Why Churches Talk the Great Commission but Don’t Do It

June 17, 2014

By Chuck Lawless

In seventeen years of doing church consulting, no church leader has said to me, “Our church really doesn’t want to do the Great Commission.” I’ve worked with many churches, though, that proclaim the Great Commission but never get around to doing it. Here are my conclusions about why churches so often fit this description.

  1. Church leaders talk the language without letting the biblical texts “sink in.” They speak about the Great Commission because the Bible so obviously commands it (Matt. 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47, John 20:21, Acts 1:8). I suspect many leaders, though, echo the words out of evangelical habit more than out of heartfelt burden. When we proclaim the message without obeying the command, the words have not settled firmly in our heart.
  2. Pastors are themselves not committed to this task. Again, leaders whose ministries are built on the Bible often do proclaim the mandate. I cannot say these words strongly enough, however: I have never seen a Great Commission church led by a pastor who was not himself deeply committed to the task. Unless a pastor bleeds for his neighbors and the nations to know Christ, the church he leads will not live out this burden, either.
  3. Churches see the Great Commission as a task for full-time ministers or missionaries. This finding is reflective of a problematic clergy/laity divide in many churches, but we church leaders must take some responsibility here. Because we so often choose not to make disciples and delegate responsibilities, we propagate the idea that only “paid folks” can do this work.
  4. Churches do not really believe nonbelievers are lost. If you want to find out what your church members believe, survey them anonymously. Ask them if they believe good people without a relationship with Jesus will go to heaven when they die. Find out what they believe about the fate of those who die without hearing about Jesus. You might discover many church members have a theology that does not require taking the gospel to the nations.
  5. Some leaders settle with partial obedience to the Great Commission. The Great Commission passages resound with proclaiming the Word, making disciples, teaching obedience, reaching the nations, and relying on the Spirit. Some churches focus, though, on evangelism while failing to teach believers. Others emphasize discipleship but do not evangelize. Some influence their community but never touch the nations; others focus on global needs but miss their local community. These congregations may be partially obedient to the Great Commission – but partial obedience is also disobedience at some level.
  6. Churches tell members to do the Great Commission without teaching them how. Most churches are guilty here. We tell folks to share the gospel with their neighbors but seldom train them to do so. We speak about discipling others, yet expect members to learn on their own how to do it. Likewise, we challenge folks to go to the nations without adequately assuring them of training and support. When we tell without teaching, we shouldn’t be surprised when our churches only talk about the Great Commission.
  7. Church members fail to see the world around them. The world is among us – as our neighbors, our co-workers, our store clerks, our teachers – but we fail to see them as sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Somehow, we hear the words of the Great Commission without recognizing the opportunities around us to develop gospel-centered friendships. At a minimum, seeing our neighbors with God’s eyes should cause us to pray for the world represented among us.
  8. Church members don’t know missionaries. We know that mission work matters – after all, the Bible tells us so – but many church members have never “put on a face on” that work. They know no international missionaries. They seldom even think about “missionaries” serving in North America. Thus, they know few stories of the amazing work of God around the world. Frankly, I lay this responsibility at the feet of church leaders as well: Great Commission pastors will introduce their church to Great Commission people.
  9. Churches confuse “sheep swapping” with the Great Commission. Transfer growth among churches is not always negative, but it is seldom Great Commission growth. If a church is not reaching non-believers, baptizing them, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, and taking the gospel to the nations, they are not doing the Great Commission.  They may, in fact, be only talking about it.

Which of these reasons most reflects your church? What other reasons would you add?  


Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.

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63 Comments

  • Felix Aboagye says on

    Thanks for this in-depth article.
    I will be delivering a topic on this subject and will like your permission to use some of your ideas in my teaching.

  • I have a question on what to do when a church is coming against you when you tell them we have a lack of evangelistic outreaches and pretty close to none. The church i go to supports missionaries in other countries but we don’t even have evangelistic programs for our own local community. I tried talking with them but I got an angry response. I have come to the point where I don’t even want to tell them about anything me and my friend do outside the church evangelistic wise.

  • Dennis Clou says on

    This may not exactly fit but its a result of my recent personal research on the teaching of the “great Commission” so I hope its helpful. Seems to me Revelation 22 has a much more relevant commission for the church than the GC: 16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
    17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

    So receive eternal life in Christ and be filled with the Spirit, rejoicing in a salvation freely bestowed. Many Christians feel defeated by a spiritual inability to fulfill the GC. Small wonder they have little desire to share their disappointing experience.

    So here are my thoughts on the subject should you care to read them:

    .More thoughts on the “great commission”. Perhaps it should be called the GREAT GUILT TRIP for Christians? And all you exponents of same, please show me the Gospel in ” our” great commission? Unless you believe water baptism saves, it simply isn’t there and you should reconsider your views on it. Here’s an alternative view you should at least check out.
    This was my response to yet another attempt by someone to apply this unbearable yoke to Christians:
    I am researching teachings regarding discipleship on the web. I’ve heard many sermons in the past on this subject and read many articles, such as this one, on it.
    They all have a couple of common conceptions, naturally. It’s not really a difficult subject.
    Yet no article (so far)mentions the fact that the Gospel itself is missing from the so-called “great commission”! Baptism is mentioned first and foremost, but I trust evangelical’s have not gone so far afield we think that rite means anything, without being born-again.
    Also missing is any reference to the Apostle Paul who clearly states we Christians are to “follow him as he follows Christ”. Paul explains the inner life of the victorious believer and our purpose and role in the local church. He reveals the “secret hidden in God” (the church) and all the other “secrets” found under that umbrella (Christ in you, the hope of Glory, for one.)

