When it comes to the Great Commission, there are basically three responses a church can have. A church can do nothing, something, or one thing.
A church that does nothing believes the Great Commission does not apply to them. In other words, they make the argument that the command of Jesus to His disciples then was for a particular people in a particular time and has no direct implications to Christians today. Therefore their church members are off the hook, so to speak, when it comes to making disciples. The exceptions to this principle are the “great” Christians who obey the command of Christ to make disciples. The “great” aspect of the Great Commission refers to the elite special forces of the Christian faith which, of course, excludes most, if not all, of us.
This response also attempts to use seemingly good theological arguments to make their case. God is sovereign, and He’s got the whole salvation thing under control. He does not need our help. If He wants more disciples, He will make it happen. This argument, although is partly true, actually does not really appreciate the sovereignty of God as it is revealed in Scripture. God is not only sovereign over the ends but also the means as well. God will make it happen, and He will do so by making it happen through means—through His people who are called to join Him on mission. Playing the sovereignty card on doctrinal table is an ungodly way to justify disobedience to the commands of Christ.
Another option is for a church to do something. A church can be busy doing good and making accomplishments, but they are unclear about the Great Commission. When that happens, alternative missions or purposes surface to shadow or eclipse the mission of Jesus for His church. This is how a church becomes a purveyor of goods and services. Their mission morphs to maintaining customer satisfaction, so their passion is satisfying the preferences of their members through the multiplicity of products, programs, and activities. Tucked in the midst of all that will be some form of disciple-making, usually in the form of an auxiliary program or 12-week classroom study.
This is where I believe most of the churches are today. They are not discounting the validity of the Great Commission. But what has happened is that it has become truncated and marginalized when the church decides to live on maintenance mode, pursuing the preferences of members and folks in the community through the consumer mentality of goods and services. A lot of stuff is happening, and a lot of energy is being expended, but at the end of the day, very few disciples of Jesus are made.
Doing One Thing
Another response for a church is to simply do one thing. A church decides that their mission is defined by the Great Commission. They recognize that Jesus died for the church, Jesus is the Head of the church, and Jesus has left His church with clear directions on what He wants the church to be about. Everything is assessed and examined through the Great Commission. Churches who do this one thing are stubborn and devoted to the cause of making, maturing, and multiplying disciples of Jesus. By saying “yes” to the Great Commission, they recognize they are saying “no” to a host of a lot of other good things that don’t comport with the work and mission of the church. It is not a matter of being rude or insensitive but rather simple, clear, and direct.
Someone once said that it does not matter the superior quality of the bow or the amazing strength of the archer or the incredible distance the arrow flies if it does not hit the target. Jesus gave us the target in the Great Commission. We can open up a supermarket of bows and arrows, and we can offer exercise training to increase strength and stamina to shoot with the bow, but at the end of the day, if we are not hitting the target as a church, then it really doesn’t matter what else we do.
Steward the Struggle
This is where we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. As a church, are we hitting the target? Are we making disciples of Jesus? More pointedly, are we making disciples who make disciples of Jesus? The sobering fact is that I don’t know of a single church who does not struggle with this. The difference is there are those who want to grow through their struggles while there are others who, unfortunately, are happy to substitute some other target other than the Great Commission that is easier to hit. A proper handling, or stewardship, of the struggle means that we deal honestly with our challenges that recognize our dependence on Christ and our determination to keep the main thing the main thing, even when we are not that great at it.
In other words, it is far worse to succeed in what Jesus doesn’t care about than to struggle with what He has commissioned us to do. If we are a church who loves Jesus, then we will not allow inconsequential successes to tempt us to stray away from the mission He has entrusted us to accomplish. We ought to be a people who know the target, aim for it, and when we miss, don’t look for an easier target but resolve to learn from Jesus and lean on Jesus to be the people He has called us to be.
[Note: This article is the introduction to my sermon on the Great Commission preached at Grace 08.25.2013]