In Acts 18, we get to see the narrative slow down and watch Paul and his companions get down to the work of turning converts into disciples. Much of Acts is about Paul’s travels, troubles and sermons. We see him enter a town, give a speech, win some people to Christ and then get chased out of town the next day. You might start to get the impression that this is all that the apostles did, or that this is what the church today should be all about - fast, passionate evangelism that converts people to the faith.
That is certainly a leading model that we see in churches today. Pastors are always trying to “expand their audience” to reach the unchurched. Churches bill themselves as seeker-friendly - places where non-Christians can easily fit in and discover the faith. Many congregations have begun abandoning Sunday School and other programs designed to train Christians up in favor of more worship services, since that brings more people in the door.
And, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with seeking to save the lost! It is a key part of the church’s mission. But it is easy at times to forget it is only part of the mission. The commandment of Christ to the church was not to “go and make converts of all nations…” but to make disciples.
Perhaps one reason we forget about this is that we don’t send enough time talking about the difference between the two. Converts are people who have converted: they have accepted Christ and His grace and have been baptized, but they haven’t begun to mature in their faith, or even to understand it. They are baby Christians - they still require guidance, hand-holding and someone else to feed them the Word if they are to grow.
Disciples, on the other hand, are disciplined followers of Christ. Not only have they accepted salvation, they have begun to understand it. They read the Word themselves, they pray, and are able to grow without the constant supervision of others. Converts are raw recruits who require the steady hand of the drill sergeant. Disciples are veterans ready to be deployed.
In Acts 18 we get to see Paul take his time and invest in people - helping these new converts become the men and women of God has called them to be. Paul is able to spend a year training up this new church (which he will write at least 4 letters to over the years). Priscilla and Aquila go on to disciple Apollos - who later becomes an apostle and may well have written the book of Hebrews. All the while Paul is training Timothy - who later becomes a bishop of the church - to follow in his footsteps.
As we read about Paul’s work, we should remember that we are all called to the same mission. We are called to make disciples - first by becoming ones ourselves, but then by helping to train up others in the faith. In that, each of us will have our strengths. Some of us are called to be evangelists, others to be Sunday School teachers. Many of us are parents, with the responsibility of raising our children to be followers of Christ. Some will find their niche with the elderly, others with college students.