“You need to get saved?!?” This was my youth pastor’s incredulous reply to me as I knelt at our church’s prayer bench in tears. Everyone thought I was a believer. I knew that my life was a sham. The Lord saved me that evening as a seventeen-year-old kid. A decade before that, like many Baptist kids, I was baptized at a young age and expressed belief in Jesus. I recall standing in front of the church as a seven-year-old and thinking that the pastor praying over me was how I got saved. I regret to say that I did not walk in a manner worthy of the Lord the next ten years of my life. In fact, I stopped going to church when I entered high school. A few years later, the Lord was kind enough to preserve my life in a severe car crash. The crash sobered me and so I decided to attend church again.
After I had been attending church for six months or so, my pastor started preaching through the “I Am” statements of John. I listened to these sermons with eagerness and intensity. God was convicting me of being a religious person who was a Christian on Sunday and someone else every other day. After a few of the sermons, I became convicted that I was not a disciple of Jesus Christ. There was no fruit in my life. There was no active obedience to Jesus. In fact, even the joy of salvation was absent. As I listened, it became clear to me that I had never truly believed in Jesus. Although I did not know these terms at the time, I had not submitted to Jesus as both Savior and Lord. Praise God that in the July before my senior year of high school, I put my trust in the Lord Jesus and he saved me.
I tell this story to make a point. The Great Commission is for all of God’s people and it is an essential piece of every ministry philosophy—whether that is for missions, the local church, the parachurch, your student ministry, etc. It is very easy to focus simply on salvation as the main purpose of the Christian life. The purpose of the Christian life, however, is bringing glory to God (2 Corinthians 4:15). The chief way we do that is by being disciples who bear fruit to the glory of God in our lives (Philippians 1:11). As you are thinking about how to build a student ministry—or perhaps you are assessing your student ministry—you need to remember the call to make disciples. Let’s look at Matthew 28:18-20 in order to get a 30,000-foot overview that explains why you must make disciples.
The Biblical Basis for Discipleship—Matthew 28:18-20
“18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).
We all need to read these words from the mouth of Jesus with fresh ears and a fresh mind. The scope of Jesus’ command is especially striking. Observe that the word or concept “all” is repeated four times. These “all” statements teach important realities about the age of the church. “All authority” communicates that the sphere of Jesus’ absolute authority has been extended to include all of heaven and earth. “All nations” links his universal authority to a universal mission. “All that I have commanded” spells out a direct implication of his universal authority: he is the universal Lord whom all must obey. The last all—“always”—is a word of comfort to his people. He is with his people the whole of every day.*
A close examination of the verbs used in Matthew 28:18-20 reveals that the Great Commission has immediate implications for your student ministry. In other words, the Great Commission is not just for missions. These four verbs serve as primary objectives for all Christian work: Go, make, baptize, teach. They tell you what you should do in your student ministry—what you must do.
While Matthew 28:18-20 is not a comprehensive statement on the mission of the local church, it does provide a full answer. While there are many good and biblical things that could be added to this list, there can be no doubt that these four verbs are essential and that you must do them if you want to have a faithful student ministry. While Jesus originally spoke these words to the eleven disciples (Matthew 26:16), the fact that they are repeated in one form or another in other passages (Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8) tells us that they are universal instructions for all believers, all churches, and all ministries. Therefore, the mission of your student ministry is to “go” and “make disciples” with the goal that they might publicly identify with Christ Jesus (“baptizing them”) and that they might become his obedient disciples (“teaching them to observe”).
Let’s briefly look at each verbal phrase in order to get a more specific idea of what Jesus was commanding to all of us:
The verb “go” dictates an active orientation on your part as you lead your student ministry. As disciples of Jesus, we are not to be reactive. Instead, we are to be proactive “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are to serve as agents for the kingdom who go out into a lost and dying world with the message and hope of reconciliation to God (2 Corinthians 5:16-18).
Notice that the “therefore” connects this command to Jesus’ universal authority. Because Jesus’ authority is now universal, he has a universal mission for all of his disciples. For many, obeying this command will mean moving overseas into a cross-cultural environment. When I was a kid, I always imagined missionaries rowing across the Atlantic in little canoes. While that may sound absurd, many of us have too narrow of a vision for missions work. While the call to take the Gospel to the nations is essential, this calling is also universal. This universal call includes our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, communities, and even our families. It also includes your student ministry. In fact, there may be many student ministers who would argue that their student ministry is a mission field! Every person—no matter their race, gender, location, background, or age—are to be made disciples of Jesus Christ.
2. Make Disciples
“Make disciples” is the primary command and the main verb of this passage. In the Greek, “make disciples” is the only imperative in these verses. The other verbs serve as participles, which further explain and support the main verb. There are good reasons to translate “going” as an imperative: “Go.” The force is there in the original language. If you are interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of those issues, I would encourage you to check out a solid exegetical commentary.
For now, it is sufficient to note that “make disciples” is prominent and, in a sense, carries the other three verbs. The prominence of “make disciples” does not minimize the importance of going nor does it minimize the importance of missions. Whether you are going into your neighbor’s apartment, or hiking into inland China, or walking into your student ministry Bible study—making disciples is the goal.
Obviously, you will have a vast spectrum of students with a wide range of needs. Many will already be eager disciples of Jesus who need help persevering in their Christian life. Others will be hesitant seekers who need questions answered, relationships developed, and ultimately, will need to hear the Gospel and to believe it. Wherever your various students are, the goal remains the same. You are to reach out to them with the explicit objective of making them into a disciple of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the primary thing you do and it is your primary goal.
Forthcoming posts will help answer the question:”How do I make disciples?” If you are interested in an overview, please read the introductory post here.
Here is part 2 of “A Faithful Student Ministry Must Make Disciples.”
A Question for Discussion: How is student ministry like the mission field?
*D.A. Carson, Matthew in The Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 595.