The Great Commission remains the ecclesiological framework for how the Church is to reach the culture.
Reaching the Contemporary Culture
Amid my quest to develop an ecclesiology (way of being the church) to reach today’s culture, I have been reading various resources and observing various approaches on social media. My conclusion, thus far, is that there isn’t one tried and true method. We have generational churches, alternative churches, emerging churches, and seeker churches, to name a few. They each have their pluses and minuses but share this one thing in common: they are attempting to reach the culture where it is.
Now, this is an opportunity and a liability. It is an opportunity because the church is to be present in the culture to present Jesus to the culture. It is a liability because, in our attempt to integrate into the culture, we risk the culture infiltrating the church. I am all for the church being creative, cutting edge, incarnational, messianic, and relevant; but where I am struggling with what I am reading and seeing is the blurring or bulldozing of this line between the secular and the sacred. I wrote on this earlier in Holiness Is Still Right, so I will not revisit it here. But in our en-fleshing and emulating of the gospel, the Person from which we derive these missiological terms never blurred the lines.
In fact, what Jesus did and instructed His board of directors (the Apostles) was to take the culture of the kingdom of God to the culture of the world—irrespective of it being premodern, modern, or postmodern. Thus, any implement or instrument that is morally and ethically neutral is permissible as a medium for transmitting the kingdom to its contemporary culture. For example, smartphones, televisions, and computers are ethically neutral, but depending on the content transmitted across them, what they disseminate can be ethically righteous or unrighteous.
Three Practices for Making Disciples
So, what do we do? I don’t yet know, exactly. But here’s where I land as a starting point: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NASB).
Jesus’s overarching commission to the Apostles, and us today, is to make disciples of everyone, everywhere. According to Jesus, there are three universal practices we must employ to make disciples in our contemporary culture.
1. We must go to the culture. The days of people coming to the church out of reverence, habit, or a God-consciousness is over. Christians are increasingly becoming the outcasts of society, and the church is becoming unnecessary in the minds of many. Church attendance dropped by half from 2000 to 2020, and COVID has further eroded that number.
What is the church to do? It must go. If the trend continues, our churches will become museums unless we take the kingdom to the culture. As one who is a strong advocate for the missional church, I propagate the gathered and scattered church. Unlike those who see gathered worship as a thing of the past, I view it as the central point of our communal life and rhythm. We gather weekly, in a centralized location, to continue the biblical tradition of Sabbath worship. The children of Israel gathered on the seventh day of the week (in obedience to God’s command and example of rest [Exodus 20:8-11]), and the early church gathered on the first day of the week (the same day as and in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection [Mark 16:9; Acts 20:7]). In our gathered worship, we praise God, strengthen each other, and refuel our spiritual tanks for our scattered witness in our communities, jobs, schools, and recreational places to execute the commission of our King—which is to baptize new kingdom citizens.
2. We must baptize in Jesus’s name. In our going (or scattered witness), we are to baptize those who believe the message of the kingdom—Jesus, the King, came into this world to restore our relationship with God and recreate our cosmos. When this profession of faith in Jesus is made, the new kingdom citizen is baptized in the name of Jesus. Thus, baptism is a public acknowledgement of our spiritual union with Christ and His disciples, and it is a symbolic depiction of our spiritual death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7).
The commission to baptize those to whom we go stipulates that a social gospel (which focuses on people’s needs) and a social community (which focuses on relationship) without a gospel commitment is not disciple making. For to be a disciple, a person must be a follower, student, and imitator of his or her Rabbi. This requires an allegiance beyond affiliation; it requires becoming a citizen of a new kingdom, under a new King, governed by a new constitution. That pledge is baptism.
However, disciple making does not stop with baptism; that is only the start. It must continue through kingdom teachings.
3. We must teach all that Christ commanded. Upon entrance into Christ’s kingdom through faith in Christ, symbolized by baptism, every disciple must grow in God’s grace and in the knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Now that they are in the kingdom, they must be taught all the principles of the kingdom. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) is certainly a practical framework for a primer into kingdom living. It lays out the radical nature of the cultural revolution that Jesus inaugurated. Anyone who reads the Beatitudes will quickly come to understand why discipleship is not a moment in time but a lifelong process.
As I say in Men After God’s Heart, discipleship is not only what happens to us but what happens through us. The Spirit works through us to bless each other and the world as we fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the families on the earth (Genesis 12:3). In collaboration with the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the Scriptures help to transform our thinking and living so that we become more Christ-like in our words and actions. We become more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. We better love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; and better love our fellow humans as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
The Push-Pull of Discipleship
Discipleship can take place in our centralized worship and during our decentralized witness into cell groups, missional communities, and specialized networks. Combined, our gathered worship and scattered witness have a push-pull effect that pushes disciples into the culture, and the disciples pull new citizens into the kingdom. That is, as small groups go to their local contexts during the week, they become smaller communities for unbelievers to interact with. Moreover, as unbelievers are discipled into those small groups, they integrate into the collective life of the macro-community to which their micro-community belongs.
My conclusion: Whatever ecclesiological label we wear, what is most important is that we live out the three principles of the Great Commission. If we do that, we are being faithful to the culture of the kingdom.
Rev. Isaac Hayes is the founder of Healing of the Soul Ministries and author of Men After God’s Heart: 10 Principles of Brotherly Love. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, Illinois, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.
 Thumma, Scott. 2021. Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview. Faith Communities Today, Hartford, CT: Hartford Institute for Religion Research. https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Faith-Communities-Today-2020-Summary-Report.pdf.