With mission trip season in full bloom, we’d be wise to step back and survey Pentecostal-Christian faith related to evangelism and missions. What is the “Great Commission” and why do we often misinterpret our role in it? These basics need further investigation.
Doom and Gloom
I remember listening to a couple speak at church about their evangelistic mission to Paris, France. Assuming safety within the small group of likeminded U.S. Christians, they called the people of Paris “sinful and evil,” matter-of-a-factly describing the entire country as “filled with darkness.”
This is a tried and true strategy for fundraising, of course. U.S. Christians stand before the holy assembly, pointing at “those” heathens in foreign lands that are destined for hell without “our” amazing gift: U.S. Jesus.
U.S. Jesus, interestingly enough, resembles “us” as Jesus. Indeed, Jesus needs us to reach those sinners out there because we’re the chosen few, commissioned to spread ourselves to others, whether they want it or not. And as a former church planter, I get it.
After the church service with the Paris-bound evangelists, the couple was approached by a woman in the congregation. The person took issue with their description of Paris. Come to find out, this person, who the evangelists had graphed into U.S. Christianity by her very presence in this U.S. Christian church, was actually from Paris, and strangely enough, she didn’t agree with the evangelists’ negative characterization.
But U.S. evangelism almost always relies on the doom and gloom narrative: if “we” don’t go to save “them” then “they” are hopeless!
You might be thinking at this point: What about the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20?
I’ve heard these verses my entire life, and I’m grateful for that because they are brimming with meaning!
The problem, of course, is not with the verses but rather with the way the verses have been distilled, sterilized, and then peddled. In other words, I think it’s time we revive Jesus’ world-altering words.
Matthew 28:19 begins clear enough –– “Go therefore.” Do we really need to talk more about such an obvious command?! Well, yes, because the Greek word used here –– poreuō –– has an assortment of meanings, all of which change our perception of the verse.
Poreuō can be translated “to continue one’s journey,” “to walk, travel,” and “to become an adherent.”
So let’s, just for a second, replace “go” with “Continue your journey with Jesus.”
The basic premise of the Great Commission is that Christians are supposed to make disciples. So what does “disciple” mean? Perhaps the best place to look is at the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Let’s walk through Matthew’s Gospel, paying attention to what the disciples were up to:
Chapter 4 – Jesus invites the disciples to follow him, avoiding any talk about how “evil” and “sinful” they were. Their only qualifications for such a prestigious calling was that they were unqualified. Right after that the disciples get to the super important work: accompanying Jesus while he heals the sick and injured.
Chapter 5 – Disciples sit through a long sermon about the virtues of those who mourn, hunger, thirst, are meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and (oh no!) persecuted. They end up hearing that they must love everyone, even enemies!?!
Chapters 6-7 – Disciples are told to give in secret, don’t pray like hypocrites, more about money, don’t judge, Golden Rule, and hearers/doers.
Chapters 8-9 – Disciples travel with Jesus as he heals ailments. In 9:37, we get another oft-repeated verse on how the harvest is great but the workers are few. What marks workers? v. 36 tells us:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
***Workers = compassionate folks that actively oppose physical and spiritual powers that harass and harm.
Chapter 10 – Disciples sent out with these instructions: proclaim the good news, cure sickness, raise the dead, don’t accept payment, when persecuted flee, fear nothing, and lose your life for Jesus’ sake.
Chapters 11-13 – More healing by and learning from Jesus.
Chapter 14 – A big crowd follows Jesus, seeking his help, and the disciples tell Jesus to send them away. Hey, disciples aren’t perfect! Jesus instead miraculously multiplies the food so everyone can eat, revealing an important disciple role: waitering.
Chapters 15-21 – Lots more healing by and learning from Jesus. Also, things start to devolve between Jesus and the religious leaders who are upset that Jesus is not just ministering to “those” sinful people, but worse than that, Jesus seems to think “those” people are the fullness of God’s plan. But aren’t “we” religious people the hope of the world?! Disciples again serve as waiters and three disciples get to see Elijah and Moses.
Chapter 22 – Jesus gives the Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Thus, discipling is not a multi-level marketing scheme where those at the “top” nearest Jesus try to gain new followers, strengthening their proximity to Jesus. Rather, love dismantles sinful structures of power and division.
Chapters 23-28 – More learning, leading to Jesus’ crucifixion and subsequent resurrection and commissioning, which is where we started.
So what did we learn? Well, if we learned anything at all then we are likely disciples because the Greek word for disciple is translated as “learner, pupil, disciple.” Hence, to assume superiority––”they need us!”––opposes the basic idea of being a learner, pupil, disciple.
We also learned that physical healing and restoration is incredibly important to Jesus and to Jesus’ disciples. The notion that evangelism and missions is reduced to “saving souls” is dangerous because it ignores and even exacerbates actual physical problems in need of Jesus’ evangelistic, healing mission.
Evangelism and missions is not about “making disciples,” which seems to suggest that I have some ability or gift that they need.
The original word for “make disciples” is mathēteuō, which is related to mathētēs, our word for “disciple.” Perhaps the predominant meaning of mathēteuō is “to be a disciple of one,” in this case Jesus.
In other words, rather than “making” others into our image, the text can read, “Continue your journey with Jesus as a learner, pupil, and disciple of Jesus.”
Disciples don’t “make” anything.
Disciples patiently listen, attentively learn, and physically love.
Post-WWI geopolitical reality distorts our understanding of the Great Commission. We imagine Jesus calling his disciples to travel the world, evangelizing every nation-state. That reading intensifies U.S. Christian mentality that views our nation as the City on a Hill others look to for all goodness.
Consequently, “we” U.S. Christians travel to foreign lands to help “them,” who (we are told) are often stuck in $*#& hole nations. Now we are the virtuous people, just wanting to provide those third-world heathens with first-world Jesus.
The word used for “nations,” however, is ethnos, meaning a group of people, whether connected through location, family, or ethnicity. “All nations” means “all your neighborhood” or “all your family” or “all your church” as much as it means “all countries.”
This point is important because when we read “nations,” we divide “our” nation, which we laud, with “their” nation, which is branded as “sinful, evil, and full of darkness,” reducing evangelism and missions to U.S. political interests.
Evangelism and Missions
Disciples don’t make disciples.
Disciples patiently listen, attentively learn, and physically love.
That means evangelism and missions is wholly and fully reciprocal: disciples give and receive from every ethnos. In fact, disciples should listen more than speak and learn more than teach (though speaking and teaching are important, too).
Who knows, maybe God is calling us to actually travel the globe, but not in order to change others. Maybe God is calling us to travel the globe in order to be changed by others.
And maybe that revival we so long for in the U.S. will happen when we stop exporting U.S. Christianity and instead allow the Spirit to bring the healing winds from around the world to revive our stagnant stateside churches.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.