Tag Archives: disciple

Of Pith Helmets and Snake Skins and Coffee Shops


Cardboard Record PlayerThe memory couldn’t be much clearer if I had a photo: a large classroom, probably twenty feet wide by thirty long. Tables in the middle and around the edges of the room covered with all sorts of exciting and intriguing things: photos, cardboard record players, blowguns. A twenty-foot snake skin, no less than eighteen inches across.

What else could a ten-year-old boy want in a church basement?

I grew up in church, and my parents have been what I affectionately refer to as “professional Christians” since before I could know anything different. They have never liked being known as missionaries, and I didn’t think of them as that until our fifth move—to the exotic foreign lands of West Germany—when I was fourteen. But from long before my birth, our family was involved with churches that were passionate about global missions, and that sought to instill that passion in their congregations through annual missions conferences.

While missionaries to India, China, and Africa shared their stories and gave their challenges to the grown-ups upstairs, the younger crowd of fidgety boys and girls wandered wide-eyed through the displays that had transformed their Sunday School rooms. In the same rooms where we learned ancient stories about lions licking their lips at Daniel, we now heard about men like Jim Eliot and Nate Saint who had, just twenty years earlier, died at the hands of the Aucas in Ecuador.

Long before Indiana Jones traveled the world in quest of the Holy Grail or the Temple of Doom, that adventure-laden classroom when I was ten grabbed my own heart. 

Long before the Jesus film became the most-translated evangelistic tool in history, that cardboard record player was the first audio New Testament I’d seen and heard.

It seems strange that only this one conference has wedged its way into my conscious memory. My family’s frequent cross-country trips to raise financial support and visit churches often coincided with those churches’ own missions events, but none evokes the memories of that snakeskin and blowgun.

I have been to many other missions conferences over the years, as well. The speakers and their presentations are often (not always!) polished and engaging. High-definition photos and professional-quality videos shown on massive screens bring the missions to life for those of us whose biggest adventure is often a twice-daily freeway commute. But for a ten-year-old boy, nothing could compare with feeling a snakeskin or shooting a blowdart.

Not everyone who sits in church on Sunday morning is called to cross oceans as a missionary. Jesus called some to follow him and others to go back to their homes. But every Christian has a part in the “all peoples” mission of God—a mission that reaches from our homes to our communities to our nation…and to the ends of the earth.

So how will we train our kids, our young people, our churches to reach those ends? How will we grab their hearts for places and people a world away? 


Papua New Guinea StarbucksAs I write this, I’m sitting in Starbucks working on a paper about engaging the local church in missions (and, interestingly, listening to Chris Tomlin’s “Good, Good Father” play over the house speakers!). I’m surrounded by a dozen books about the what, why, and how of missions. And on the walls, paintings evoke the many areas of the world where the company gets its beans: Sulawesi, Tanzania, Yergacheffe, Papua New Guinea.

Maybe the heart-grabbing could begin right here as we find those places on a map and start learning about the people behind the coffee.

Don’t Make Disciples


I’ve noticed a trend in American churches over the past fifteen years or so: an increased focus on discipleship as the core of our mission[1]. I haven’t studied enough church history, either early or recent, to know if this is a new or a renewed focus; in either case, it is a good thing. After all, didn’t Jesus commission the apostles, and therefore the church, to “go and make disciples”?

Well, yes… and no. As the late missiologist David Mays states, “Make disciples is NOT the core of the Great Commission.” Mays suggests that “make disciples” is at best a poor translation, and explains the grammar of the Greek text to provide a more accurate rendering of the heart of Matthew 28:19: “disciple all nations.”[2] That doesn’t change the church’s mission, however. Mays acknowledges, as do I, that the church is certainly in the business of making disciples, and that one of her biggest failings is her failure to do that well. His concern, though, was that the church has focused her disciple-making efforts locally and neglected the global—the “all nations”—emphasis of Jesus’ command.

I agree with Mays’ global concern; it is one of my passions as a disciple and as a pastor. But for the present I want to focus attention on a different result of the poor translation of Jesus’ words. When we focus on the two words, “make disciples”, we put ourselves in a production mindset. We identify a product, disciples, and the characteristics the product should have; then we build a production cycle to turn out that product. An unfathomable array of books and manuals and programs is offered to churches and individuals to guide, streamline, and improve the efficiency of the production.

But we are not producers, we are reproducers. In the English Standard Version, the word disciple appears 269 times: once in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 8:16; 238 times in the gospels; 30 in the rest of the New Testament. The overwhelming majority of those references are simply identifying a certain group of people—Jesus’ disciples, John’s disciples, the disciples of the Pharisees. Very few provide either description or prescription about what a disciple is or should be; fewer than a dozen, in fact. in other words, Scripture offers no schematics, no blueprints, no engineering plans detailing what the product—a disciple—should look like.

Yet we have systematized the Great Commission. We have laid disciple-making on an assembly line, trying to turn out disciples the way Henry Ford turned out Model T’s. Think about this, though: you’ve never seen an assembly line in a hospital maternity ward. Babies are not produced. Adolescents are not “new and improved” versions of their younger selves. (I can here all the parents of teens shouting “Amen!”) Adults are never finished products. The linear, piece-by-piece-by-piece assembly line that revolutionized manufacturing production is a miserable failure in the reproduction of disciples.

If the church is to recover her discipleship mission, she must shift her mindset from production to reproduction. She must view the Great Commission (Matthew 28) through the lens of the first commission (Genesis 1:28): Be fruitful and multiply. Indeed, some of the most helpful passages to guide our thinking about discipleship use this word “fruit”; it is the language of farming, not the language of manufacturing. Paul calls both Timothy and Titus “my true son” [1 Tim 2:2, Titus 1:4]; he likens himself to a nursing mother and the Thessalonians as his own children [1 Thess 2:7]. These are not images of manufacturing, but of parenting.

When churches emphasize making disciples, we get sidetracked by discussions that never crossed Jesus’ lips. When we strive instead to reproduce disciples, it will change our language, our perspective, and our efforts. Next week I will look at some key differences between making disciples and discipling—between production and reproduction.

[1] This post is an expansion of thoughts originally posted online in response to a blog from Ed Stetzer, “Overcoming the Discipleship Deficit“.
[2] David Mays, “Shooting Sacred Cows,” Keynote address, Harvest Conference, San Jose, CA, May 1, 2010.

© 2015 by Randall J. Ehle. All rights reserved.