Vanhoozer states:

In the era of Christendom, when the church wielded political power, the question was moot, for the whole world supposedly was Christian. The problem with Christendom, as Lesslie Newbigin and John Yoder have pointed out, is that the church easily loses sight of mission when the church is fused (or confused) with world. There was nothing for the local church prophetically to present, nor was there an audience to observe it: ‘the sense that the church is a body sent into the world, a body on the move and existing for the sake of those beyond its borders, no longer played an effective part in men’s thinking.’ Newbigin contrasts Christendom’s fusion of the church (corpus Christianum) with the present situation where the church is a minority contrast community (corpus Christi).

The challenge for the church today lies in awakening to the new realities of an increasingly post-Christian context. Disciple-making today must prepare Christians to engage in their contexts and to enter spaces where people are biblically illiterate or indifferent to Christian faith, if not hostile to it. This missional engagement requires a willingness to engage in “cross perspectival conversations.” It involves moving “out of one’s self and one’s accustomed terrain, and taking some risk of entering another world.” It means that Christian disciples, including those who have proved themselves competent at church-based programs, must learn to engage neighbors in hospitality, to serve in community-based ministries, and to share the gospel in word and deed. This requires formation of disciples who live out their missionary calling individually and collectively. This is missional disciple-making.


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1.Disciple-making is the process that includes going to non-believing others, proclaiming the gospel, baptizing those who believe, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded, even the commands to love God, to love one another, to love one’s neighbor, and to make disciples. Thus, the expression disciple-making is broader than discipleship, which deals more specifically with following the way of Jesus and begins with Christian baptism.

2. D. A. Carson concludes that the command given to the eleven apostles to “make disciples” is binding on all disciples. D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 596. Cf. Bill Hull, Conversion and Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 47.

3.Based upon Ralph D. Winter’s typology of M-1 to M-3 missions, a similar description can be applied to missional disciples. M-1 is sent across the street, across town, across local or regional sub-cultures of the same culture. M-2 is sent generally to a different but similar cultural family with a different language. M-3 is sent generally to a remote population of the world with a vastly different language and culture. Adapted from: Ralph D. Winter, “Letter to the Editor,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly (VII:1, 1970): 55.

4. Lesslie Newbigin made the point that the doctrine of the triune God or Trinity first developed in a missional context and with missional concerns. See Michael W. Goheen, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You” in J. E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology (Zoetermeer, Netherlands: Boekencentrum, 2000), 120.

5. Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 182–185; 257.

6. See: Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986); Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); Mark T. B. Laing and Paul Weston, Theology in Missionary Perspective: Lesslie Newbigin’s Legacy (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012)

7. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2014),173. Cf. Vanhoozer’s example, 130–131.

8. In a study by the Barna Group, the percentage of Americans categorized as “post-Christian” increased from 37 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2015, with the highest percentages residing in urban areas of the northeast and Pacific Northwest. Ray Nothstine, “Are You Living in a Post-Christian America?” The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/are-you-living-in-a-post-christian-america-142773/ (accessed 5/10/2017).

9. Mark A. Maddix, “Missional Discipleship,” in Missional Discipleship: Partners in God’s Redemptive Mission, edited by Mark A. Maddix and Jay Richard Akkersman (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 2013), 25.

10. Andrew F. Walls, “Afterword: Christian Mission in a Five-Hundred Year Context,” in Mission in the Twenty-First Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission, ed. A. F. Walls and Cathy Ross (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), 197.

11. Keller, Center Church, 259–261

Discipling Christians Unto What?

Discipling Christians Unto What?

Families on Mission

Families on Mission

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