    Indeed, his title of “Chief of sinners” is probably better seen, not as a humble confession, but as identifying himself as the lead example in demonstrating how to let the life of Christ flow through us, to the glory of God. (Interestingly, the term disciple is used some 250 times in the Gospels and not once by Christ’s Apostle to the Gentiles, the church expert of all of Scripture, Paul, in all of his many writings re the church!)

    Another factor to consider is this great commission command was given to the Apostles BEFORE the church had come into existence. They had previously been told by Christ they (the 12) would be seated on the thrones of the 12 tribes of Israel in the Millennial kingdom.

    When that Kingdom, with Christ ruling for 1000 years begins, everyone in it will be spiritually alive, whether the New Israel of the New Covenant or the Gentile sheep deemed worthy to enter that period because of their faith in Jesus.

    I believe it is these saved Gentiles who are really the object of the command (great commission) given to the Apostles. The Apostles can then carry out this commission because they will be alive forever. And the Gentiles are candidates for baptism because they are saved. This baptism has nothing to do with the church since the church was previously completed at the Rapture. So,the baptism of the great commission has to do with assimilating the huge number of Gentiles into Israel. This was a rite in the OT also, for Gentile proselytes joining Israel.

    The other part of the commandment is “teaching them everything I taught you”. These teachings of Christ were largely concerned with how to live in the kingdom of God on earth. Many of the things Jesus taught in the Gospels cannot (without stretching and twisting) be honestly applied to the spiritual organism known as the church, the body of Christ.. However, they fit beautifully with the prophetic picture of His Kingdom given in Psalm 2.
    Last thought: Zachariah 8 gives a prophetic picture of the Great Commission being fulfilled in the Millennial Kingdom. This is in keeping with Christ’s declaration in John 4: “Salvation is of the Jews.” God chose Israel to be a “light to the nations” and the great commission will at last be correctly applied to the willing, born-again hearts of Gentile believers.
    Zachariah 8:20 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, 21 and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’
    22 And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.”
    23 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”

    Comment: Perhaps all the Jews, under the supervision of the Apostles, will have a part in bringing these new Gentile converts up to speed in the Kingdom.
    The tragedy of the church presently is the ignoring of the position given to Paul by Jesus Christ and looking to all kinds of church “experts” except him. .

    • Grace ambassador says on

      GRACE And Peace, Dennis! Yes, the “Distinctive Message And Ministry Of God’s “chosen” apostle to the Gentiles of Today! is Severely “Overlooked” or totally ignored by most!

      Rather than GC or Rev 22, we should look “specifically” into
      God’s GRACE Love Letters, Romans through Philemon, (“Directly To/For us Today for our Edification, Encouragement, And spiritual Building Up!), And we will find our “Greater Commission,” i.e. “God’s ambassadors with the ministry of Reconciliation!” (2 Corinthians 5 : 18-6 : 2!)

      This coupled with obedience to be “Approved Unto God” in
      2 Timothy 2 : 15!, would then eliminate All The “confusion” that abounds, by Most, who are “trying” to accomplish What God Has Said In HIS Pure And HOLY Word is for “other ages!”

      Complete info about “The GRACE Movement” can be found:
      BereanBibleSociety.org

      Sincerely yours And Secure-ly HIS!,

      Saint Christopher (brother Chris)

  • Terrence says on

    Jesus said “And these signs shall follow them that ‘believe’. Since these people are taught the signs following are no longer relevant, they removed them. True believers (according to the scriptures) are able to do these signs as proof they are not believing in “another Gospel (corrupted)”. It also says they preached “with signs following, confirming the Word, amen.” It is much easier to phase-out the signs, than to admit the person is not a true believer. It should also be mentioned that originally, Christianity originated from Judaism, which was in fact an “Eastern Religion”. Western theologians would change that aspect of it. I studied Christian Theology and Church History at a local university.

  • Missionary says on

    I appreciate this post. As a relatively new missionary (2 years), I believe that the issues you have described have created an environment that produces unproductive missionaries in situations where missionaries are not sent out by a denomination (faith-based missionaries). Here’s my brief two cents:

    The current sending model for faith-based missionaries highlights the lack of concern for productive, biblically-based missions. By and large, churches no longer send missionaries, they simply give a small amount of money to one or more missionaries. These missionaries are then forced to travel across the country to raise the support that is required to live and minister in the country where they believe God has called them. This process typically takes a minimum of 20-30% of the missionary’s total career. Many of the churches that support missionaries in this way proudly display a map that shows all the countries around the world where they “support” a missionary.

    In addition to requiring a tremendous amount of missionary time, this hands-off approach has allowed missionary sending organizations to grow with little or no accountability from churches that support missions. As a result, the cost to send a missionary from North America grows every year. I personally know of missionaries who are ministering in third-world countries that have raised support that is more than 34,000% higher than the average household income. Where is the accountability from the church?

    Unfortunately, I believe that I could provide many more examples that should make the truly mission-minded person’s blood boil. The church needs to reevaluate how it does missions, hold sending organizations and missionaries accountable (or fully send & support a missionary or missionaries themselves), and redefine what it means to “support a missionary.”

  • jonathon says on

    In response to #2, how many pastors are willing to lead a weekly Bible study for non-Christians, knowing that after a decade, maybe as many as a quarter of the original attendees will have converted?

    That was the result an _effective_ missionary from the US had, when working in new, foreign field, up until the mid-sixties.

    (I am suggesting that the US is best treated like a nineteenth century non-Christian country, for the purpose of evangelism.)

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