Missions and Discipleship are two sides of the same spiritual formation coin, to be invested and spent in the economy of God’s Kingdom.
We can learn a lot in Bible study and small groups and Sunday school classes, through sermons and lectures, by reading devotionals and Christian literature. But all of it is merely data, information, facts, or trivia if we do not do something with it. The reality of God’s Word is never meant or intended to be something we just know, are familiar with, or memorize. It is alive and powerful. It is intended for change and transformation, for redemption and salvation, for justice, mercy and grace. These are words of action, not passivity. Scripture says that they that do the will of God will know, not they that know, will do.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are literally learners, mathetos. Learning always has a practical component. Faith itself may come by hearing, but learning, being a disciple comes from both hearing and then doing the word of God. Living out what we hear and study is essential for the truth of what we study to become real in our lives. To borrow a familiar cliché, the head and heart have to join with the hands and feet.
On the flip side, some people err on the side of serving, engaging in mission, without much emphasis, if at all, on Bible study, devotionals, and the like. The argument here is that Jesus came to serve, not be served. We should be out in our community, out in our world, serving the needs of others. For some, living for God is best experienced, not in a church classroom or watching some teacher on video and then talking about it, but in actually making something happen.
We need both sides in order to be spiritually formed in Christ. Just having loads of information and knowledge of the Bible leaves us waterlogged, yet unable to give a drink of water to one who is thirsty. If we merely engage in mission, without knowing why or having a redemptive purpose, it leaves us as ignorant do-gooders. Knowing Scripture and doing something with it is as important as doing Scripture and knowing why we do it. We can’t have one without the other.
The Great Commission is typically used as the example for engaging in mission, as it illustrates God’s heart for the nations. If Jesus is telling his disciples to go to all the nations, then it must be important. What we often miss in those last words of Christ is the command to teach people to obey what Jesus taught.
We have the going to the people in the nations, and we also have the teaching of the people in the nations. It is not an either/or scenario, but rather a both/and situation. Jesus did so much teaching that we have emphasized this aspect. But we miss out on the fact that Jesus actively connected with people through tangible action—healing, touching, doing mission work. His commission to us would therefore have to include both parts of growing in Him, knowing and doing, learning and serving, discipleship and mission.
When the disciples were most filled with joy was when they returned from doing mission work. Jesus had taught them for a period of time then sent them out on their own to engage in ministry to people in need. They came back energized in their faith, and more deeply believing what Jesus had taught them—they had seen the teaching in action!
We can read Scripture about love, do a word study on the different types of love, enjoy a small group discussion on love and what it means in our life, listen to an insightful sermon on applying the concept of love in our lives, and meditate on a thoughtful devotion regarding love. But until we actually go about loving another person, loving those around us, then we won’t truly have learned what love is, learned to love. This could be applied to any other concept in the Bible.
Excuse the awkward phrasing, but in order to understand love—to “be” loving, we need to “do” love. Reading and living, studying and doing, both sides go together. Focusing on one to the exclusion of the other shortchanges Scripture, limits growth in Christ, and derails development of disciples.
God gave us plenty of information about His desire for us—enough data regarding His plan for us, but in sending Jesus to earth, God placed the purpose in action, made it tangible. And in doing so, God gave us an ultimate example of how to grow, how to serve. As we go, we learn. As we teach, we learn. As we learn, we go. As we study, we go. Missions and discipleship are two sides of the same spiritual coin, to be invested and spent in the economy of God’s Kingdom.