When you hear the word church, what does it make you think of? Steeples and baptismals? Pulpits and pews? Weddings and funerals? Fellowships and potlucks? Sundays and weekend alarms? Best wardrobe and Sunday lunch?
I wonder: Does the church make you think more about coming to it or more about going from it? Does the church make you think more about getting or more about giving? Does the church make you think more about rituals or more about worship? Does the church make you think more about togetherness or more about division? Does the church make you more energetic or more tired? Does the church make you think more about doing or more about being?
Back in the mid-90s, a pastor from a church in California wrote a book that has since revolutionized how people, or at least seminarians, think about church. The book described the church’s process of discipleship, and in order to do so, it portrayed a baseball diamond with each base signifying a certain level of how involved and incorporated an individual was into the church. There was initial inquiry, doctrinal development, spiritual gift inventory, and service. The book was written by a man named Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, one of the largest churches in the United States. The name of the book is The Purpose-Driven Church.
Warren advocates that churches identify who their target audience is and figure out what they are trying to do with them. That is, identify your purpose. Saddleback has a mock-up target audience they call “Saddleback Sam” that identifies the general characteristics of the people they are trying their hardest to reach.
Purpose-Driven became a buzzword in American church culture. Churches scrambled with committees and consultants to develop their purpose statements so that they could know what it is that they were supposed to be doing as a church, and they could then direct all of their activities and resources toward those ends.
So I’m curious this morning. What do you think is the purpose of the church? Not just our church, but THE church. We have already read the Great Commission this morning, so you probably already have suspicions about where I am going. And you are right. I believe that in the Great Commission Jesus gives His vision, His purpose for what would become His body on earth: the church that, as we looked at last week, He built on the confession of Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
If you have been in church very long, you know the scene well without even thinking about it. Jesus’ earthly ministry came to an end with his betrayal by Judas, one of His own. The betrayal led to Jesus’ arrest and then a mockery of a trial. He was turned over to Roman authorities and executed by crucifixion. The arrest, trial, and crucifixion effectively disbanded the eleven remaining disciples that had been with Jesus throughout His years of preaching and healing in Judea.
The scattered disciples, afraid for their lives, were all but one reassembled when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them, despite the locked doors. After these appearances, the eleven return home from Jerusalem to Galilee, where the majority of Jesus’ ministry had taken place. As Scripture says, Jesus had specifically instructed the disciples to do so, and He promised that He would meet them there. So they departed and regathered in the hills in Galilee.
This hill is or these hills are where the disciples are when Matthew records the last words Jesus gives in this Gospel.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The basic components of a sentence are a subject and a verb. These together describe some kind of action: who does it, and what is done. That’s a basic sentence in English, or Greek for that matter. A sentence can then be embellished, extended, and made more informative by adding things like adjectives (which describe either other adjectives or nouns), objects (the recipients of the action, either directly or indirectly), or adverbs (similar to adjectives, but embellishing verbs rather than nouns).
That’s the basics of grammar, but then grammar can get a lot more complicated. For example, there are different types of verbs. Verbs can describe things in the future, the present, or the past. Verbs can even describe something outside of reality, something that is hoped for, desired, or wished for. Verbs can also be pushy in the form of a command. For example: Run! Eat! Jump! Those are examples of verbs that communicate an action that the speaker is telling someone else to do. Strangely, sometimes verbs act like adjectives or adverbs. So a verb is used to describe another word. For example, in the sentence: “I placed the baked ham in the fridge.” The word “baked” is a verb – it is the action that has taken place to the ham, but in the sentence it is not the main verb. That would be “placed.” “Baked” instead is a verb that is describing the ham. These adjectival verbs are called participles. And grammar can get even more complicated, but I don’t want to completely overwhelm you. Just inundate you.
Okay, we can come back from seventh grade now. Why would I bother with this grammar lesson? Because when Jesus gives this Great Commission, he uses four verbs. They are, “Go,” “make disciples” (this is one Greek verb), “baptize,” and “teach.” If we’re talking about the purpose of the church, it seems that that would be a decent way to break down our duties. After all, it even makes a nice four-point sermon when coming to the text.
But here’s the thing about these four verbs. You might at first blush think that they are four commands. You: go! You: make disciples! You: baptize! You: teach! But that’s not the case. Three of them are participles; only one of them is a command. One is the star of the show and the other three are merely supporting actors, descriptive extras to help fill in the backstory. They are inspired, as all Scripture is, and they are important parts of the backstory that cannot be left out. But there is a singularity of purpose in the Great Commission. There is only one command, that is described by three other kinds of accompanying action. There is not a division of labor into four separate activities: going, making, baptizing, and teaching. Rather, three of those activities all support and tie in with the fourth.
So here’s the interesting question. Without the benefit of Greek text or grammar to help you, of the four verbs in the Great Commission, which one do you think is the command? It would seem from most translations that it would be, “Go,” right? “Go, therefore, into all the world.” It even sounds commanding in English. Yet it’s not a command. Go is one of the participles. And there are two impulses to this participle. There are two ways to go about this work Jesus gives us.
One way to go is to literally get up and set off in a particular direction with a particular destination in mind. “I’m going to go spend three months in Nairobi helping to train future Kenyan pastors.” This going is the king of going that we often think of when it comes to fulfilling the Great Commission. “I’m going to help rebuild rooftops in New Orleans.” It is the going of Paul on his three missionary journeys. It is a decision to change our direction and do something specific. And this “go” includes this kind of going.
