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

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.


Posted on June 17, 2014

Dr. Chuck Lawless is a leading expert in spiritual consultation, discipleship and mentoring. As a former pastor, he understands the challenges ministry presents and works with Church Answers to provide advice and counsel for church leaders.
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  • David Scott says on

    Thanks for this reminder, challenge and kick in the pants concerning the task we have to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I agree with your points completely. Additionally, I believe our going is directly linked to our loving.
    It seems to me that we will never become fully committed to the Great Commission until we become fully consumed by the Great Commandment. On the most basic level, in the life of the believer, it seems to me that our supreme love for God is what will fuel a Gospel-driven love for others. So maybe as we let the Biblical texts speak to and form our hearts, we will see that our greatest challenge is more of a “Love” issue than a lack in any other area.
    Thanks for a great article and thanks for your steadfast love of the Gospel and it’s advancement.

    David Scott

  • I wish we would stop asking the question about why we are not fulfilling the Great Commission and start realizing that if we do not follow the Great Commandment the outcome will stay on the same downward path. The problem is that most people in our churches (and most pastors) have no clue what it means to love God with ALL their heart, soul, mind, and strength and most of us think that we can love God who we cannot see without really learning to love our neighbor who we can see (see 1 John 4:20-21). We have become a self-seeking generation who looks at everything we do (personal spiritual formation, church growth, employment, “spare” time) with the mindset of a consumer…we have a good distance to travel before we hit rock bottom, but we are headed in that direction and until we learn to lay aside our pride and arrogance and recognize that we are headed down the wrong path, we will continue to lose ground. We have become a Christian society who measures what we do and what we know over who we are. The very fact that we talk about the Great Commission all the time (i.e. what we should do) over the Great Commandment (i.e. who we should be) is revealing. My heart grieves for what I see in our churches and for that matter (at times) what I see in my own life. We have created a complex monster (here in America) that we call Christianity and that monster is chewing up our churches one at a time. God have mercy on us.

  • Matthew says on

    I do not want to get tangled in semantics. However, the great commission is about “making disciples”. Two points:
    This goes beyond (A) simply securing a confession for faith in Christ. (B) Rather it encompasses the totality of the communally Shared Christian journey in Jesus from new birth to glorification.
    Your concern is correct concerning North American Christians indifference concerning point (a). What concerns me even more so is that they are abysmally indifferent to communally encouraging & admonishing towards the goal of point (b).

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      I don’t disagree with you, Matthew (see points #5 and #6, where I talk about the issue of discipleship). The Great Commission is more than securing professions of faith. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • It is hard to be a great commission church when so many congregations are preoccupied by internal strife and conflict. I also think that much of what we see in evangelical circles is “easy believer-ism” in which we recite the sinners prayer and we are in. Francis Chan’s book, “Crazy Love” and Idleman’s book, “Not a Fan” both address this tendency in many of our churches. Could it be that the great commission may need to start with those sitting in the pews? Just a thought.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      No question, Steve, that a renewed commitment to the Great Commission must not ignore the people in the pews.

  • Have you heard about “Apocity: The Greatest Omission?” It speaks about some of the same things you mention here. Apocity is the sin of not evangelizing. This book not only diagnosis the problem, but provides a gospel-centered remedy. Check it out! More information here: http://www.watersourceministries.com/apocity/

  • I am a full-time Missionary serving the last eight years in East Africa,, Nairobi, Kenya, developing programs and projects for Orphans and Widows, first to tell then about Jesus Christ.
    All Pastors and churches should realize that MISSIONS IS THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE CHURCH.”

  • Come on … we all know how easy it is to join a Baptist church … just come up with a letter from a “sister church” that says you’ve been baptized, and you’re in. Or, come forward during the last hymn and pray the prayer they prescribe for you, and agree to be baptized, and you’re in. No requirements, no obligations other than the nebulous “Be an active and faithful member”, and you’ll be on the rolls forever.

    I know of no other way to account for 16 million members, of whom we can locate perhaps 4 million on Sunday. And THAT is not making disciples of all nations.

    We don’t want to face the problem; we don’t even want to admit it or talk about it.

    I’m not God, but if I were, I wouldn’t see much reason to send people to most SBC churches, either. Our church has been having terrific revivals and wonderful VBS’s since we moved into our nice new building in 2000, and attendance today is 15% to 25% less than it was 14 years ago. With everything looking so right, the only explanation I can envision is that Good has simply stopped sending us people., We can’t be trusted with them.

  • Lazy – pastors and people, s-I-n. Life is all about me and the heaven I am trying to make of it here on earth. We have lost perspective on death, heaven and hell.

  • I think for #6 you meant to say “…without teaching them how.”

  • David Rubemeyer says on

    I believe we don’t use the filter of Christ when talking about the Great Commission and think more in the realm of reaching “Jerusalem” or “the ends of the earth”. Jesus command was just that a command and not a suggestion to reach across the street and around the world.
    The proclamation must come from the lead Pastor/Elder and not only via lip service but also a life service of “leading” the body to go.

    Thank you for a great reminder!

  • I think you have a typo in 6. Shouldn’t that with be without?

    Otherwise, good article.
    Some fear getting too many new people. Others see missionaries who come over to the US merely to beg for money. The missionary either preaches on why more people, money, etc are needed or the previous year’s results. Few people ever meet the missionary at a church social event. The church leaders just decide how much money to send and where without taking input. Look, a great mission field are US universities but few people see it that way.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      You’re correct about the typo, Mark. Thanks for pointing it out. Good points in the rest of your response.

    • Brian Dougas Larson says on

      Jesus said to go and preach the gospel to all creatures.

      Gospel is Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures … he was buried. . . . The third day he rose again from the dead, according to the Scriptures . . . and he appeared (1 Cor. 15:3-6). Paul writes that this is the Gospel “I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this Gospel you are saved”

      John 11
      11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
      12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
      13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
      14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
      15 As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.
      16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
      17 Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
      18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

      Who will bring the Gospel freely?

    • This Is very true about colleges and universities. This is such a point of these young people’s lives where they are out making their own decisions and a valuable time in giving the gospel of the Kingdom. I can see the Lord moving while I was looking up “why missions seem to fail” and came across this thread. I would appreciate prayers even though you don’t know me because I am moving with my wife and four children to Uganda sometime this year, prayerfully spring and one of my focuses is the largest university in east africa which is in Uganda. Peace and love

      Steven Buxton
      [email protected]

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