As Christians, how do we define the Great Commission?
This task, given by the risen, victorious Christ to his disciples, is correctly understood to be the definitive mission statement for the Church. As such, rightly understanding the Great Commission is of utmost importance for every Christian. Yet there are significant differences on how it is understood. How, for example, do we know when it has been accomplished? Christians don't measure the completion of this task in the same way, and the differences aren't trivial.
The predominant view in evangelical circles is that the Great Commission will be completed once churches are planted in the remaining unreached people groups. But does this comport with what Jesus actually told us to do? He said “make disciples of all nations” and “teach them to obey all I have commanded.” These tasks do not equate to making converts and planting churches.
Certainly, we cannot fulfill the Great Commission without evangelization—without people experiencing spiritual regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we cannot complete the Great Commission without planting local congregations among unreached people groups. These are hugely important goals and are not to be minimized. Yet, by themselves, they are not enough.
To put it another way, you cannot accomplish the Great Commission without saving souls and planting churches—but you can win souls and plant churches without accomplishing the Great Commission.
In fact, this is arguably the central problem we face in Christian missions today. Many of these so-called “completed” nations remain desperately broken. They are rife with poverty, corruption and injustice. For example, approximately two-thirds of Rwanda's citizens were in church the Sunday in April 1994 before the genocide erupted in which over a half million people perished. Yet Rwanda before the genocide was seen by many as a shining example of the Great Commission completed. Another example is Guatemala: one of the poorest, most corrupt and most evangelized nations in the Western Hemisphere.
For that matter, can we consider the Great Commission fulfilled in the West? Consider the post-Christian societies of Western Europe. Or even America where, as John S. Dickerson has recently pointed out, 2.6 million people are leaving the church every decade, and “the fastest growing sub-cultures…express a militant antagonism against Christians who take the Bible seriously.”
Clearly, something is terribly wrong—but what? After years of reflection on this question, I've come to see the problem this way. The Church has largely been aiming at the wrong target. Saving souls and planting churches are essential first steps in fulfilling the Great Commission. They are not the end goal.
The Great Commission requires us to make disciples, not just converts. It involves training believers to be like Christ by obeying all of His commands. And because Christ is Lord over all, it involves bringing God's truth to bear on every sphere of society and every arena of public life. This is what it means to “make disciples of all nations”….
The narrow view of saving souls and planting churches among unreached people groups has another significant shortcoming. It limits the task to a tiny minority of the Church: those who are called to cross-cultural, pioneer church planting. Are we to assume that Christ gave the Great Commission only to these people, as important as their task is? What about the rest of the Church? But if the Great Commission is understood in the broader way of discipling nations to reflect the truth, goodness and beauty of God's Kingdom, then we are all called to the mission Christ gave. We all have a vital role to play in bringing blessing and joy to the world—to every nation on earth.