Not Just “Sheer Believers”
Recently I heard Christian cultural analyst Ken Myers say something that shocked and saddened me: When many evangelicals talk about the Great Commission, what they really mean is not the Great Commission in Matthew 28, but getting people to make an initial salvation decision. Myers said that nowhere does the Bible command us to make “sheer believers” or “mere Christians.”
He’s right. The Great Commission is so much more! In it, Christ commands us to extend the reign of God (God’s kingdom) over people’s lives, making them disciples and teaching them to live as Christ the King commands. The aim of the gospel is God’s creation of a people for His name—a Holy Priesthood and a Royal Nation composed of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. God’s way of raising up a kingdom of priests who will name his name and call others to repentance and faith and kingdom living is summed up in Christ’s Great Commission.
That Great Commission is a commission from Christ the King, whose desire is to extend His rule over people’s lives. That’s why, as Myers points out, just before the “Go therefore” in the Great Commission, Jesus says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” This is the basis for the Great Commission. It is rooted in the purposes of Christ’s kingdom, His rule. And the way he extends His rule is to make people who were once aliens from the commonwealth of Israel into kings and priests who are living out their lives in churches that are outposts of His kingdom here on earth.
This kingdom focus is about evangelizing people to make disciples of Jesus Christ—a people for His name—followers of His who live their lives in accord with His kingship. These gospel disciples are to be made members of the visible body of Christ through baptism—a public identification with Christ symbolizing the reality of death to sin in Christ and miraculous resurrection to a new, cross-bearing life in Christ.
Then the church is charged by Christ to take these Christ-followers who have publicly abandoned a life of sin and have been baptized into Christ to go one giant step further: To fulfill the Great Commission, the church is to engage in a teaching and learning process in which Christ’s followers come to practice His full-orbed teachings. The church is to engage in a process of “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” This involves Christian education—teaching and learning. And it is thorough and holistic—“all things that I have commanded you.” It involves teaching Christ’s baptized disciples the Christian world-and-life-view. And it results in a transformed life that transforms the world around us (“observe”).
Younger Pastors and Leaders
It is disheartening to speak with so many young pastors and church leaders in our denomination who feel that much popular evangelicalism and fundamentalism has truncated Jesus’s Great Commission. It is not just the emergent church that believes the seeker-sensitive movement has failed the church and failed the Great Commission. It is also vibrant, young, conservative pastors and church leaders who see a glaring disconnect between the full-orbed Great Commission of Christ and the easy, niche-marketing techniques of contemporary evangelicalism.
Younger evangelical Tullian Tchividjian gives voice to this growing segment of younger evangelicals in his book Unfashionable. He argues persuasively that we have been trying too hard to be like the world to win the world, and this has gutted the evangelical church of its faithfulness and effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission. No longer can the church simply baptize pop culture, he argues. Younger people are too quick to see through that.
Failing to Produce Disciples
In their “Reveal” study a few years ago, Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church acknowledged that the seeker-sensitive model, while it had succeeded in getting numbers of new members, had failed in producing true disciples (though what they seem to be doing with this realization is moving in a more emergent direction). What this means is that, even though many evangelical churches are getting more people on the membership roster, they are failing to fulfill the Great Commission.
Of course, God desires higher numbers of disciples. But increasing numbers on the roll is not the goal. It’s only a means to the end of fulfilling the Great Commission. The problem with much current evangelical practice is that it short-circuits Great Commission fulfillment in its efforts to reach larger numbers.
This creates a short-term feeling of success. We can pat ourselves on the back because we have used shallow marketing and entertainment techniques to manipulate people into accepting a Christ that is remade in the image of consumer culture, a Christ that is accepted only because religious customers who are in the market for religious goods and services believe He can meet their felt needs, which are often very similar to their consumer tastes and desires.
But this approach will fail in the long-run, because it is not Great-Commission-driven. This leads Michael Horton, in his book A Better Way, to say that, in their attempt to reach the lost, market-driven evangelicals are ending up losing the reached! But this is the consequence of subtly manipulating people into an emotional decision for Christ based on shallow marketing and entertainment techniques rather than practicing Jesus’s own Great Commission.
Deep Disciples Produce New Disciples
Only when we make true disciples who can disciple others will we have a Great Commission movement in our churches and culture—the sort we saw in the awakenings and great missions movements of history. These movements occurred only at the times when the church was the most set-apart from the world, consecrated to Christ, and deep in the faith. Yet the shallow evangelism, worship, preaching, and teaching of a worldly, customer-friendly evangelicalism produces—at best—“sheer believers,” “mere Christians” who are spiritually anemic and cannot reproduce themselves.
Surveys bear this out. As the Barna Group has said over and over again, only 19 percent of people claiming to be born again have a Christian worldview. And not more than 25 percent tithe; attend church, read the Bible, and pray on a regular basis; and witness and invite people to church. And yet 85 percent of unchurched people who join churches do so because of the influence of a Christian friend or family member. What this means is that 25 percent of Christians are winning 85 percent of new believers!
The math suggests that the best way to increase the number of new believers is to increase the number of deep, core church members. Eighty-five percent of the new believers are joining because of the witness of 25 percent of existing believers.
Discipleship Beyond Entry-Level Christianity
Yet too often pastors feel pressured to dumb down the worship and teaching of their congregations to placate people who are in the 25 percent furthest from the core, whom the pastors are worried might leave for a church that will better cater to their consumer tastes.
So we are less likely to be singing the Bible, reading the Bible, praying the Bible, and preaching the Bible with depth and substance, as Ligon Duncan has said. Many of our Sunday schools are becoming superficial and devoid of biblical doctrine and theology. Many of our youth programs are increasingly lacking in serious scriptural teaching and preaching. We are amusing ourselves to death. As Leroy Forlines is fond of reminding us, the church can get by on “entry-level Christianity” only so long.
Yet depth and substance are just what the 25 percent core are longing for! They’re spiritually atrophying on the milk diet of entry-level Christianity that we’re giving them in Sunday school, in our singing, in our praying, and in our preaching. We should be doing everything we can to increase the percentage of these people in our congregations, because, if the statistics are accurate, the more of these core believers we have in our churches, the more people will receive Christ. In other words, the more deep disciples we produce, the more new disciples will be made!
Yet we don’t have to have statistics to find this out. It’s in the Great Commission. That is God’s plan for multiplying His church. He wants to replicate His kingdom of priests by extending His rule over more and more people, as they become ardent followers of Him, renouncing their former lives, being baptized as a testimony to their death to a life of sin and the radical reorienting of their lives in Christ, and being taught to live out their lives in obedience to all Christ’s commands.
These disciples will be reproducing disciples, disciple-making disciples, evangelistic disciples. This is Jesus’s way of spreading His gospel. This is His way of evangelizing the world. It is His way of building His church. Let’s recommit ourselves to practicing the Great Commission!
This post was originally published in December-January 2009-10 issue of ONE Magazine.