Making Disciples in All Nations
by John Edward Nuessle
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Matthew 28:19 is a clear directive from Jesus to his followers. But what does it mean for us today to “make disciples of all nations”? As we consider the realities of our sisters and brothers in Southeast Asia or Mongolia, in the small nations of Central America, or in African cities and rural villages, what does it mean for our 10-million-member denomination to make disciples across the seas as well as across the street?
Many biblical principles of church growth and development guide the United Methodist Mission Initiatives program in forming regional structures for annual conferences. Creating broad conference structures makes it possible to gather disciples not just in scattered places but in all nations. The first century Palestinians, Greeks, and Romans had a different understanding of the word “nation” than we do today. For them, “nations” meant sociological groups of people rather than sovereign states with defined political borders.
The Value of the Vine
From John 15: 1-11, we understand that no individual branch of a vine bears fruit without being connected to the whole vine. A single branch does not have the capacity to draw up its own nourishment from the earth. Similarly, for local worshiping congregations to grow and bear fruit, they need to be intimately connected to the whole church—structurally as well as conceptually. Therefore, by forming an annual conference as a nourishing base, we are able to plant local churches that grow and expand into other local churches. The conference connects these churches, providing the necessary resources for each.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul proclaims that all parts of the body make significant contributions to the working of the whole. Thus we know that each organization, as well as each person, has gifts for the whole church and adds to its growth. In this same way, all of the churches in an annual conference encourage and support the disciple-making growth of each worshiping fellowship in their geographic region.
New church planting is mostly a matter of leadership development. Paul states in Ephesians 4:11-13 that the work of the whole church is the equipping of the indigenous church leaders (“the saints”) for ministry. They, in turn, will work together in building up the whole body of Christ. In United Methodism, an annual conference is the agency through which all the church leaders in a specific area are offered opportunities for development and growth in their discipleship.
Matthew 28:19 provides a blueprint for congregational development. Christ’s disciples are told to go and make disciples of all nations through baptism, teaching, and the proclamation of God’s presence in the world. Our church mission statement mirrors this command: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“Of all nations” is a key phrase here. It implies that disciples are not limited to an exclusive local context but are sent out to work among specific groups of people. In fact, Matthew 28:19 is actually a biblical call to create an infrastructure for the church in all parts of the world, connecting faithful Christians in one place with new Christians in all other places. Church leaders are called to move into a whole new culture or society, working among a whole people or nation and seeking to grow the church there from a corporate and communal basis. Their goal is not just scattered groups of converts but the forging of regional and national church connections in the United Methodist tradition of holy conferencing.
God’s Mission is “glocal,” to use a business term coined 30 years ago. It integrates the local and the global in all aspects, strategies, and methodologies. Missionaries go from everywhere to everywhere. Leaders in new mission areas are trained and facilitated in their work by effective practitioners, or mentors, from other newly developed churches.
Connecting the Church in Mission, which is the biblical model of church planting, is Global Ministries’ theological and programmatic theme. In response to our strong disciplinary calling, national churches—new places for new people—have thus far been created in 17 nations through our Mission Initiatives program. We make disciples of all nations by linking Christian communities together through a connectional system (as in John 15 and 1 Corinthians 12). As of last fall, nearly 400 new worshiping fellowships and faith communities had been planted in our 2009-2012 quadrennium, building on the 400 established in previous years.
The intention of United Methodist Mission Initiatives is that most of these new mission areas will be formed into new United Methodist annual and central conferences. Or, some may choose to develop as autonomous Methodist communions. This exciting work of frontier evangelism has inspired a passionate response from local churches, districts, and annual conferences in the United States and Europe. Members of these bodies participate in evangelism in many ways: as mission volunteers; in prayerful and financial support for missionaries; and with support for a wide variety of projects that address the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs of new Christians.
A vital network of US and European United Methodist organizations has formed partnerships with various mission initiatives through the “In Mission Together” program. A team of coordinators related to the Advance office organizes annual consultations and training events in which both Mission Initiative members and supporters participate. Together, the partners are working toward mutually sustainable approaches to ensure the health and growth of new disciples and new churches in nations around the globe.
The Rev. Dr. John E. Nuessle recently retired from Global Ministries. He served as Associate General Secretary, Mission and Evangelism, and coordinated the work of the United Methodist Mission Initiatives.
Velouis Melvil plants beans in the rural Haitian village of Mizak, where the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is combating hunger by helping farmers increase their crop yields. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
Beryl Kindred examines a handful of wheat berries during harvest at his farm in Medford, Oklahoma. Photo: Mike DuBose/UMNS