Harding Commencement Address (Part 2)
We make disciples. Or we’re only singing half-tones. It really is that simple.
Of course, this begs the question of what we mean when we say “disciple.” As you must already know, everyone has their own definition of discipleship; the word is confidently used by every church from the Episcopalians to the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, Incorporated.
When I say disciple, I mean a person who trusts and follows Jesus whole-heartedly. A disciple is more than a mere theologian. Disciples have good theology, but they know that theology only provides a framework for the house that must be occupied if it is to have value. A disciple is more than a church member. Disciples belong to churches, sure. But they know that mere membership in static clubs won’t produce the thrill—the signs, the wonders, the powers—that comes with a radical commitment to King Jesus. A disciple is more than a social activist. Of course disciples transform the world around them. But a disciple knows that bringing others to repentance and faith in King Jesus is infinitely more priceless than digging a well or hash-tagging a social cause.
Disciples have theology, belong to churches, and transform the world around them, but at their heart, disciples are people who, as King Jesus says, “Deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him.” Disciples are those who love God with all they have and who love their neighbors as themselves. Disciples are those who, like King Jesus, trust the written Scriptures, knowing that the commands of God are never a burden. Disciples are those who commit to holiness in all they do—with their money, their relationships, their bodies, their feelings, and their minds. And disciples are those who are committed to bringing others into a discipled relationship with King Jesus. To be a disciple is to respond to Jesus’ first call: “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for others.”
I have spent time with Robert Coleman, whose classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism has sold more than 3 million copies. Coleman was a long time professor of evangelism at such places as Asbury, Trinity, and Gordon-Conwell. But every year he has taught at the university, Coleman has also hosted a small group of disciples, whom he personally trained to trust and follow Jesus. Several years ago, I got to look at Coleman’s Bible. Inside he has listed the names of every student he personally discipled over the half century in his career. I saw the names of hundreds of students whose lives were forever changed by this world-class disciple-maker. He not only taught disciple-making. Coleman made disciples.
When my son lost his faith during his late teenage years, two men—a film-maker and a grandmaster at Taekwondo—invested hours in his life and showed him again how to trust and follow Jesus. They discipled him. My son has not only come back to Jesus, but next week, God willing, Jonathan is leading a team to Eugene Oregon to plant a church right in the heart of the University of Oregon. He, too, is now making disciples.
The night Frank and Lori first found my congregation, they didn’t have enough food to feed their family. And, worse, they didn’t know Jesus. But two women disciple-makers in my church took them in. Following the relational disciple-making style of King Jesus, these women have helped Lori clear herself of past criminal charges, guided both Frank and Lori to their new jobs, got them married, led them to pay off their debt, and helped them baptize all seven members of their family, as well as many of their friends. Now, Frank and Lori are leaders of one of the campuses of my church.
Theology mattered to Frank and Lori, but not that much. What really mattered was the love that a couple of disciple-making women showed them.
Ordinary people making disciples will change the world.
I have recently begun partnering with a disciple-making movement in West Africa that has brought hundreds of thousands of people to King Jesus. The movement is less than fifteen years old, but already it has planted 65,000 churches and brought more than a million and a half people into the kingdom of God, including more than 750,000 former Muslims. In fact, through this movement more Muslims have come to Christ in the last fourteen years than had come to Christ in the last fourteen centuries—combined. Times ten!
On a recent visit to this work, I saw schools where children could get a solid Christian education for a dollar a month. I saw wells dug for fresh water in remote villages where there hadn’t been fresh water since the Garden of Eden. I interacted with people who had adopted children who had no parents. Members of the movement were in the process of building a university. They had built clinics across their region and helped with agricultural projects. They had a Christian radio station broadcasting Christian messages, Christian music, and even a Christian comedian across the country.
But these kingdom works are only riffs in the gorgeous symphony that is playing in West Africa right now. The real power of this movement is found in the commitment that everyone there makes to making disciple-making the main thing. Imagine this: every single believer in this exploding movement has the audacity to obey King Jesus by making disciples!
One Sunday morning I attended the largest church in the movement. There were hundreds of excited worshipers gathered. When they began their music, I knew it would be big: our hosts had advised us to bring earplugs because the music would rock more than anything we had ever heard. They were right. The music was as big as a Superbowl half-time performance.
As the people were singing, dancing, and praising God, I couldn’t help but notice one man who was particularly animated. He was across the aisle from me and wearing a full black suit. He not only shouted out his songs of praise, but he danced without a care in the world. He was elated to worship his God. I saw him jumping, twisting, turning, shoving his hands upwards, kneeling, lying flat on the floor, crying and laughing.
I mentioned the young man to someone after the services, making some comment about how happy he looked. “Yeah,” one of my hosts responded. “He used to be a member of Boko Haram, the Muslim terrorist organization over in Nigeria. The first time he came to one of our services, he was spying on us as he planned to detonate a suicide bomb among us. But someone met him at the door and began to disciple him.”
Because of a commitment to making disciples, this terrorist has now given his life over to King Jesus. And he is currently making disciples of former Muslims and planting churches in Muslim villages. “He’s got a lot to sing about,” my host said. Indeed he does. A full symphony.
Mere knowledge of Greek, of American homeless statistics, or of the liturgical practices of the fourth century Coptic Church could never have changed this man. These are but lines in a greater concert.
Making disciples will change the world. Make disciples with your degree. Make disciples.
Everyone knows the music that came out of Liverpool, England. I’m speaking, of course, of Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp And Circumstance March No. 1 In D Major, which made its debut there in 1901. Part of a larger series of marches, the music became an instant success, and soon it was used for a variety of grand, public occasions, including the presentation of royalty. In 1905 Yale University played the tune for their graduation, and the rest is history. Graduations all over the West have played Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance to celebrate the joy and solemnity of awarding degrees.
In the early 1990’s I was all but dissertation at Vanderbilt’s Graduate School of Religion. Schooling had dragged on for twelve long years, and I was losing steam. I had three other jobs, in addition to being a full time Ph.D. student. Life was hectic, and I was near my breaking point. I strained all my relationships and probably damaged my body. I was utterly exhausted.
What I needed, I concluded, was something to motivate me to keep writing. I needed a vision of how it would look when I finally graduated—a vision of how it would feel, taste, smell and sound when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. And so I came up with the clever idea of listening, every single day, to the graduation music of Pomp and Circumstance. I would envision myself dancing across the stage with my diploma held high bouncing to Pomp and Circumstance. I ate to Elgar, worked to Elgar, and slept to Elgar. Every day for three years Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance was my bread. It was the only thing that kept me going.
I can hardly describe how I felt when graduation day came in May of 1994. My dissertation was approved, my degree was secured, and my wife was there to see me walk. I sat through the ceremony waiting for my turn to cross the stage. I planned to skip—my version of a dance—to the music of Lord Elgar. But I was terribly wrong. Vanderbilt’s graduation ceremony lasted four long hours, but not once during the entire event did they play Pomp and Circumstance. Not once. I was betrayed. In protest, I almost refused to walk. My jaw hung open. All that time listening to Pomp and Circumstance. All that time, I had the wrong song.
Whatever your degree. Whatever your major. Whatever your past or whatever your future. King Jesus gives you a charge that sums up the entire symphony of the Kingdom of God. “Make disciples of all nations.” Play your theological riffs and your activist harmonies. But don’t get the wrong song. Don’t ignore the full symphony that only occurs when it’s all applied to making disciples of all nations.