We do not need to get better about make disciples. We need to realign our lives around making disciples. In The Rise and Fall of Movements, Steve Addison puts it this way: “Incremental change does not require that we let go of control. Deep change does. Deep change demands we see the world differently and act according to a new paradigm. It requires something of us: we must surrender control and go on a journey. Deep change requires a shift in our identity.” We need deep change and not just improvement. We need to abandon our own stories for the sake of God’s story. This requires more than simple participation in God’s story. It requires a complete reshuffling of your identity around a mission that was given to you by the Lord of all the earth. Mere participation in Christ’s mission while still living in the paradigm of your own life’s story is not enough, even if your own story is aimed at pleasing God.
So then what is God’s story? How do you change your paradigm?
It is paramount that we understand the vision of our Father in heaven and make that vision our own. He reveals his heart and will to us with clarity from Genesis to Revelation in which we see a continuous story that is moving toward its glorious completion. Genesis 1 tells us that God created man and woman in his own image. He immediately told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. From the beginning of creation, God set a plan in motion to bring his own image and glory to the ends of the earth. Sin tainted this image and by the time we get to Genesis 6, it is only evil that is multiplying over the face of the earth. Through the flood, God started over with Noah and his family. The mandate was the same: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God wanted his righteousness and name to spread over the face of the earth. When the people converged to make a name for themselves instead of dispersing to make a name for God, God confused their languages and scattered them. He chose Abram and his descendants to form the nation of Israel, promising that “all families of the earth shall be blessed”. He then claims Israel as his “kingdom of priests” to connect all people to himself. He continues to redeem them, set them apart, and make them a light to the nations with a vision that his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas. He promises a Messiah to be born unto them to redeem them and reconcile all things back to God. The scope of this mission is clear in the prophecy of Jesus in Isaiah 49:6: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation my reach to the end of the earth.” We haven’t even reached the New Testament yet and it is already abundantly clear that God’s mission is for his name and glory to reach all nations. The consistent theme is that he wants to use his people to accomplish this! It does not change as we enter the New Testament. The promised Savior arrives. His name is Jesus. He continues the same story by calling the disciples in Mark 1:17 saying, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Jesus models for his disciples how to fish for men, equipping them to pursue righteousness and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God. He says he was sent by the Father to “seek and save the lost”. He sends his disciples out on multiple occasions to seek and save the lost. He tells them where the story is headed in Matthew 24:14: “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” He prepares them for what is coming and equips them to multiply his kingdom, showing them how to be faithful to this mission even unto death on a cross. The cross provided a way of salvation through Jesus so that the nations might be reconciled to God and praise him. After his death and resurrection, he sends the disciples out to make disciples of all nations and promises to be with them. He gives them assurance that by the Holy Spirit’s power, they will be his witnesses starting in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts shows how they continued the work that had been set into motion. Disciples are made, churches are formed, and leaders are raised up. The kingdom of God multiplies. Most of the rest of the New Testament consists of letters that were written to the resulting churches and leaders, encouraging them to continue in the faith and conduct themselves in an appropriate manner given the purpose of God. Finally, God’s purpose is accomplished. He wins. Revelation 7:9-10 says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” God’s perfect purpose that was set into motion from the beginning of time is finally accomplished. This plan and purpose is summarized wonderfully in Ephesians 1:7-10: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is the story that is being accomplished, and God desires to use his people to finish it. All of history is moving toward the completion of this mission. There is coming a day when there will be no place left in the world where the gospel has not been preached. The bride of Christ will be complete with every nation, the mission of God will be accomplished, and Jesus will return in glory to reign! This is referred to by many as the “storyline of history”. In the midst of a billion stories going on at once in our world, this is the one that will prevail!
Just like any book, your life has a storyline to it which shapes your identity. We each care deeply about our own story and where it is heading. As the story of your life unfolds, several questions are answered: Where did you live? Where did you go to school? Who were your best friends? Who did you marry? What did you do as a career? Where did you go to church? What did you do in your free time? How many kids did you have? What did your kids do? And so on. You likely seek the guidance of God for your story, trusting his sovereign plan for your life. Much prayer time is devoted to seeking the will of God in several key life areas: “Who does God want me to marry? Where does God want me to go to school? What job does God want me to have?” These are good questions to ask, but don’t you see how it’s still your story? We seek the will of God, but we primarily do so as it relates to our stories. What if God’s perfect plan for your life is not to fill in the gaps of your story, but to give you life in the abandonment of your story for his? Jesus addresses this in Matthew 6:31-33: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” God is consumed by his story, and he wants to release you from the demands and worries of your own story to be a part of it. The paradigm shift takes place when you start looking at yourself as a character in God’s book rather than your own – not just a passive character, but an active one with a key part to play in the fulfillment of the plot.
