The goal of the gospel commission is to continue the work that Jesus began by following the same strategy. Make disciples! Teach them! Enable them to reproduce their lives and faith in the lives of others for whom they labor. The ministry of discipling has value to the disciple, to the discipler, to the church, and to the world. For the new believers, values of discipling are many. Their rate of spiritual growth is increased. Their wrong behavior patterns can be arrested and stopped. They are better protected from the enemy. They are provided with a personal friend who emulates Jesus' friendship to them. And they are provided with spiritual counsel.
The value of discipling for the disciplers is that it brings joy to them (3 John 1:4; 1 Thess. 2:19-20). It purifies their lives. It develops their ministerial skills, and it provides an outlet for the knowledge that they have gained.
The value of discipling for the church is that it strengthens the body, develops godly leaders, and perpetuates God's mission to the world.
The value of discipling to the world is that individual lives are changed lives of individuals who will inhabit Christ's kingdom!
Seventh-day Adventists have historically accepted the goal of the great commission as being to so proclaim Jesus Christ as God and Saviour that men and women will place their trust in Him through faith and become responsible members of His church. However, for an ethically-oriented, behavior-measuring group of conservative Christians, the "responsible" portion of this definition has sometimes been lacking in the lives of new members at the precise moment that existent members feel it should be most evident. Notwithstanding that the fruits of the Spirit are sometimes unobservable in the lives of "older members," we have been too quick to assign blame for this lack in the lifestyles of new members. We blame it on either insufficient consecration on the part of the baptized or insufficient preparation by the pastor or evangelist.
Much of this problem grows out of a misperception of baptism (which for Adventists occurs simultaneously with entrance into the church) as a culminating, graduation-type event in response to appropriate doctrinal instruction, rather than understanding it as either the beginning of the Christian's life in Christ or even as another step in an ongoing process. We wish new believers would walk the Christian walk simultaneously with acceptance of Jesus Christ and being baptized. This problem, regarding new member assimilation for Seventh-day Adventists, is aptly stated and the solution ably suggested by Win Am's discussion of a subtle, but fundamental distinction between evangelism and disciple-making:
"Evangelism: Success is achieved when a verbal response is given by the non-Christian which indicates his/her personal endorsement of a new set of convictions reflective of the Christian faith. A 'decision' centers around a point in time.
"Disciple-making: Success is achieved when a change is observed in the behavior of an individual which indicates his/her personal integration of a new set of convictions reflective of the Christian faith. A 'disciple' centers around an ongoing lifestyle.
"But because the goals are different, the process employed in achieving each goal is different?"
Peter Wagner calls this difference between those who make decisions and those who ultimately become responsible church members the "Follow-up Gap." 3 The product of evangelism must be disciples, not decisions. Failure to recognize this is a failure to fulfill the great commission through which Jesus sent His disciples into all the world to make disciples of all people, teaching them to observe all things that He had commanded.
Waldron Scott presents a balanced and interdependent relationship between evangelism for decisions and evangelism for discipleship, which he calls discipleship evangelism. He advances three theses:
"1. Discipleship is the true and ultimate objective of biblical evangelism.
"2. Qualitatively, evangelism is shaped both as to content and style by one's concept of discipleship.
"3. Quantitatively, biblical discipleship multiplies the fruit of evangelism."4
1 Hadidian, 12-20
2 In C. Peter Wagner, Win Arn, and Elmer Towns, Church Growth: The State of the Art, 58-59.
3 C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Be Healthy, 69.
4 Sherwood Eliot Win, ed., Evangelism: the Next Ten Years, 103-104.
James A. Cress writes from Silver Spring, Maryland. He is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.