By Dr. Ria Llanto Martin
Senior Research Fellow, Kwiverr
I want to take some time to discuss each word from this title to grapple and understand how existing missionary agencies, churches, and missionaries might impede the preaching of the gospel and start spontaneous churches. If you are a pastor reading this blog, can you think through how you became a pastor, from when you received a calling to now pastoring one? Reflect on how happy or unhappy you might be regarding your expectations as a church planter. What were some of the necessary steps to become a pastor and, therefore, legitimate to plant a church? Given the countless scandals we have experienced from Fall Out pastors and Christian leaders, it is deemed necessary for one to go through some rigorous training in order to become good stewards of God’s people, preach in the right context, and know how to manage staff and finances on top of one’s daily counseling duties. Although if we think about it, these training did not forbid those pastors and church leaders from falling. In fact, some of them have extraordinary talent, and intelligence, which makes them quite famous and easy to follow, because we were impressed with their credentials as church leaders. Meanwhile, I am not discounting the importance of attending seminaries and getting degrees to equip ourselves as missionaries and pastors. However, this title concerns starting spontaneous churches without a missionary, pastor, or full-time staff. Can you imagine this structure in our modern, structured, detail-oriented, and controlling 21st Century world?
Jesus’ last words, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” founded many missionary agencies today. Last words, right? It is a big deal and we ought to take it seriously, and it is our mandate, our instruction, and our commission as we await his return. This verse proceeds to itemize that we should first GO, in Jesus’ authority and make disciples.
Going means, there is some kind of movement from point A to point B. I preached a text from Mark chapter one before, where Jesus got up early in the morning to pray. During this time, Jesus was already healing sick people, driving out unclean spirits, establishing his authority on earth and bringing hope to mankind. While he was praying, a large crowd formed outside of Simon’s house. Simon, who was looking for him, finally found him and said, “Everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus replied, “Let us go elsewhere, into the surrounding villages, so that I can preach there too. For this is what I came out here to do.” Jesus was clear about going elsewhere (outside of where he is already known) to preach there also, for he knows this is what he came out to do. So for us, modern Christian readers, to go means going to places where Christ is not known. Paul in Corinthians even made it his ambition to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written:
“Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard will understand.”
Paul understands the concept of going. Though he could not physically go as much as he would have liked due to imprisonment, yet, he continued to share the love of Christ. He might be physically limited, but for sure, his sharing the love of Christ moved from his prison cell to wherever his listeners went afterward. The Word of God travels, and we have an opportunity to participate in his work. The Holy Spirit moves wherever he desires. Like the Asbury awakening, it sparked other colleges.
During my doctorate, I studied the history of campus ministries from the 17th century to the 20th century and looked at what made these campus ministries last beyond the university walls. Two things showed up that were consistent; it is daily prayer and daily reading of the Scripture. For some, they were reading the Scripture from the original language. There were no hermeneutics, or Bible Study format, just pure reading of the Scripture, allowing the text to speak and change their hearts—no events, smoke machines, or light display, just worshipping God in spirit and truth.
We go in Jesus’ authority so that those who have not heard about him will see and understand who Jesus Christ is. When we go to places where Christ is not known, there is no structure yet. It has to be a grassroots-level kind of movement; again, like in Asbury, they refer only to the eight “nameless” students of Asbury, nameless meaning ordinary people.
I do not oppose structure because I believe structure helps sustain the movement but does not start the movement. Putting the structure before the movement creates barriers that hinder, stymied, and even frustrate the passion and excitement of a new follower of Christ. Do you remember the time when you first heard of the gospel of Christ? It was so liberating that you started talking to strangers, families, and friends about it, without any proper theology schooling or without going through some kind of certification or license to share the gospel of Christ. A New Testament scholar, Craig Keener, commented, “making disciples was sort of thing rabbis would do, but Jesus’ followers are to make disciples for Jesus, not for themselves.” A rabbi is a religious title, honorific title, prestigious and reliable expert, and teacher of the Law of Moses. To become a rabbi is to go through rigorous training and apprenticeship from a young age to continue being educated. Yet in Jesus’ last words, he entrusted his last words to go and make disciples (including teaching) to the unschooled, untrained, flawed eleven disciples of Jesus. Although in First Corinthians, Paul said that after appearing to the twelve, he appeared the more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time. This commission is in no way suggesting that it is exclusively for the twelve, but the point of this principle is to create a room, to spontaneously start a church without a fully funded, trained missionary.
But what makes a church a church? The answer to this question here is where we would find many contentions. How we understand the church determines how we operate. If we understand a church as having a building with rooms where we can hold discipleship classes and all other events from church, then having a building is necessary, and you need structure to make that happen; pay the bills, maintenance of the building, and pay the staff. Oftentimes, to offset the cost of the building, they allow outside events to rent their space; with this, you need a building manager because pastors do not have the bandwidth to think about these things. It gets increasingly complicated, redirecting our efforts from sharing the love of Christ to others, going and making disciples, to managing tasks to start a church with a building.
So what makes a church a church? A simple fact check from logos defines a church as an assembly, a collection of people who meet to worship the Christian God. A few key passages relating to church are:
- Matthew 16- “and I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
- Acts 11- “and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
- Acts 5- “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
These three verses talked about the church with Jesus as the foundation, diversity, and interculturality, and the move of the Holy Spirit brought great fear to the church. According to Lexham Bible Dictionary, a church is a group of followers of Christ who derived their identity and mission from Jesus. It is a movement that arose after Jesus’ resurrection. The book of Luke and Acts accounts for when Jesus began his ministry and his expectation from his followers to continue what he had already started. The Bible Project video encapsulates this in a very creative and engaging way.