We just discovered from scripture that God’s overarching storyline of the universe is the redemption of people from all nations and the spread of his glory to the ends of the earth. The authority of scripture is the starting point to forming our paradigm. We are not left to wonder what God might want us to do. Unfortunately, we often still act as if it is unclear. We tend to examine our own personal strengths and then choose our own mission to serve God based on how we think those strengths are meant to be used. Instead of determining your mission based on what you are good at, let scripture determine the mission and then jump into that game. In that context, you’ll find that your strengths play out in a much more eternal, meaningful way, and you won’t find yourself guessing what God wants you to do with your life. So how do we realign our lives so that this mission of God is the paradigm in which we live rather than a subplot taking place in the background? Does it mean participating in actively sharing the gospel and making disciples? Absolutely, but it means much more than that. It means that every aspect of your life is no longer your life but a living sacrifice. It means that your life is the subplot, and every decision in your life is now decided based on what is best for you to effectively make disciples. Instead of asking what the next step in your life is and attempting to serve God in it, start asking what the next step is to move toward finishing the task of God’s grand purpose. Then align with that. No matter what. If the next step toward accomplishing God’s mission is to go knock on your neighbor’s door and share the gospel, go knock today. If the next step is to learn how to share the gospel, ask someone to train you. If the next step is to restructure the discipleship pattern of your small group so that it can multiply, consider how you might do that. If the next step is to read the Bible with coworkers, reach out to them about it. If the next step is to quit your job, quit your job. If the next step is to move to a dangerous country, start packing. When you live as a character in God’s story, you have nothing on this earth that is tying you down or taking priority in front of this. It’s not reckless. It’s what Jesus asks of those who want to follow him. Is he worth it to you?
“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” Luke 9:57-62
We tend to respond like the men who approached Jesus in Luke 9. We want to follow Jesus and proclaim the kingdom of God, but we want to do it on our own time. We have other things going on that take priority. None of them are bad, but we spend our time doing good things instead of the best thing. There are many believers who are eager to participate in making disciples, but they stop when life gets busy or circumstances change in their own life story. We like to call it “seasons of life”. We may think we are in a career season, so we focus only on our jobs and forget about making disciples. We may think we are in a season of searching for a spouse, so we join a church with more single ladies instead of the one where we can be most effective for God’s kingdom. But the mission doesn’t change just because your own life is in a different season. In fact, there is only one season for a follower of Christ because you are on a different storyline now. That is the season of loving God and loving others by making disciples of all nations until you die or finish the task. If something is getting in the way of you doing that, get rid of it. Don’t get caught in the thorns and cares of this world. Hebrews 12:1 says for us to throw off everything that hinders, including sin, and run the race marked out for us. This is not your own race. This is the race that has been going on since the beginning of time and will one day be complete when every tribe and tongue stands before the throne of Jesus. What a glorious race it is, and what a glorious finish it will be!
I want to make one more distinction which may sound redundant at this point. Participating in God’s mission is not the same thing as living for God’s mission. It must become your identity. For example, look at Paul. He addresses the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” He knew exactly what it meant to abandon his own storyline for the eternal will of God. Making disciples was not just something he did; it was his identity. His life was a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) in which he lost his life for Jesus and the gospel (Mark 8:35). If someone asked you who Paul was, what would you say? Would you describe him as an educated Jewish tentmaker who enjoyed mission trips and outreach with his church? Doesn’t that sound weird? It’s because his identity was in the mission of God and not in his own story or accomplishments. I’ll ask the same question about Ronald Reagan. How would you describe him? It would certainly be weird to describe him as an American man who enjoyed sports, acting, and engaging in United States political affairs. Did he engage in political affairs, or was he president of the United States? That’s the key distinction between doing and being. Christians are called not only to make disciples, but to be disciple-makers. It should be what you live and breathe. It should be the very core of your identity. I don’t want to be an accountant who enjoys hockey, spending time with family, and participating in outreach efforts with my church. I want to be an ambassador of Christ. Many believers will participate in outreach efforts and mission trips with great joy and passion. Praise God for that! But the paradigm never shifts.
One day, your story will end. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it ends in death. The only way that doesn’t happen is if Jesus returns before then. Either way, nothing will matter from your story at that point. When you stand before God and look into your Savior’s eyes, what will matter? Why wait until then to make eternity your only focus? Don’t just let your life story intersect with God’s story while you participate in his mission as much as you can. Don’t just let God’s story show up in your book. And don’t let your personal strengths determine what God’s personal mission is for you. His mission is clear. Instead, ask yourself what it will take to move toward the completion of the grand purpose of history. Throw out your own story and live according to a new paradigm.
Note: If you feel this tension and want to shift your paradigm, then take action! In T4T, Steve Smith writes that “conviction does not equal obedience.” Obedience to Christ means you must get in the game! Much of the “paradigm shift” occurs not before, but after we begin living it. Come with me! God has been working over the last few years to help me throw out my own story and live for His. It is a work in progress, but I am continuing to learn to abide in Christ and commit to God’s mission. I would love to help you find your first (or next) steps into this great venture as we run this race alongside each other. My wish is not just for you to come out in the harvest or share the gospel with your sphere of influence. I’m not just hoping to get you to lead trainings or start new discipleship groups. But I can assure you that committing to these things may be some of the first action steps into living a new identity as an ambassador. As that identity is formed, you may actually find that you want to do nothing but these things. Come see God at work, and don’t just participate. Realign your life!