I grew up in churches where God called people to only two possible vocations: pastor or missionary. Sometimes people were asked to come to the altar for prayer if they felt “the call”. Often the call to be a missionary was presented as a response to what some call the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
I was okay with this approach because no matter how much I loved the snake stories of missionaries, I felt no call to be a missionary. I was off the hook. But soon the church growth movement exploded and there was this idea that we are called to go—even if that just meant going next door or across the street. All kinds of programs were designed to get evangelicals evangelizing, but most faded without startling results.
Yet the idea church folks should be leading others to Christ stuck around. In some denominations pastors had to report how many people were “won to Christ” each year. We were urged to get out of pews and into the world. Some obliged by not coming back to church. Others just got used to feeling guilty for not “winning souls”.
Church boards and pastors still rack their brains to think of new strategies to reach unbelievers. Churches embrace servant evangelism to try to draw people into the church and give evidence of God’s love for the community. These efforts are almost always 99% service and 1% evangelism. Service is always good; it is not, however, evangelism.
Others seek to be relevant and hip by referencing pop culture. To get beyond the walls, some meet in coffee houses and restaurants. Others are seeker-friendly with rock-n-roll worship and espresso bars in the foyer. Some may attract new Christians, but often people who are already Christians simply shift from one church to another according to their taste in worship and leadership style.
I attend a church that prays often for more effective ways to reach the broken and hurting in Myrtle Point. Tonight we will have the Wednesday night Soup and Sandwiches for the community. It is a great thing—but in the many years we have been feeding folks, it has not resulted in anyone becoming a Christian. The same may be true of Vacation Bible School even though some of the little kids did say a prayer to become a Christian. We usually don’t see any of those kids growing or progressing as Christians. Most disappear after the VBS.
Like many Christians, we take comfort and refuge in the possibility that we have planted a seed—some awareness of God’s love. But our sense of failure to reach others for Christ is palpable. It hangs over our prayer-meetings. After twenty years of praying for effective outreach and having tried a variety of strategies, one has to ask whether we are rightly understanding the Great Commission. Why has it become this great guilt trip that for so many churches and believers?
First, we must ask whether these verses are spoken to every believer or should be applied to just the apostles to whom Jesus was speaking. I believe they primarily apply to the apostles because they are clearly the ones who heard firsthand everything Jesus had commanded. Yet, the apostles and their commission are foundational to the ongoing mission of the church, so the Great Commission does not end with the deaths of the first generation of apostles. Their commission is the mission of the whole church, but not a command given to every believer.
The church equips and trains apostles and evangelists to go to those who have not yet heard the gospel. The church finances their going. Through extravagant generosity toward the persecuted and impoverished, the Church testifies to the love of God in our midst. This love for one another among new Christians draws even more believers to Christ in places new churches have been planted. In all these ways individuals participate in the command to go into the world.
I do not believe, however, that every individual believer is commanded to go or to teach. We see in Acts that the church in Antioch sent some out as missionaries. And Paul is clear that God gives apostles, evangelists, and teachers to the church for the equipping of the saints, so it seems unreasonable to expect all Christians to teach and evangelize. Yet, through prayer, prophecy, and giving, every church can support those who God calls to go.
All believers, however, are called to be salt and light in the world. Salt seasons and preserves the world and light attracts people to Christ—but neither requires going. We are also all called to be prepared “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have” (I Peter 3:15). In other words, the Church is to be such a miracle of love and unity that the world will say, “Whatzzup?” And we will then have an open door to explain what God has done in our lives.
Being shiny and salty is hard enough without feeling guilty that we are not fulfilling the Great Commission. Helping the Church be a miracle of love rather than tragedy of division is a full-time job. And we must also remember how much of the Great Commission is about teaching people to follow Jesus. All who teach others to be disciples are helping the Church fulfill the Great Commission.
It is interesting how seldom Paul, perhaps the Church’s greatest evangelist, exhorts the believers to evangelize their communities. More often, he is concerned that we be “blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights” (Phil. 2:15). In I Thessalonians 4:11 Paul urges believers to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you.”
I understand that this exhortation to lead a quiet life doesn’t resonate with young people today—especially adrenaline junkies. We are a little hesitant to suggest that radical obedience to Jesus might mean (wait for it). . . . . . living a quiet life and faithfully loving God and your neighbor. But I believe by extending the apostolic call to every individual believer—instead of to the church corporately, we turn the Great Commission into the Great Guilt Trip