A disciple-maker should know where he’s going. If he does, then he probably knows his end depends on starting in the right spot. He also won’t be surprised when he arrives at his goal.
John Piper wrote a concentrated post on missions two weeks ago pointing to the January/February cover story in Christianity Today, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”. The CT article describes the findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry who spent a decade researching “the effect of missionaries on the health of the nations.” Piper quotes Woodberry:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
When men “convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ” things start to change not only for them as individuals, but also in their community. That’s why a map showing First World, Second World, and Third World countries relates directly to the presence of the gospel in those places. Most of the First World knows, or at least once knew, gospel roots.
Woodberry observed, and Piper presses, that cultural change surprised the missionaries. Woodberry says, “Colonial reforms (came) through the back door” and “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.” Piper concludes,
The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life.
In other words, “Tree first, then fruit.”
But saying that we should “focus on…conversion” is similar to saying that farmers should “focus on planting.” Trees grow from seeds and seeds must first be sown. Sowing, however, is only the start. Farmers must also water, weed, fertilize, and cultivate the tree to health and strength. They expect and work for more than a successful plant. When buds turn into branches and branches bear fruit all across the field farmers don’t say “these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”
It is true that we won’t “achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation” without conversions but, brothers, we are not conversionists. Christ commissioned us to make disciples, not converts. Discipleship starts with conversion but it ends with “teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded.” We labor to present every man complete in Christ and that includes teaching them to think like Christ, to talk like Christ, to act like Christ. That kind of stuff gets out.
Why would we seek, and even expect, conversions by God’s sovereign grace but not also expect an entire culture to change as grace grows whole groups of men in their obedience to Christ? Why would we call men to repent and believe, then move on to other fields? Evangelism is only the opening stage of discipleship. What is surprising about believers obeying in obvious and coordinated ways? We don’t say that our arrival at the supermarket was unintended because we had to get out of the driveway first.
“The fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11) only grows from new creations of the Spirit, but the fruit of transformation affects votes, vocation, parenting, medicine, schooling, economics, government, and every other lawful cultural activity on earth. If Christ cares about it, then image bearers can and should, too. If we’re supposed to make disciples of all men, but not all men are supposed to be teachers, then disciple-makers are responsible for knowing how to disciple Christians of every calling. That means we will need a plan for the many at some point down the road since, where two or three sheep are gathered together, they will need to learn how to get buy or sell car insurance from each other.
So, “missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time–for eternal salvation and temporal transformation–are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis and from that root teach them to bear fruit of all that Jesus commanded us.” But many missionaries and pastors want proselytes and then have nothing else for the proselytes to do except read their Bibles and make more proselytes while they wait for heaven. That’s why talking about our aim as making disciples helps us approach our work better than making converts. When we remember that conversion is the start, not the end, we won’t be surprised that God takes whole cultures to better places.