I am curious if there is a dichotomy in how we think of church and making disciples. Modern-day Christians may think of church as a Sunday assembly or gathering wherein you have attendees but not followers of Christ. But what does Jesus mean to make disciples? What does discipleship look like in Jesus’ mind? If you randomly look at churches on websites, it is not hard to find ways to become a church member, just follow their discipleship track. This discipleship track is in the form of classes, a series of classes one attends and, upon completion, leads to one’s baptism. Churches celebrate the number of people baptized and later on ask a few people to share their conversation story in front of the congregation. Is that what Jesus imagined when he sent his people to go and make disciples of all nations? Is this it, or are we missing something here?
The author mentioned that through many failures, they learned that the focus is to “make disciples of Christ and not followers of my church or denomination.” They understood the difference between teaching the disciples to obey the commands of Jesus and not denominational doctrines or traditions. They claimed this is what led to the breakthrough that resulted in more than eighty thousand churches among an unreached people group. Let me pause here and dispute any inclinations that church traditions should not be taught at all. In fact, in a case study by Kersten Priest and Robert J. Priest on “Divergent Worship Practices in the Sunday Morning Hour, from the book This Side of Heaven, they quote Warner, in his essay, “Religion, Boundaries, and Bridges” who mentioned that “rituals have the capacity to build bridges and transcend differences of belief. He points to the ‘emotional power of doing things together’ which produces solidarity,” an important observation during an interracial church merger attempt. What the authors of the book Contagious Disciple Making wants to highlight is teaching the disciples to obey the commands of Jesus. What are the commands of Jesus? What are the teachings of Christ? Is it possible that churches nowadays are primarily teaching how to become a member first rather than the teachings of Christ? And by teaching how to become a member, it does shift the attention to what the local church is all about; this is who we are, this is what we believe in, basically what separates ‘us’ from other Christian churches, denominations out there and if you want to join us in this specific mission, if you agree with us, then become a member with us, rather than emphasizing that we first belong to the community of believers around the world, whose worship experiences may be different from ours. We belong to one Baptism and one family of God as adopted sons and daughters. From the Watsons’ experiences, they realized that people have different definitions of the church. “In some cases, people became angry because what we reported as a church did not match their definition of one. The word church did not communicate what we thought it would. People challenged our practitioners, saying, ‘Jesus said He would build the church. Why do you have people focused on doing something Jesus said He would do?’ These were good observations, and we needed to address them.
What are the teachings of Christ that in the Gospel of Mark, the crowd stands amazed at Jesus’ teachings! If disciple-making is teaching the commands of Jesus, what would that look like? Restating what the Watsons claimed, the breakthrough in disciple-making is to understand the difference between making disciples as teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus and not ones’ local church denominational doctrines. If you work for a church and you are reading this, it is your homework to look into your disciple and membership track and how it mirrors the teachings of Christ. It is possible that these seamless and harmless tracks may be hindering the spiritual growth of your people and impeding the growth of Christ’s church. Furthermore, it creates a bottleneck that precludes any hope of completing the Great Commission before another generation dies. “All the seminaries, Bible schools, and church networks combined cannot produce enough leaders to finish the task. The denominational education and indoctrination processes make it impossible to fulfill the Great Commission.” Focusing on making disciples and teaching them to obey the commands of Christ consequently led to spontaneous churches starting without the missionary’s direct involvement. Here, the authors shared their insight; “We have to learn to teach by asking a minimal number of questions, not by giving the answers to every question or having an expressed opinion about everything. Our focus in discipleship has become obedience to the Gospel, not adherence to a doctrine. With a doctrine-centered discipleship program, one must teach everything to ensure a person has the knowledge to be obedient. With an obedience-centered discipleship program, the emphasis is on how we can be obedient to Christ in every area of our lives and in every circumstance. When a new disciple asks a question, my answer is always the same: What must you do to be obedient to Christ? ”
We will continue on the topic of Obedience, in our next series of Contagious Disciple-Making. In the meantime, reflect on how a structure potentially impedes contagious disciple-making. What would it take for you as a pastor, or director of missionary agency to help facilitate spontaneous church planting without a missionary? Are you willing to do that? What are your apprehensions in considering that? Lastly, what does your discipleship track look like? How encouraging is it and easy for the church to share the love of Christ?
We would love to engage with you in this conversation. Please share your comments below.
 New International Version, Matthew 28: 19
 New English Translation, Mark 1:37
 New English Translation, Mark 1:38
 New International Version, Romans 15:20-21
 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL; Intervarsity Press, 2014), 125.
 New International Version, Matthew 16: 18-19
 New International Version, Acts 11: 26
 New International Version, Acts 5: 11
 Watson, David; Watson, Paul. Contagious Disciple Making (p. 4). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
 Robert Priest and Alvaro Nieves, This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethinicty, and Christian Faith (Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 2007) 285.
 Watson, David; Watson, Paul. Contagious Disciple Making (p. 5). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition
 Watson, David; Watson, Paul. Contagious Disciple Making (p. 4). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition
 Watson, David; Watson, Paul. Contagious Disciple Making (p. 15). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition