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How to Reclaim the Great Commission

Apr 21, 22
JMorgan
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2 comments

Indulge a hypothetical.  What would churches look like today, what would Christians be doing differently, if most hadn’t outsourced the Great Commission?  How much better would the perception of churches be and how much more impact would churches be having?

A recent Barna study found that 39% of Christians are not engaged at all in discipleship, with 37% of those reporting they didn’t feel equipped and another 46% expressing a lack of interest.  Even among those involved, the majority are in discipleship communities, but most small groups don’t provide enough intensity or accountability for effective disciple making.  Biblical discipleship, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”, is too large an ask of church consumers and cultural Christians.  So churches accommodate, replacing personal discipleship with lighter forms that foster fellowship and breed loyalty.

Pastors now bear the bulk of the load, simply asking members to invite friends and family to a weekend service.  If churchgoers reclaimed their rightful Great Commission responsibilities, it would free up church leadership to spearhead disciple multiplication (the Lord’s math) rather than pouring so much energy and resources into Sunday mornings (i.e. addition).  The chicken or egg dilemma is who will take the initiative first to reverse expectations based on the biblical definition of “church”, positioning members as Kingdom employees (expected to perform) rather than as “customers” (expecting pastors to perform).

The dearth of discipleship from lowering expectations of churchgoers opened the door to outsourcing compassion to governments and parachurch ministries.  Discipleship and compassion are inextricably linked by the Great Commandment – if you love God you will obey Him and love your neighbor.  Jesus’ parables about the sheep and goats and the rich man and poor beggar make it clear that it’s nearly impossible to be a Christ-follower and ignore the materially poor.  Jesus, the Lord incarnate, spoke the perfect words yet knew words were not enough.  He almost always healed and fed, demonstrating His love, before telling people who He is (i.e. the Gospel).  We can’t outpreach Jesus so we should follow His example.  It’s no surprise that when churches scale back discipleship they nearly always pull away from local missions, shifting focus from equipping and sending to attracting and retaining.

What if the opposite happened?  Imagine Christians and churches reclaiming ownership of the Great Commission and, out of an abundance of obedience, resuming their intended place on the front lines of compassion…

Reclaiming Discipleship

What did the early church do?

Cultural Christians and church consumers don’t exist where following Jesus could cost you your life.  Persecution creates rebel bands of revolutionaries who have to support and encourage one another through discipleship.  In times of peace and prosperity, it’s easy to be complacent and let “Christian” become a label more than a way of life.  Churches in America are free to publicly advertise and promote without fear of retribution from hostile governments or religious zealots.

What do most churches do at first?

When there was nothing to lose, few attenders and no buildings, there was little risk and plenty of incentive for church planters to practice biblical discipleship.  Pastors had to connect with the community, didn’t fear losing members, incurred minimal expenses, and singlehandedly needed to raise up other leaders to work toward a shared vision.

Why did that change? 

When the hard yards of disciple-making finally pay dividends for church planters, growth occurred and suddenly there was more at stake – bills, relationships, members, and reputations.  Demands on pastors became more significant while demands on lay leaders and members often diminished.  To keep the machine running, churches can lose their first love, tempted to cheapen grace by settling for belief and engagement without material life change.  It’s not unlike entrepreneurs whose early success stems from laser external focus, until growth causes mission to get clouded by management and money.  Like companies, churches should never lose sight of who they work for (Jesus) and who the customer is (those who don’t know Him).

How can a church return to its biblical roots?

The hypothetical, utopian picture of a church that has reclaimed ownership of the Great Commission is a repentant return to when it first planted:

  • Nowhere else to deflect or defer one’s discipleship responsibilities
  • All hands on deck mentality around evangelism and disciple-making
  • Supporting and serving one another without hierarchies or consumerism
  • Not able or trying to “compete” with other churches’ programs, music or facilities
  • Measuring health based on personal growth in Christ rather than numerical increase
  • Vision and investment in community transformation and Kingdom restoration
  • Unity and partnering with other churches and ministries in light of resource limitations
  • Little concern about “preaching the congregation down” by sharing inconvenient truths
  • All those who stick around are committed disciples with nowhere to hide in a crowd

Imagine the Kingdom impact of a church whose pews are filled with folks like that!  Being an established, larger church doesn’t excuse members offloading the Great Commission onto pastors, churches outsourcing biblical discipleship to external ministries, or congregations creating committees to abdicate responsibility for work everyone should be doing.  No church should grow or evolve out of personal ownership by all staff and members of the guiding principles (to make disciples that transform communities) adopted at its inception.

