Discipleship Versus Mission

Discipleship and mission are two buzzwords right now in evangelical circles. Christians use these words to emphasize different aspects of the same thing: God’s overarching mission is to glorify Himself by reconciling sinners to Himself through Jesus, and He calls His Church to take part in that mission. The Church, filled with the Holy Spirit, is the means by which God will call peoples from all nations to Himself through Jesus.

First, it’s important to understand what Christian circles mean when we use these terms. Are discipleship and mission distinct from one another? Yes and no. Yes, the things we imply when we use these words are different. Christians tend to think inwardly when we use the word discipleship. Christians use the word discipleship to imply the growing and shepherding of those who already follow Jesus. On the other hand, Christians tend to think outwardly when we use the word mission. Christians use the word mission to imply the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed to those who are not yet followers of Jesus.

However, I propose that from a biblical perspective, each of these definitions is too narrow. Discipleship is not only for those who are already followers of Jesus. Jesus commands us to make disciples of people who have not yet heard the good news of the gospel (Matthew 28:19 – In context, Jesus is telling his disciples to make disciples of all nations, nations which had not yet heard the good news of the gospel.). Obviously Jesus’ idea of discipleship includes those outside of the Church. On the other hand, mission should not distinctly refer to those who do not yet follow Jesus. One essential aspect of the Church is to discipline, shepherd, and love her members. This is an aspect of her mission.

Circles in which these words come up often tend to over-emphasize one and under-emphasize the other. Here are two thoughts to help us keep a balanced perspective as trends rise and fall in the church:

  1. Neither discipleship nor mission is the main thing. God is. Neither discipleship nor mission are ends in and of themselves. God is. They are simply means to God being glorified by people living in renewed relationship with him.
  2. Inward-focused discipleship precedes outward-focused mission. If the local church is discipling its members well, outward mission will inevitably happen. Believers will inevitably be propelled by the gospel to live as missionaries in their daily contexts. This is the pattern of Jesus. He spent about three years with the same men. Afterwards, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and propelled by the truth of the message to live as missionaries. I’m not arguing that inward-focused discipleship is more important. I’m simply proposing that if it is happening well, then outward-focused mission will happen naturally. It’s for this reason that I believe that local churches should put forth great effort to love and serve its members. It is through doing this well that outward-focused mission will happen most effectively. Side note: this is why I think the most effective method of reaching people with the gospel is through church planting.

What do you think?  Do you tend to over-emphasize either either discipleship or mission over the other?  What do you do to maintain a balanced perspective?