In an October 2017 study, Barna Research uncovered a rather strange, rather revealing statistic: over half (51%) of surveyed churchgoers say they have never even heard of the Great Commission (GC), Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20 (echoed similarly in Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:46-48, and Acts 1:8). Only 37% could pick it out from a list of verses. Only 1 in 6 (17%) responded that they had heard of the GC and could tell you what it is.
As ugly as those statistics are, the reality of the situation is possibly even worse. In my experience, even among that 17% who are familiar with the GC, the majority don’t properly understand it. The common view of Jesus’ assignment is that it is our mandate to practice evangelism. The fact of the matter is…
The Great Commission is not about evangelism.
At least not exclusively.
Yes, evangelism is a big part of the GC, but when you break down the structure of Jesus’ words, you’ll see it’s far bigger than evangelism. When properly understood, it’s a fully-formed charter for the church. Let’s take a look.
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”
Make disciples is the command. Go(ing), baptizing, and teaching are the participles that explain how we carry out the command. Going and baptizing are the evangelistic element. But notice that “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” comes after baptism. This is important.
Why does it matter? Isn’t this just nitpicking?
It matters greatly. The “teaching” participle is the key to properly understanding the Great Commission. When we practice that part, we see the genius of God’s plan. When we neglect it, or take the evangelism-only view we reap the consequences of stopping short, not unlike Israel when they stopped short of clearing out the land of Canaan.
Taking the evangelism-only view of the GC leads to divergent purposes and priorities. If the GC is nothing more than a command to be evangelistic, then it’s just one of many things we need to do. And that’s usually how it’s taken – we are to evangelize, edify, be benevolent, etc. When we see our task as converting people and bringing them to maturity in following Jesus, further evangelism is part of the package, as is the edification of the saints, as is benevolent service. Mature Jesus followers practice all of these things, and God has uniquely equipped different members to do a better job at these varied tasks than a select few at the top.
Taking the evangelism-only view of the GC keeps people from reaching their God-intended maturity. In Ephesians 4:11-16 Paul gives us a practical look at what it looks like to carry out the forgotten third leg of the GC cycle (go-baptize-teach, and teaching them includes teaching them to go-baptize-teach). Those who have been taught and grown to maturity in roles of leadership and teaching were put in that position to equip everybody else to work and build up the body. The end goal is for everybody to come to maturity in Christ, because as the various “parts” of the body we all have something to contribute.
When we separate evangelism from disciple-making, rarely do we see a new convert come to full maturity as a fellow worker. If we view our GC job done by baptizing them and getting them to come to church, we won’t keep going until they’ve come to maturity as a contributing member. As a result, we have the old adage that 90% of the work of the church is done by 10% of the members.
Taking the evangelism-only view of the GC is the very best way to make sure a revival stops at one generation. When we go and baptize without teaching, the numbers go up but the growth does not perpetuate itself. When we don’t grasp the entirety of the GC cycle, evangelists don’t make more evangelists, they make more customers. For this reason, modern evangelism is akin to marketing, trying to attract customers to come to a building and keep on coming. A fully-formed GC practice doesn’t create customers for a business. It creates children to bring into a family, to be raised up to contribute to and perpetuate the growth of family.
When we talk about the need to properly emphasize the GC, evangelism is a big part of it, yes. But it’s not the only part. Rather than merely emphasizing the GC as a practice to add, we would do well to re-orient ourselves around it as the center of our work as individual Christians and as the church as a whole.