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The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Drawn from Jesus’ biblical injunction before his ascension in Matthew 28, what could be wrong with our mission statement? Here’s my question: do we make disciples? Isn’t God the one who makes disciples? We cannot make a disciple any more than the Large Hadron Collider can fully recreate the conditions of the early universe. The God particle is reproducible for only the tiniest fraction of a second, if at all. Like the physicists at CERN who seek to create the conditions present in the early universe just before the Big Bang, we in the United Methodist Church can only make the conditions where discipleship might occur.

We do not make disciples. God is in the disciple-making business. We are assistants, facilitators, and helpers in the process. To assume the primary role (I’ll deal with the scriptural mandate in a moment) gives us far more power and authority than we were ever intended to have, hold, or wield as members of the kingdom of God. We do not decide who gets to be a disciple, who gets in, who stays on the fringe, and who is eligible to follow Christ. Jesus made that decision. To hint that we have a lead role in that process is to understand why United Methodism is in the state we are in today. We’ve thought we’re the ones making disciples all this time. Nope, it’s not us. We help. More often than not, we’ve spent the better part of the past fifty years hindering the process. Our job is to help set the right conditions for discipleship to occur, like setting the mood on Valentine’s Day. We buy the roses, a thoughtful card, and some chocolate and make reservations at a nice restaurant. It’s God, however, who seals the deal. United Methodists do not make disciples. God makes disciples.

Well, what about Matthew 28? Didn’t Jesus commission the disciples after the resurrection, in his own words, “to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit”? Yes, that’s what the Bible says. Now, I’m going to say the quiet part out loud. Jesus did say those words, I don’t believe this nor do most mainstream New Testament scholars. They, like I, hold that the man we’ve come to call Matthew, writing fifty to sixty years after Jesus’ death, put those words into Jesus’ mouth. In short, the event did not occur. Jesus didn’t give these instructions while standing on a mountain after his death. It’s an important Biblical story we should reckon with because it has led to well-meaning church planting but also centuries of colonialism and slavery. However, we shouldn’t base our mission statement on a post-resurrection apocalyptic myth.

Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community lived under an interim apocalyptic ethic. They thought Jesus was coming back any day, especially after the Temple’s destruction and the leveling of Jerusalem. For the writer of the second gospel to update Mark’s unfinished ending with such a dramatic conclusion and clear instructions would provide hope to his people until the end finally came. We’re still waiting on that last verse to come true, “the end of the age”. Matthew missed it by a good two thousand years. He also misunderstood how discipleship worked and put words Jesus never said into a scene that never existed in an attempt to give hope to beaten and forlorn people. United Methodists have spent the past fifty years trying to do something we should have been partnering with God to accomplish instead of trying to do ourselves and look where we are.

Here’s an idea: change our mission statement. Even if the church doesn’t change it, change it for yourself. Let’s go back to letting God make disciples. We’ll create the conditions for healthy disciple-making. We don’t need to justify our disciple-making based on Matthew’s resurrection appearance. We’ve got plenty of “come and see” call stories down by the Sea of Galilee that work just fine. Fish for people, take nothing, have conversations, and build relationships. Create the conditions for good relationships and let God do the rest. Assuming the primary responsibility for disciple-making undercuts the very heart of the Wesleyan understanding of Grace. Do we even realize what we’re saying? No, we don’t. It’s time to abandon Matthew’s contradictory proclamations. Let’s get out of the way and let God do the work of discipleship-making.

–Richard Bryant