Conversations with the Emergent Church

Conversations with the Emergent Church<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
By Sean McDowell and Tony Jones
The following conversation is a part of the column, "Sparks" in the new Journal of Student Ministries.  The topic for this month is the "Great Commission."  Sean is a nationally recognized speaker, author and apologist, while Tony is the National Director for the Emergent Church and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary. Each issue they debate a hot topic surrounding the emerging church movement.
The first thing I wonder when I come across something like the "Great Commission" is, who gave this passage that name? Neither "great" nor "commission" are found anywhere in the text, so someone, somewhere decided that this passage needed a big, bold headline. And that leads me to wonder, who was it, and what was his agenda? (I'm assuming it was a man.) That's not to diminish the importance of this passage, but simply to ask about
the prominence that it's gotten since it was named the "Great
            But, more to the point, three clauses demand explanation in the Matthew 28:19-20 passage, and it's these three over which Sean and I probably differ.  Taking them in reverse order, the third is "teaching them to obey everything I have   commanded you." When I think of what Jesus taught these men that he was summarily sending out into the world, I think of it as the most world-rocking, subversive message that has ever passed from human lips. This isn't a message of comfort, but of revolutionary hope-especially as it was experienced by these Galileans, who were the oppressed of the oppressed.
            The second phrase is, "baptizing them…" It's funny, but in all my years of youth ministry, I've never heard anyone talk about this third of the Great Commission as what their youth group was going to do in Jamaica. I guess we usually leave that to the adult pastors.
            And the first, and most divisive phrase is, "Go and make disciples." While Sean and I should spend some time parsing out our different takes on what is a "disciple" of Jesus, I do think it's noteworthy that Jesus says disciple (that is, "follower"), not "convert." Jesus is not calling the eleven to go out and make sure that people won't go to hell when they die. He's telling them to go and make people who will follow with their whole lives (which raises the theological question: Can
I really "make" a disciple, or is that exclusively the work of God's Spirit?).
            Finally, I never hear the final line, which is probably the most important and surely the most hopeful: "Jesus will be with us always, even to the end."
While I agree with you that a man may have made up the words "Great Commission," it was certainly Jesus who created the concept. In fact, there are many words that aren't in the Bible-such as "Trinity" and "omnipotence"-that we use to explain core scriptural truths. Since the very last thing Jesus said to his disciples before his ascension was, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), it must be pretty important.
            I totally agree that Jesus brought a "world-rocking" message of hope. But didn't he also offer a message of comfort? Since the Romans were so oppressive to the early Christians, Jesus' message of the abundant life brought great consolation to his followers (John 10:10). To know that they could experience God's love and forgiveness amidst their present suffering, and to have the promise of eternal life in the future, must have been a source of considerable comfort. The same message of Jesus can bring incredible comfort to young people today.
            As you mentioned, Tony, Jesus does command us to go out and make disciples, not merely converts. But for someone to be a disciple, doesn't he or she first have to be a convert? I agree that Jesus wasn't merely trying to prevent people from going to hell, but he sure didn't skirt the issue like many do today. And that leads me to wonder, how often do we try to be politically correct or non-offensive when proclaiming the truth about Christ?
True, Jesus' last recorded words in Matthew are these. But in Mark (16:15-18), the "Great Commission" isn't quite as palatable-Jesus adds that the signs of those who believe this good news are that they'll be able to handle snakes, drink poison, and heal sick people. Mark's was the first, and most raw, Gospel written, but I don't hear many youth pastors using that version of the Great Commission to prep their kids for the summer mission trip. And I think it's noteworthy that Jesus' last words in Luke (24:49) and Acts (1:8) are promising the Holy Spirit.
            My point is, I don't know that these words should get special preference just because one of the Gospel writers put them last in his Gospel. If that's the standard of importance, I guess I'm even more interested in Jesus' first words in Luke (4:14-30), his inaugural sermon, in which he proclaims a Year of Jubilee-that is, a usurpation of all earthly powers on behalf of those who are excluded and oppressed. This message was hardly politically correct-they tried to throw him off a cliff for saying such a thing! And it's just as scandalous today.
            As to whether a person has to convert before she can become a disciple, no, I don't think it's always a one-way street. One of the failures of modern thinking is the false assumption that a changed mind necessarily leads to changed behavior, but the disciples themselves challenge that idea: they become disciples (followers) long before they knew who Jesus really was. In their case, behavior preceded belief.
I do in fact think that Jesus' final words as recorded by Matthew have been called the "Great Commission" for a reason, even if he had spoken them at another time (the fact that they are last merely adds extra credence to it). The simple phrase, "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" is a reminder and summary of his teachings on God's love, forgiveness, and the radical hope of the gospel.
            I agree that a changed mind does not automatically lead to changed behavior. But I'm not sure how someone can have a change of behavior without first having a changed mind. Behavioral change begins with the mind. Even the biblical concept of repentance is an internal change of mind reflected in changed behavior. Isn't this what Paul was referring to in Romans 12:2?
            As for the disciples, I agree that they did not fully comprehend the depths of who Jesus was when they first chose to follow him. They certainly didn't grasp the nature of the Trinity or that Christ would be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. But they did have sufficient knowledge about Jesus' mission from the Scriptures and John the Baptist to make an intelligent step of faith. They had reason to believe in him, and they acted on that reason by choosing to follow him. Their behavior followed their belief.
Now we're getting somewhere! I think that your thesis, "behavioral change begins with the mind" is virtually indefensible, by either psychological or biblical standards. While psychologists surely agree that beliefs affect behavior, so do a whole complex matrix of influences: family upbringing, social mores, gender differences, etc. In fact, I'd argue that most of our behaviors are determined by influences that take place at a pre-reflective (i.e., subconscious) level.
            Even the passage to which you refer, Romans 12:2 ("be transformed by the renewing of your mind") comes after Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:1 that we offer our bodies as living sacrifices. Seems to me yet another example of behavior preceding belief.
            As you probably agree, I think that youth workers can err on either side of this equation. On the one hand, we can become obsessed with behavior modification. On the other hand, we can become fixated on the doctrinal aptitude of our students. Neither of these gets to the real heart of youth ministry: the gospel.
            And neither of these emphases was Jesus' primary concern. Instead, Jesus was passionate about freeing people from bondage (of various types) and building a community of followers (who went on to change the world). All of our brilliant apologetics have done little to inculcate a deep faith in adolescents. Instead, let's work at building communities of faith and bringing more students into environments where they can experience the love, grace, healing, hope, and comfort of Jesus. I'm guessing that will bring us a lot closer to fulfilling the Great Commission than logical apologetics has.
Yes, Paul's call to renew the mind comes after his exhortation to offer the body as a living sacrifice. But don't forget that Paul is making his entire appeal in the book of Romans through a written letter, which is an appeal first and foremost to their minds! And I wonder, how can we build the loving communities of Jesus so students can experience his love and forgiveness if we haven't deeply thought through precisely what that means? I agree that Jesus was interested in freeing people from bondage, but don't forget, it is the truth sets people free.  Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32).
This article was first printed in the May/June 2006 issue of The Journal of Student Ministries. (c) 2006 DevelopMinistries. Used with permission. For subscription information, check out or call 888.799.1395. The topic for next month is on APOLOGETICS.

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