Selling Jesus ...
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 26:18-20, NIV).
18 Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee. He saw two brothers. They were Simon (his other name was Peter) and Andrew, his brother. They were putting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. 19 Jesus said to them, “Follow Me. I will make you fish for men!” 20 At once they left their nets and followed Him (Mt. 4:18-20, NIV).
I began serving in Christian ministry during the “Church Growth Age” of the American church. Fostered by an emphasis on “The Great Commission” and the American values for and definitions of success, “Church Growth” was all about numbers, baptisms, church attendance figures, and offerings.
These numbers gave a pastor a very clear measure about whether he (this was 99.9% of the case in Baptist churches at the time) was being “successful” or not. And, of course, this also led to pastors obfuscating their numbers by reporting percentages and such rather than raw numbers.
Pastors who came into a small, family church of maybe 30 members would receive a new family of five members and claim a whopping 16% annual growth rate while the church of 1,000 down the road would welcome 80 new members and only a growth rate of 8%.
It was all a little ridiculous, but it was well-intentioned. Centered around the idea and understanding that if a church were making disciples, the church attendance/membership would be growing. Logical perhaps, but not always true.
In reality, our emphasis on church growth was built more on the principles of corporate America than on those of Jesus and of the Scriptures. And focusing on the numbers, sometimes the methodologies and even the theologies were questionable and, in a few cases, heretical. Some of these methodologies hyped up potential aspects of the Christian walk as inevitable and promised prosperity, happiness, and joy if you only followed the teachings of Scripture as interpreted by a particular leader’s teachings.
Eventually we came to realize that while the methodologies were indeed getting butts in the pews, the maturity and commitment of these “disciples” was too often wanting. Still, the “Church Growth Movement” gave the church some sound principles and ideas that are still useful today. The need to “Sell” Jesus, however, was not one of them.
You see, one of the principles that many bought into was the need to market Jesus in a way that target audiences could understand and accept. Like so many things, this concept was indeed partly true … like Paul on Mars Hill, we do need to address people at their point of understanding about who Jesus is and His Deity, but that doesn’t mean we should marginalize the messages that may be difficult to hear.
Too many of us have played down Jesus’ words about the sacrifice, patience and service to which Jesus’ disciples are called. We have not exactly practiced the “bait and switch” in our evangelistic efforts so much as not highlighting the fine print. We have narrowed what we see in the Bible as a process to a simple, transactional process … read these 4-spiritual laws (which I affirm btw), say this prayer, and obediently follow Christ in Baptism and then, you’re a disciple!
As an aside, where in Scripture do we see Peter or any of the other disciples being baptized? It was a practice of the early Church according to Acts … but when Jesus commanded us to make disciples it was not necessarily something we see being practiced in Scripture! But I digress …
When we look at Jesus’ disciple-making, which should be the basis for the church’s disciple-making process, it began with the invitation to being in relationship, and in Jesus teaching them about God and their relationship to God ultimately though Him. It involved serving side-by-side and meeting the needs of others.
Through this relationship, it climaxed with Peter’s confession of faith in who Jesus said he was. And it continued with them knowingly journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem where The Cross lay in wait. It was a long, involved process … a journey – and not a momentary response to some great preaching.
Jesus didn’t sugar-coat any of this in the formation of his disciples. Indeed, he rejected the temptation to short-cut this process in the wilderness.
As we seek to make disciples, we need to do it not by selling the value of a relationship with Jesus to others, but by showing them the value of that relationship by bringing Jesus to them through our relationship with them. That’s how disciples are made … and I truly appreciate the men and women in my life who have discipled me in my faith in Jesus and those who continue to do so even today.
To invest in the life of another so that they can come to know Jesus as Christ, Savior and Lord is a huge sacrifice. When I have done that, not only have I reaped great rewards, but so too have those people. I hope that I will never stop seeking out those people in whom Christ is leading me to invest my time in order that they may walk more closely with Him.
Lord, thank you for those who have invested their time in my life that I might know you more dearly. Help me see those to whom you're calling me. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains