Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
As a Christian, making disciples is important. However, it is difficult to know what this even looks like. First, making disciples is a whole-life-for-the-rest-of-your-life sort of thing. In other words, it is not something that happens on one day when all the perfect circumstances align. If we look at the example of the apostles, we hardly know of any of their discipling work. We have 2.25 hours worth of history in Acts that covers lots of time. What were the apostles doing the rest of the time for the 20 or 30 or 60 years of their life? They were slowly but surely using their position to make disciples. So the apostle John probably spent a good chunk of his life (50 years?) living in Ephesus. As an elder and apostle, his discipleship focused heavily on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry, namely through prayer, and the ministry of the word. To disciple the church is essential in making disciples. If the elders of the church do not properly invest in the ministry of the word and prayer, it goes against the very example and instruction of God. But John probably also lived somewhere, and we have traditions of him living a normal human life (like going to a bathhouse to clean up). I think this means he also hosted those interested in the faith in his home and in the church, and he probably made efforts to communicate the gospel to those he was placed in relationship with.
This is slightly different from the apostle Paul. God used him and his ministry in a slightly different way. First, he was a forerunner or a frontier missionary. God used him to establish the initial church (where John might be called a maintainer at least later in life). Paul found places to preach where people would listen. We have to pause here because this is important: he usually found venues already used for speaking like synagogues or the Areopagus. These are places where people were already prepared to listen. He was also a tent-maker, and it seems made contacts if not converts through the relationships he developed through his work. He did his work, and then he moved on when the Lord led him further on.
Now these are just two examples of apostles, but it should be sufficient for us to realize that there are many ways to make disciples and even to evangelize. However, we can probably say that standing on the street corner and preaching is not the norm. Teaching in the synagogue, giving a defense at your trial, sharing the word with those you have a relationship with already is the norm.
We also have to ask what was the content of their message. Many of us who grew up in church learned the Romans road or some variation of it. This is a very logical and simple progression. However, when we look at the New Testament, most of the gospel presentations we have are historical progressions. Why is there a disparity? There are at least two reasons. The first is because there are many ways to approach the same truth. So both the Romans road and the various gospel messages in Acts end in a call to repentance and faith. What is important for us to realize is that the Romans road presumes a common Judeo-Christian worldview. It is possible that such a short explanation of the gospel is losing its value because our world has dispensed with basic truths like what do we even mean when we say ‘God.’ Yes, salvation simply could be defined as knowledge of ‘how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.’ But do we share even the same conception of God, sin, freedom, and the like with the one we share the gospel with? Augustine provides us with another option. In his book, ‘Instructing Believers in the Faith,’ he suggests giving a theological-historical gospel presentation. My missions professor in seminary likewise mentioned that nowadays Bible translators often translate Genesis and Luke first because Genesis helps to give a proper understanding of the cosmos, and Luke is the very gospel. Whether we are discipling our children or our neighbor, it would be wise to follow suit: study Genesis and a gospel with them. Take time to answer questions and understand God’s word rightly. The fruit of such a longer-term discipleship will be seen as opposed to a quick supposed conversion through a quick prayer.
Finally, I want to remind us that making disciples is generational and local. In other words, you are going to be hard pressed to make disciples of someone on the other side of the world. Christian evangelism is best done in person. We must be careful not to set our sights so far afield that we neglect those whom God has placed in our lives. Do we pray for our neighbors? Our coworkers? Our friends? Our children? Do we make an effort to share God’s gospel? If a pastor is so busy with missions overseas or evangelism on a university campus (though these are good in themselves) that he neglects those whom God has entrusted to him is this a healthy and wise thing? Certainly not. He is neglecting the specific call God has placed on his life. Why do we think others are any different? If we do not go to our neighbors and coworkers and children, who will? It is possible that God has placed you in their lives for this very reason.
Making disciples is also a generational thing. We cannot neglect to evangelize our children. We can become so busy with life that we don’t teach our children the gospel through God’s word, we don’t teach them how to pray, and we don’t teach them basic theological convictions. God desires that you disciple your own children, he seeks godly offspring. Obviously we cannot make our children believe, but we can show them the truth and pray earnestly to our sovereign God that he would enlighten their minds and warm their hearts to love this gospel. More broadly speaking, it is important that we similarly make disciples within the church. The end of discipleship isn’t baptism. The end of discipleship is entering into the presence of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. We must not neglect the youth or the elders in our congregation because they have been baptized. We all need encouragement and sharpening to finish the race and remain faithful.
May we not neglect this great endeavor.