Do you have a seat in President Trump’s Cabinet? Probably not. But, Matthew’s Gospel closes with what most of Christianity calls the Great Commission because it speaks of imperatives – commands of Christ. There aren’t two commands, but one: to make disciples. But, most of our church body focuses on the command without remembering where the command points. It gives us direction as it reads, “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) So that’s what we do. We love the opportunity. Tiny infants and the rare opportunity to baptize an adult are always a special day in a Christian worship. But, the impression we get from most English translations is that there are two imperatives: “Go…” Get out of the office and shake some bushes. Load up the bus to make disciples.” However, that isn’t the case. The translation, more clearly understood, means, “As you are leaving here…” It’s what Greeks calls an articular infinitive – a verb to indicate direction, not a command. The real imperative is MAKE…make disciples of all nations. It also indicates that there’s something that’s going to happen…“out there” or “over yonder.”
So how is that supposed to happen? At His Ascension, our Lord Jesus adds the formula for making disciples…“baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” OK, we baptize. So, why is the Missouri Synod losing members? For that matter, at least according to the last Pew Report, every other mainline Christian denomination is losing members. The LCMS lost just over 1% of its membership last year; which is nothing when compared to other mainline denominations experiencing double-digit decline in memberships each year. Just look at the denominations eroding at an alarming rate! What “model” of “doing church” can reverse our trends? Like the passengers on the Titanic, however, we shouldn’t take any comfort that our losses are miniscule in comparison. It’s the same ship!
First of all, if we follow a business model to operate our churches, we have to understand something called “market share.” Sally Morgenthaler – a church growth guru – surveyed and published the results of what happened in the church growth movement since 1997. In REV magazine, Morgenthaler concluded that there IS no church growth in Christianity since 1997. The number of people holding membership in the Christian Church has dropped in two decades. Growth of any congregation membership can be identified as a result of a person’s change in location – but, no real growth of the Christian Church.
Furthermore, Morgenthaler found that if new church plants don’t have 1000 members within three years, any attempt to establish a non-denominational model will fail because the amount of money, human effort, and resources simply can’t replicate the “market share” of an already established congregation. Morgenthaler warns her readers, “If you can’t do as good a job or better than those who are already in the market, don’t try. You’ll fail.”
It’s not easy to replicate our non-denominational neighbors. They’re already king of that mountain! But, Jesus had it right… “while going from this place, make disciples.” That’s the command. Judging from the Pew Report, some denominations and pseudo-Christian bodies have at least taken the command seriously. The only growing religious bodies – outside of the Roman Catholics on its immigration bubble – the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Islam joins the JW’s and Mormons because their immigration rate and birth rate is 5 times greater than White, Anglo Christians.)
What might the JW’s and Mormons do better than Lutheran Christians? They do outreach. It’s an obligation for them – no exceptions. It’s part of their “business plan” if you wish. So, why are they growing and Christianity is dwindling? Bad business practices? Hardly. Lack of outreach…maybe. Better theology? Absolutely not! But, in our text we find a biblical principle that practically every evangelism method, movement or program – successful or failed – seems to overlook. That’s the “How” Jesus gave in the Great Commission.
Jesus told HOW we are to make disciples. There’s no question that evangelizing (a verb, not just a noun for some type of a program) EVANGELIZING with the Gospel shakes the bushes and brings the message of LIFE and SALVATION no pseudo-Christian cult can offer. They’re beating us in verbosity but without the substance of God’s Word of grace and forgiveness. Our Confessions state that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…” (Third Article, Apostles’s Creed). It’s not one style over another, or one person more so than another; but the Person of the Holy Spirit who does the work of conversion and giving of faith.
“Going from this place, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AND… teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.” We simply can’t make disciples by offering the Holy sacrament of Baptism and sending them on their way without continuous nurturing. Teaching the disciples is not only how they get INSIDE the church. It’s how they’re kept inside with the purity of God’s sacred Word and doctrines He established! What we do (as humans) cannot add to or subtract from the number of God’s elect! Yet, mega-churches may be growing because they remove what they think are distasteful things related to Christian doctrine. The cross – it’s a cruel symbol of punishment – get rid of it! Jesus as Savior implies that I’m a sinner! Then don’t talk about Him like that. Make Him into a utility to make us feel better, get richer, or more prosperous.
If the Big-Box Churches own the “Make Me Happy” theology, what’s left for us Lutherans? Do we have a “market niche?” Do we have relevance in the religious field of 21st Century America? When and HOW can we grow? Like any good team, by sticking to the basics; by not pretending to be something that we’re not! We have the Solid Declaration in our Confession that is based on the solid doctrine of pure biblical teachings. Our only historical and significant growth happened when we did what Christ told us to do in evangelism. Between 1958 and 1967, the LCMS was the largest Lutheran body in America. The seminal event or action for that growth came as a result of every-member evangelism – preaching, teaching, and reaching our neighbors with the Good News of life and salvation in Christ Jesus – something pseudo religions don’t have.
Based on our Confessions and the fullness of the instructions Jesus gives us in the Great Commission, making disciples by baptizing them and teaching them achieved what even the secular press thought would make the LCMS the largest Christian body in America. Evangelism efforts, on every person’s part, not only should focus on getting people in the door where they can hear God’s Word, but focus on serving them in His Word to keep them INSIDE.
Jesus Christ ascended into heaven leaving His disciples with the treasures entrusted to them through His Church. Historical and biblical accounts prove His message of the forgiveness of sins, and the blessed assurance of life everlasting comes only through Him, His means, and by His instructions. In those blessed treasures, Christ keeps His promise to us as well, “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the ages.” The total main job of the pastoral ministry is not only reaching the lost, but making sure our reaching retains confessional membership through preaching and teaching, and God’s sustenance in our sacramental life.
You may have not been chosen to serve on President Trump’s Cabinet, but God has chosen you to be His Ambassador in and for His Church. St. Peter says this is the privilege and honor of every Christian. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of the darkness into His marvelous Light.” (I Peter 2:9, ESV) It’s every person’s privilege and responsibility. Whether planting new churches, participating in outreach of an existing congregation, or willingly sharing what God has done for you, we are Christ’s ambassadors to a cold and dark world. He IS, after all, the Lord of the Church and our only hope for life everlasting.