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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  • Humanism is the problem. It has infiltrated the church as described in one of the greatest sermons of all time… “Ten Shekels and a shirt” by Paris Reidhead. Here is a video clip from that sermon. May God bless you through his inspired message. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIde4dm2oz4
    Here is the entire sermon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bd6ix3FEkX0

  • Here is something GOD showed me not to long ago.
    He asked me in the spirit to make a circle and to mark it like a compass, so I did.
    I made the circle and marked N for north, E for east, S for south, and W for west.
    Then He said what did Jesus tell the disciples to do just before ascending into Heaven, I quickly responded He told them to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, that’s right he said.Then he said look at the compass again and unscramble the letters to make a word, as I looked it hit me as one of the simplest eternal most profound messages I had ever seen.
    Thats right He said
    I have called all my children to spread the GOODNEWS AROUND THE WORLD!!!!
    Later I made an acronym for GOODNEWS and this is it.
    Needless to say I was in AWE.
    I find it amazing how God leads me to certian people to share what he shows me, he does work in mysterious ways.
    In all your years of teaching have you ever noticed that on a compass?
    I have yet to meet one pastor, teacher or church goer that has.
    Be Blessed in all you do!!!!

  • I would add in that people aren’t proud of their church or believe it’s a place their non-Christian friends would want to come. One of the easiest ways to evangelize is to invite a friend to church, or a non-religious even put on by the church.

    A second reason churches don’t fulfill the Great Commission is people don’t know any non-Christians. The church keeps them too busy. If people in your church do more than 2 “church” activities a week, there’s a good chance your church will have a hard time with evangelism. If everyone in your church sends their kids to Christian Schools, play on Christian Sports teams, and only hangs out with Christian people from church- there’s a good chance your church will be terrible at evangelism. Non-Christians will become “those people out there.” The only way to evangelize is to get to know others and make new friends- especially with people who aren’t Christian.

  • I think it stems from two issues. The first is that we view the Great Commission as a TASK that we DO instead of an outgrowth of who we ARE. Most think that we are called to “make professions” but that’s not the case. We are called to make disciples. True disciple making requires getting involved with people’s lives and that’s messy. Most people don’t like messy. It means coming alongside them as they grow in the Lord and bearing with one another in love. Sadly, I think we have lost the understanding of what that means.

    The other issue is a fundamental failure in understanding the Gospel. We have this idea of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection as being the Gospel with the goal of Heaven in mind. That leaves little practical application to this life. People then think that they are merely called to endure this life and wait for Jesus to come back. Instead, the Gospel (according to Jesus in Mark 1) is the Kingdom of God NOW. It is the promise of the Holy Spirit NOW. It is a transformed life NOW. We need to stop deferring our hope to our deathbeds and start living (and modeling) the kingdom as a present reality.

  • Chuck,

    Thanks for the excellent post.

    In regards to #2 on your list… If we are not doing so already, we should make the question, “Who have you shared the Gospel with in the past week?” a part of our pastors’ accountability groups.


  • Hazel Garrett says on

    I agree with your article 100% and would like to add that we don’t think about the fact that we are ALL commanded to Tell the Good News wherever we are. The mission field is all around us! Our state and nation is considered 80% UNchurched! I have a hard time believing it but it is true! And the fault or blame lies with us! The ones sitting in the pews and never sharing the Gospel with anyone!
    I have been involved with Child Evangelism Fellowship for several years and we share through Good News Clubs at the end of the school day with the children. The greater part of these children have NOT heard about Jesus! The majority of believers accept Christ before the age of 14 years old so this should be our target group. If you wait until they are teens or adults, you have waited too long. They already know everything!!
    It is truly invigorating and a joy to teach children the Good News and then disciple them and help them get into a Bible-believing church. They can reach their parents much easier than we can!
    Go to http://www.cefonline.com for more information. They are world wide and reaching children for Christ!
    Thank you for allowing me to share!

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks, Hazel. Blessings on your work with children!

    • Mickey Willard says on

      Hazel. I attended a Billy Graham School of Evangelism in 1991. We had the privilege of Dr. Graham actually dropping in on us (we were in Ashville, NC). He spoke to a small break off group of twelve pastors and asked us a very good question. “Where is your ripest field of harvest?” Of course the usual answers were given – the other side of the railroad tracks, the slums, etc. He told us that those were good answers but in he then said “The ripest field for harvest is sitting in front of you every Sunday morning. Fully 50% of your church members are not truly saved.” And since then he has adjusted that figure to close to the 80% you mentioned about America. If our church members are not truly born again it is hard for them to practice the Great Commission as that is for believers and not unbelievers. Sadly not all church members are true believers.

  • Gerald pimpleton says on

    My 85 year old southern grandmother has the best quote ever in reference to this topic. If asked what she thinks is the culprit of the apathetic posture of the Church as far as the Great Commission goes, she would quietly and simply say, “Nowadays….christians are so heavenly – minded that they are no earthly good.”

    Focused on the destination …..failing miserably on the journey.

  • Mickey Willard says on

    When I talked with the pulpit committee at my current ministry 6 years ago they asked if I was “missions minded.” Great I thought, at last a church that wants to fulfill the Great Commission. Not so. I soon learned that missions minded to them is like a lot of our SBC churches. Send money but forget about doing missions including local, national, and international. As one comment that was made, making disciples is part of the Great Comission and someone missed the boat at this local church. I have tried and have succeeded with a handful (actually 2 handfulls since that is all the fingers you need to count them with). The sad thing is that I have seen this at all 4 of the SBC churches I have served since 1988. For 10 years I served a non-denominational work (baptistic in nature and practice) and there was more excitment about doing missions.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      God can do a lot with a few people. Just prayed for you as you lead.

      • Mickey Willard says on

        Thank you Chuck. I appreciate your prayers. I will be leaving this ministry at the end of Aug. Although I am 65 (in Aug.) I feel as though I have many years of ministry left for the Lord. I do not envisioning myself retiring until I physically cannot go on.

  • Steve Miller says on

    I have had several members mention they don’t want the church to get much bigger because then they will not be able to personally know everyone. It has been stated that our church is just the right size to comfortably know everyone’s family. The same people say, “it is a bit of an inconvenience to constantly have to get to know new people.”

    If I was not already bald I would pull my hair out.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Praying for God to give you wisdom, Steve. Blessings!

    • jonathon says on

      This is where you have to tactfully determine how to mutply your congregation into two or more.

      I’ve forgotten which denomination used to (maybe still does) have a policy requiring a church to split into two or more, when membership hits a specific number. I don’t remember the specific number, but it was somewhere between 125 and 200.

      Whilst not a formal policy, most house-church advocates recommend multiplying into two or more bodies, once average attendence exceeds 20.

      • That was the Church of the Savior, I think, in Washington, DC. They did a lot to “a equip God’s people to do the work of the ministry.” Every member was expected to 1. Discover his or her gifts and talents; 2. Get involved in some kind of service whether evangelistic, worship, children, etc. 3. Any member could offer a call to start a new ministry and recruit co workers but the paid staff would not necessarily be involved.

        Everyone did something but not everyone was called to do the same things. If 100% of a 100 people served as God directed it would have a greater impact than 100 people of a 1000 serving.

    • Lol! Where have I heard that one before… Oh right, the dying church that I just left.