Darrow Miller and Friends

Discipling a Nation? Really?

Per the FAQ on the DNA website, “Discipling Nations Alliance is a worldwide alliance of Christian individuals, local churches and organizations committed to a common vision for church-based cultural transformation.” That’s another way to say what our name indicates: the goal is to see nations discipled, per Jesus’ Great Commission as expressed in Matthew 28:19.

But the concept of discipling a nation strikes some ears as strange. Some people object to, or even scoff at, the idea of discipling a nation. Jesus wasn’t talking about nations as a whole, they say, he was talking about discipling individuals in the nations. Often, such objections are rooted in one of two misconceptions.

Is discipling a nation a different gospel?

Sometimes, by a misreading of the DNA message, people imagine that “discipling a nation” is a different gospel, an alternative to preaching the biblical message that humans are hopelessly lost, and only by repenting and trusting in Christ’s finished work can an individual be born again. That core message of the gospel undergirds everything the DNA is about. Discipling a nation must begin with discipling individuals, with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of one who responds in repentance and faith to the gospel.

Here’s the difference between discipling an individual and discipling a nation: the former is the beginning of the process, the latter is the end.

In a way, the idea of discipling nations is not different from a ministry model often discussed in missionary circles, i.e. “saturation church planting.” One ministry, Global Church Planting Mission, points out that, “Saturation means to fill up one substance with the greatest possible amount of another substance; to soak thoroughly.” The site goes on to define Saturation Church Planting as “Purposely placing the greatest possible number of gatherings of called out believers into every populated region in every nation of the world.” They want to “soak the nations with churches.”

That’s a common link with the notion of discipling nations or societies. Both strategies envision a broad sweep of biblical influence on a society.

Having said that, the two models—saturation church movements and discipled nations—are not merely different ways to say the same thing. One focuses on believers gathered; the other on believers scattered.

This graphic helps to picture what the DNA means by discipling nations. Again, at its heart, the process entails the necessity of the new birth in the lives of individuals. Only then can biblical faith, expressed through loving service and cultural engagement, grow into and through a society for large-scale change. This is pictured by Jesus’ parable of the leaven, and yes, this has happened. More on that below.

discipling a nation starts with regenerated individuals

Does discipling a nation mean a Christian takeover?

Another reason people push back against the notion of “discipling nations” is that they imagine a marriage of theology and politics, a movement to take over a nation and enforce Christianity at multiple levels, something like Constantine did in the fourth century. Philip Schaff describes Constantine as “the first representative of the imposing idea of a Christian theocracy, that system of policy which assumes all subjects to be Christians, connects civil and religious rights, and regards church and state as the two arms of one and the same divine government on earth.” (History of the Christian Church, vol III, page 12)

Once again, this is a mischaracterization of the idea of a discipled nation. Jesus described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Mat 11:29 ESV). Matthew ascribed to Jesus Christ Isaiah’s prophecy, “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope” (Mat 12:19-21 ESV). Christ came as a servant and mandated servanthood for his disciples.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 ESV

He will come again as a conquering king, but between then and now he calls us to “disciple all the nations, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).

A modern-day example of discipling a nation

As for the question of whether an entire society can be discipled, earlier this year our friends at BreakPoint published a remarkable story which includes this line: “The missionaries who brought Christianity to the Polynesian world wound up transforming an entire society.”

Go here for the unlikely report of “the extraordinary success that 19th and 20th century missionaries had in converting the Samoan people to Christianity.”

  • Gary Brumbelow

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Gary is the Disciple Nations Alliance editorial manager. He manages Darrow Miller and Friends and serves as editor and co-writer on various book projects. For eight years Gary served as a cross-cultural church planting missionary among First Nations people of Canada. His career also includes 14 years as executive director of InterAct Ministries, an Oregon-based church-planting organization in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Gary is a graduate of Grace University, earned an MA from Wheaton College and a Graduate Studies Diploma from Western Seminary. He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, Valerie. They have two married sons and twelve grandchildren. In addition to his work with the DNA, Gary serves as the pastor of Troutdale Community Church.