But there’s another kind of go that might get lost if we don’t realize this is a participle. Jesus isn’t necessarily telling us to leave our homes and go to Timbuktu or Bangkok. There is also the “going” that means, “as you’re going about your regular routine, the things you would already be doing.” As you live your life, as you go through life: this is another kind of “go.” And this, also, is included in Jesus’ “go” participle here in the Great Commission. This is Paul on his journey to Rome – in chains, on ships, told where to go, not making active choices in his fate, but making the most of wherever life and circumstances took him, even from a Roman jail.
As we think about church and the purpose of the church, we need to keep both of these kinds of “going” in mind. We need to be deliberately seeking out places to minister, but we also need to be ministering in all of the places where life takes us, whether we have chosen to go there or not.
The two verbs, “baptizing” and “teaching,” take participle form in their English translations, and this form matches the Greek grammar behind them. They are the other two participles. Both of them are important functions of the church. Jesus here continued John the Baptist’s practice of baptizing as a sign of repentance. Baptism is generally the first ritual that a new Christian can undergo.
And it’s a dangerous one. It’s very public. That’s something that we don’t often appreciate in our day and age and cultural setting where every church has a baptistery. But try putting one of those in the public in Saudi Arabia and see how far you get. Baptism is public confession, and public identification with Christ and His church. When we baptize people, we are inviting them to take the opportunity to begin a life of witnessing boldly and courageously to a watching world.
Jesus himself was baptized, and Acts records a number of new believers whose first act was to be baptized. Baptism is an important function of the church. But as far as purpose is concerned, it is not our primary goal. Jesus wanted us to baptize His new followers. We want to invite new converts to publicly declare their faith, but our purpose as a church cannot be said to be getting new converts to declare their faith through baptism. It is certainly something that we do, but it is not what defines us.
Teaching is another very important activity of the church. Jesus spent three and half years on earth engaging in teaching. Much of the New Testament is a recording of the teachings of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John. The church would gather and listen to Paul for hours and hours on end, and I’m sure they afforded the other disciples and early church leaders the same attention.
Despite this important background, even teaching cannot be said to be the primary purpose of the church. We certainly want to be constantly learning, constantly becoming more conformed and transformed into the image and likeness of our Savior. And teaching is integral to that. Sunday school, our missions program, Vacation Bible School, the new Men’s Fellowship group that’s starting this week, personal Bible study and devotion, and the weekly sermons – these are all important aspects of church life. But are they the singular, primary focus, even combined together into a broad topic of “teaching”? I think, as participles are, they are a description of one part of what really is our singular purpose as the church.
That takes us back to the verb that we haven’t yet mentioned. If “go,” “baptize,” and “teach” are all participles, all filling in the backstory of the main command, that only leaves “make disciples” to be the command, as it is. Disciples will be made as we go – both by deliberate choice and through the happenstance of life. Disciples will be made, and we will baptize them. Disciples will be made, and we will teach them.
But the point, the main purpose, the big thing is that we are to make disciples. This is the singular purpose of the church. It’s our one, overarching plan from Jesus himself. Make disciples. Everything we do should be about making disciples. It’s the one command in the Great Commission that Jesus gives us.
So what does it meant to make disciples? One part of this is certainly evangelism. We need to be going where they are and telling them the Good News so that they can respond to it and become a disciple. And evangelism is what American Protestantism has been all about for the last century or two. Going and telling. Getting people saved. Making sure that people know where they are going when they die. Directing them along the Roman Road to salvation.
But making disciples is more than this. Jesus picked his Twelve Disciples, and then he spent three years teaching, training, and forming them. Pouring His life into them. He spent three more years making His disciples after making them His disciples by calling them out specifically for that task. There’s the immediate making of disciples in the response to evangelism. But then there’s the ongoing making of disciples that comes through living together, growing together in the wisdom and knowledge of God, teaching and being taught, and other means of discipline and growth. From the time of salvation until God calls us home, we are all disciples who are disciples in making.
One of the greatest failures of the 20th century church has been the failure to adequately disciple and mature those who came to a saving faith in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3:2, Paul recorded how he had to feed the Corinthians with milk from the word rather than the solid food or meat that he wanted to give them, because they were not yet ready for it. We as a church all over the world over the last decades have created a large-scale set of Corinthians who feed on a steady diet of milk, unwilling or unable to attempt the meatier lessons .
We need to be making disciples who are continually maturing and growing. The writer to Hebrews says, “12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
We make disciples when we evangelize, baptize, and teach. These things take place “as we go” – whether the going is intentional or not. We who follow Christ join together in a singular task: making disciples. Both creating new ones and making better the existing ones. We are in a constant state of work to this one end. Our worship is geared to pointing us toward becoming better disciples. Our praying is geared toward hearing God and conforming our will to His. Our giving is for the purpose of obeying God and becoming more like Him in His sacrifice. Our going to work is an act of obedience and an opportunity for making disciples.
This is the singular identity, the singular pursuit, the singular vision that should guide all that we do as the church of Christ. It is in making disciples that all of our ends meet.
I hope that before long, when you hear the word church, you think of activity, of fellowship, of family, of community, of potlucks, of passionate worship, of fervent prayer, of intentional missions, of humble service. But most of all, through all of that, I hope that if someone asks you what the purpose of the church is you and I will both readily say, “Making disciples.” This is the command that Christ left us with. This is our duty. This is call. This is our life. This is our purpose.
 Hebrews 5:12-14