What are the barriers to reclaiming responsibility for the Great Commission?

A bleeding edge church courageous enough to flip expectations and treat attenders more like employees than customers will lose most “consumers”.  However, there’s value in finding out who’s who – those willing to endure the costs of discipleship and those going through the motions.  Churches, like people, become healthier when they lose excess weight.

Reclaiming Compassion

What did the early church do?

Despite risks of persecution and plagues, Christians served even their oppressors relentlessly and fearlessly, precipitating an explosion in church growth. The Roman emperor Julian wrote, “the impious Galileans, in addition to their own, support ours, and it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.”  Walking in Jesus’ footsteps, the Church occupied the front lines of compassion for 1900 years, serving as the food bank and homeless shelter, founding hospitals and schools.  American churches traditionally plowed a significant portion of their budgets back into their communities, acting as the original social safety net where people turned to for help.

What do most churches do at first?

Church planters need to form connections, create visibility, and demonstrate an interest in seeking the welfare of the city.  Like Jesus, their approach is typically highly relational and often involves serving the materially poor, working with local leaders to make a tangible and lasting difference.  Pastors treat non-members as “customers”, not outsourcing compassion by referring families to government agencies or public charities.  Because poverty is a result of broken relationships, churches are best positioned to provide those who feel isolated with enduring connections to a loving Father and a caring support network.

Why did that change? 

As churches mature, hire staff, and undertake building projects the demands and expenses don’t leave enough time or funds to continue addressing local causes on an ongoing basis.  The average church reinvests less than 2% of giving back into the city where it planted.  The number of volunteers required to sustain an attraction and retention model also diverts requests from external to internal needs.  Church “chores” are limited and frequently vastly underutilize the skills and passions of members, particularly in this day and age when our culture is eager to make a difference in the world.  Poverty alleviation is left to other organizations, with churches “checking the box” through transactional service events that generally do more harm than good.

How can a church return to its biblical roots?

Again here, the hypothetical, utopian picture of a church that follows Jesus’ Prayer-Care-Share model is a repentant return to when it first planted:

  • Realize and teach that Jesus sees helping the poor as a non-negotiable for all believers
  • Train and equip members for evangelism opportunities that arise as they serve the poor
  • Research societal issues, assess member capabilities, and determine avenues for impact
  • Deploy congregants into existing ministries and support worthy initiatives they devise
  • Utilize the church building seven days a week for outreach rather than letting it sit idle
  • Understand why “outsiders” feel disenfranchised, seen as “prospects”, not “customers”
  • Never acquiesce or appeal to consumerism, promoting compassion as the alternative
  • Learn how to help without hurting, not turning away those who come asking for help
  • Become as generous as you expect members to be, giving the first 10%+ to local missions

If you think implementing these principles is impossible, consider that a church is also the 3rd largest charity in the U.S..  If your objection is that the early church separated caring for widows from preaching, consider that responsibility was still housed within the church.

What are the barriers to reclaiming responsibility for the Great Commission?

Churchgoers have grown accustomed to “church as we know it”, unlikely to adapt readily to surrendering the balance of power, relinquishing their status as the center of attention – suddenly morphing into “employees” expected to pursue the real “customer” (those who don’t know Jesus).  It’s not certain many would want to sit next to the materially poor they serve or to lose their parking spot as people flock to a church that practices what it preaches.  Not to mention nearly half of millennials believe sharing their faith is wrong, likely to turn compassion into the “social gospel” where words aren’t deemed necessary.  Most church leaders would also have a hard time reorienting budgets toward a biblical definition of the “customer”, although members would probably become more generous if churches would lead the way.

It’s Your Turn

Have you seen a church repent of outsourcing the Great Commission and return to its original mission and metrics – to make disciples and transform a city by the power of the Holy Spirit?

2 Comments

What I Know Now That I Didn’t Know Then… – Meet The Need Blog  May 5, 2022 at 9:09 am

[…] – When churches are asked how they disciple, most reference small groups, which involve far less personal responsibility, commitment, and accountability than 1-on-1 or triads but don’t foster […]

Do We Have Evangelism Backward? – Meet The Need Blog  July 14, 2022 at 11:26 am

[…] of all those terms will not be easy, nor will selling “cultural Christians” on the idea of reclaiming ownership of the Great Commission.  On top of that, it’s hard to envision overcoming the resistance that has built up against […]

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