The starter gun blasted at the track meet. The first runner quickly established a lead. The second runner graciously took the stick and went. He maintained separation between himself and the competition. When he got to the edge of the turn he stretched out the baton as the third runner reached back while his head began to turn forward to commence in an all out sprint. Just as he began to accelerate the baton dropped between the two young men. Immediate disqualification.
Being fast is one thing, but running a relay is different. It’s not just about a runner crossing the finish line, but rather one team working together, individuals playing their role in the greater mission.
The best relay teams don’t just practice running; they labor over getting the baton pass right.
Passing Our Baton
As Christ-followers, we have been given the legacy of the gospel; this is our baton. We are disciples running after Jesus. We have received the gospel from others and we are called to run the race set before us and to pass the baton by making disciples (Heb 11:39-12:1; Matt 28:19).
We see in Matthew’s gospel account that Jesus’ ministry is bookended with disciple-making initiatives: “Come and be disciples. . .Go and make disciples” (Matt 4:19, 28:18-20). The refusal to focus on the baton pass is to reject your identity as a disciple of Jesus. Of course the mission of God will advance whether through us or in spite of us. However, if you’re not intentional about your approach you’ll allow the baton to drop, thereby rendering yourself impotent in the Great Commission of God.
These are the three most common excuses I hear from Christians who admittedly aren’t intentional about disciple-making:
1. I don’t know what it means to “make disciples.”
If you don’t have a clear definition of disciple-making you’re much less likely to be doing it. In his book, Real-Life Discipleship, Jim Putman explains that when it comes to disciple-making “the invitation is the definition.” When Jesus calls his first disciples he says,
Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men (Matt 4:19).
Putman points out four distinct parts of disciple-making implicit in Jesus’ message. “Follow me” begins with understanding our position behind Jesus. Jesus is our leader and we are under his authority. Then he says, “and I will make you” signifying that change or transformation will occur. Jesus invites us to come as we are, but he loves us far too much to allow us to stay the way we are. Following Jesus means growing more and more into his image (2 Cor 3:18). Finally, “fishers of men” distinguishes the mission. Once their pursuit was fish, but now they would adopt Jesus’ mission: people. From the inception of his ministry, Jesus calls a group of disciples showing us that the process of discipleship happens in the context of relationship.
Putting it all together, disciple-making is the intentional process of following Christ, being committed to his mission, thereby being transformed into his image by his Spirit and in the context of relationships.
2. I don’t have time to make disciples.
Every single day we are overwhelmed with opportunities to take on more. The thought of adding another task to an ever-increasing to-do list is daunting, discouraging, and undesirable for many people. Disciple-making should start with redeeming the calendar before we add to it, beginning with determining our priorities as Christians.
Being a Christian means being defined by Christ. At one time we lived for ourselves, but now we live for Christ (1 Cor 6:9-11). That means what once was ours is now Christ’s, including our time. Our calendars should not be sprinkled with “intentional time to fulfill the Christian mission,” but everything on our calendars should be rooted in our identity as Christians—even the most mundane tasks (Col 3:17).
My wife put her faith in Christ when she was in college. The woman who discipled her in her fledgling faith was a young wife and mother. Her policy: there was an open door for my wife to come over, but it might be in the midst of laundry day, errands, and parenting young kids. My wife looks back on those years fondly because a life of faith was both taught and modeled.
Redeeming the calendar begins with meals, hobbies, errands, and work. Most of us find a way to eat a few times a day. In one season of life, my wife and I marked Tuesday and Thursday as “open dates” to invite people over for dinner. Whenever there was someone we wanted to share life with we both knew that those days of the week were always open. In another busy season I brought a college student along with me and my infant son grocery shopping each week because he was interested in growing a deeper knowledge of the Bible and relationships, and that was a window of time we both had available.
Teaching people how to follow Christ in day-to-day life doesn’t have to happen an hour a week in a coffee shop. It can happen while we’re living out our day-to-day pursuits. Jesus brought good news to tax collectors and sinners around a meal and later on he invites himself to dinner with Zacchaeus to demonstrate and declare the gospel to him (Luke 5, 19). While traveling Jesus took his disciples aside and gave them precious insight about his immanent suffering and death (Matt 20:17-19). The early church ate together in their homes every day and everyday life transformation was happening (Acts 2:46-47).
3. I’ve never seen disciple-making modeled.
I recently taught an adult Sunday school class where I used the aforementioned four-part definition of intentional disciple-making. When I defined discipleship I asked how many people had experienced something like it. About six of the thirty or so people said they had. Too often people are highly evangelized and poorly discipled. We are called to make disciples, not merely converts. God’s Word has many examples of men and women being commissioned to intentionally invest in relationships with others to see them mature in faith by trusting and following God (Deut 6:1-9; Ps 89:1; Matt 28:18-20; 2 Tim 2:2; Titus 2).
Identity precedes action. Who you are affects what you do. Before Matthew shares Jesus’ delivery of the Great Commission, he describes the greater context of what was happening, “When they saw [Jesus] they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). Disciples know that their faith is not an end in itself, but something to be passed along. Doubters don’t make disciples. Disciples make disciples.
To whom are you reaching out to pass the baton of the gospel?
Gabe deGarmeaux oversees local and global outreach and small group ministries at Pathway Church in Pennsylvania. He earned an MA in Cross-cultural Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @gabe_deg.