The following is a guest article by Grayson Pope.
In Acts 7, a leader in the Church named Stephen is dragged before the Sanhedrin and demanded to explain his beliefs. Assured by Jesus that the Holy Spirit would give him the words, he opened his mouth and started talking. What followed was a sweeping history of the people of Israel, culminating in their handing over Jesus to be crucified.
As you might imagine, that didn’t go over so well with the Jewish crowd, so he was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. His death sparked intense persecution for followers of Jesus. So intense that, as we’re told in Acts 8:1,
"…There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." (ESV)
At the end of that verse there’s an interesting anecdote. It says everyone was scattered “except the apostles.” Why is that so interesting? Well, just before ascending to heaven, Jesus told his disciples that they would spread his teaching to from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). The moment Jesus-followers were scattered, the spread of the gospel out of Jerusalem and into the rest of the world began. And the Apostles weren’t a part of it.
Imagine if you had to pick one person or a team of people from your church right now to go and take the message of Jesus somewhere new. You would probably pick your senior pastor or the team of pastors at your church, right? What a shock it would be to find out not only were they not going to be able to go, but you and your small group were the ones that had to do it.
Everyone Except the Apostles
That’s what the Bible is telling us here – that a mostly unknown group of Christians took the gospel into places like Judea and Samaria, planting churches as they went. These were everyday, average people with normal jobs that had to earn a living.
That means they had to do something fundamental: they had to make disciples.
And they did. Acts 11 shows us where the believers who were scattered after Stephen’s murder ended up. They went all over the place, but some of them went to Antioch and started preaching the gospel to the non-Jewish people who lived there.
Barnabas, a trusted man in the church, was so impressed with what was going on in Antioch that he brought his friend the Apostle Paul to check it out. Together they taught and encouraged this fledgling church where for the first time followers of Jesus were called “Christians.”
It’s easy to miss what’s going on here because, well, it’s missing. 'It' being the names – the names of the Christians who took the gospel to parts unknown. These were literally no-name men and women who were making disciples and planting churches.
By the way, the Church in Antioch ends up becoming the church-planting center of the early church. They actually sent Paul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey. From the beginning of the Church, we see everyday Christians making disciples, planting churches, and sending missionaries.
Taking the Great Commission Personally
The early Christians took the Great Commission personally and collectively. They knew that they were part of a close-knit, life-on-life community that was called to love one another like their own family. The book of Acts and the Epistles attest to that.
But they also knew that they were each called to make disciples. Not just the elders. Not just the Apostles. But each and every one of them.
We’ve seen a renewed focus on the gospel and its sending emphasis through projects and organizations like The Upstream Collective, which is incredibly hopeful. Much of that emphasis is on churches as collective bodies, and rightly so. But let’s not lose sight of our personal call to make disciples and teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded.
This lack of emphasis on a personal call to make disciples is why most church-goers lives look no different than their unbelieving neighbors. It’s why the divorce rate is the same among Christians and non-Christians. And it’s why Christians believe they should share their faith but most of them don’t.
Just imagine yourself in a modern-day version of the situation in Acts. Imagine yourself being dropped off in the middle of a city like L.A. or San Francisco, but instead of there being churches all over the place there are no believers to be found. There are no church leaders, no pastors, no denominations. If you found yourself in that situation, would you know what to do?
I’m afraid for too many of us the answer is a resounding no. We would have no idea where to begin. No idea of how to evangelize our neighbors, baptize them, and start teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments. No idea of how to live in community with other believers in a way that’s so attractive to those around them that they can’t help but ask what’s going on.
We can say that we don’t need to be directly involved in discipling people personally because we have the freedom to have large churches with lots of pastors and seminaries to train them to do the work (here in America at least). And that’s true. All of those things are possible, which is perhaps why that’s largely the way evangelical churches operate in America.
But does that make it the right way to operate? Just because we can structure things that way, should we?
Here’s a diagnostic question: If there was no church to invite people to, no engaging services to bring down the anxieties of the unchurched, no safe and fun children’s ministry for their kids, would you still know how to tell your neighbors about Jesus?
The answer to that reveals a lot about whether or not we should be operating in a way that removes personal responsibility for the Great Commission.
The Personal Burden to Make Disciples
Only when Christians wake each day with a burden to make disciples in their particular context – only when that is their primary calling and way they view the purpose of their life does the church function the way it was intended. Only when Christians gauge their effectiveness based on their own fruit instead of their pastor’s does the gospel multiply.
Otherwise the Church gets bogged down arguing about strategy and philosophy of ministry and all the things that keep it from focusing on Jesus’ last words.
When Jesus came back from the dead, he called together the small band of people who followed him. His intimate circle included 11 men. At most, he had 120 followers. It was to this small group that Jesus handed over responsibility for completing his mission by making disciples just like he did.
True disciples have been made in this same way ever since: by a group of believers each investing in the people around them, giving them the best news ever they’ve ever received, and teaching them to follow Jesus.
Grayson Pope is a husband and father of three. He serves as Pastor of Community at his church in Charlotte, NC and is currently pursuing an M.Div. at The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Grayson’s passion is to equip believers for everyday discipleship to Jesus.
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