Are Church Planting and Disciple-Making the Same Thing?

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This article is posted in September 2016’s issue of Church Planter Magazine.

            Let’s get right to it. This is becoming a hot topic.

I’ve heard the arguments, “We shouldn’t call it church planting—it should be called sowing the gospel,” or “Let’s call it missional disciple-making,” or how about this one, “Nowhere in the Bible does it command disciples to plant churches”—and the list goes on and on.

So, to find our answers, let’s go to the source, the Word.

Why do we plant churches? The answer: to obediently follow the Great Commission, right? Why do we make disciples? The answer: to obediently follow the Great Commission, right? So which is it? Is it one, and not the other? Are both synonymous? Are they interchangeable? What does the Bible say…?

What is the Great Commission?

What is the Great Commission? At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, he records a missionary meeting with Jesus and the disciples (Mt. 28:16–20). The resurrected Christ was given ultimate authority as the cosmic king and would provide his presence on a continual mission to baptize and make disciples of people from all nations. The Commission from Christ ordered the newly assembled Israel to go forth into the world with a mandate, a mission, and a promise.[1]

Matthew’s “Great Commission” displays an all-encompassing divine rule of Christ; Jesus has “all authority” (28:18), sending his disciples to “all nations” (28:19), to obey “all that” he commanded (28:20), being with them “all” of their days (28:20).[2] The Great Commission exalts Jesus as the missional Lord over all the earth and all people, sending obedient servants to teach everyone how to rightly serve and obey him. Lastly, Jesus reassured his disciples that his perpetual presence would be with them throughout their missional days. The Immanuel, God with us—has been fulfilled.

Are We Making Disciples or Church Planting?

Most notably within the Great Commission is the command to make disciples and to “baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Baptism becomes a major part of the command—along with teaching people to obey Christ’s commands (28:20).

Interestingly, within the New Testament (NT), we read that Paul did not baptize the Corinthian church (Acts 18:8b; 1 Cor.1:13–17)—so, then who did? If Paul was sent to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 1:14–17) then we believe baptism was an ordinance that belonged to the local church.[3] Christian baptism was the first obedient action of a new convert and “an expression of solidarity with Jesus.”[4] Through baptism, new disciples identified with Christ and were initiated into his community of followers. John Lightfoot expressed to make disciples signified to, “bring them in by baptism, that they may be taught.”[5]

So, the church baptizes new converts with the expectation of them becoming obedient Great Commission disciples. While there are a few examples of individuals receiving baptism within the NT (Eunuch & Centurion; Acts 8:27–36, 10:47–48), a question was posed whether someone could prevent the person from being baptized. The new convert was baptized and became a member of the body of Christ, with an expectation, of himself, being discipled and a disciple-maker. It’s reciprocal.

Can We Have One Without the Other?

We can have discipleship without church planting (sort of), but we cannot have church planting without discipleship—if that makes sense. In certain circumstances, church planting and disciple-making are interchangeable, but they’re also unique. In essence, a church planter must make disciples who will gather together and become a church (ekklesia).

But, if a planter merely gathers people, but lacks the observance of the ordinances (baptism & Communion) and does not teach obedience to Christ’s commands then it’s never a church—it may be partial discipleship—or mentorship, but not a church. Yet we know that discipleship occurs more effectively within a community of believers that engage and apply Christ-like actions to the daily rhythms of life. As the word ekklesia implies, the church are “called out ones” that gather together.

As well, the uniqueness of the terminology shows that an existing church can (and should) be engaged in discipleship—but they may not be engaged in church planting. One may argue (and rightly so) that if you’re not church planting then your not making disciples, or applying the Great Commission. Technically speaking (I despise that term), if you’re not church planting then you’re not following the Great Commission. Why?

Church Planting Fulfills the Great Commission

Ott and Wilson declare, “Church planting is essential to God’s salvation purposes and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”[6] In my opinion, church planting is discipleship, so I agree with Ott and Wilson. I don’t think a planter can effectively sow the gospel into a community of people without making disciples (see what I did there?). In this aspect, church planting is directly related to and engaged in discipleship.

By obediently following Christ’s directives, we may say that church-planting reaches unreached peoples, gathers them together to form an ekklesia, baptizes them, and makes disciples of them by teaching them the commands of Christ; thereby, fulfilling the Great Commission. Essentially and foundationally, church planting is disciple-making and disciple-making (done right) is church planting. Therefore, church planting obediently fulfills the Great Commission to make disciples—the two cannot be divorced from one another.

[1] Michael W. Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History, and Issues (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 61.

[2] David L. Turner, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 687.

[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church, vol. 2 (Leicester, England: IVP Academic, 2004), 1370.

[4] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005), 1268.

[5] John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 379.

[6] Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.

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