The release of the progress report from the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force on Feb. 22 creates an exciting time for Southern Baptists and is bound to spark discussion within the convention.
But no matter how one feels about the report itself, all agree that Southern Baptists need to be thinking more intentionally about the Great Commission. Numbers and reports will begin to circulate in the coming weeks focusing on a drop in baptisms, the percentage of church monies that actually go toward the doing of the Great Commission and other issues that will help in determining how to best move forward as a convention that is serious about the Great Commission.
But in the midst of all the discussion about the Great Commission, there is one thing that we must be careful to do, and that is to define what exactly the Great Commission is. The Great Commission comes from the seminal passage in Matthew 28:18-20. In that passage there is really only one command: “Make disciples of all nations.” The other phrases (going, baptizing and teaching) are participles meant to define how that command is carried out. So Christ tells His followers to make disciples of all nations by going, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching all to observe that Christ has commanded them. My fear is that when Southern Baptists think about and talk about the Great Commission, our focus tends to be drawn toward the first two directions: going and baptizing. In fact, for many, accomplishing the Great Commission is merely a matter of evangelism, simply sharing the Gospel with the lost and getting them to profess belief and follow up that belief with believers’ baptism. But that is not where Christ stops the Great Commission.
The problem comes for Southern Baptists in accomplishing that last phrase: “teaching them to do all that I have commanded you.” It is not surprising that this is the difficult step for us because in many ways, it is the most challenging and the most demanding step in the Great Commission. The first two steps of going and telling and baptizing demand your time (and often a significant amount of it), the third step, however, the teaching step, demands your life. It is a commitment to take the new life brought forth in the going and telling and proclaimed in the baptizing, and lead that new life up into a growing faith. At some point you can look back at the first two steps of the Great Commission and check them off as completed. That is not true, however, for the call to teach the believer to observe all that has been commanded of them. The call to teach is a call to care for a new life in Christ, and is the one step that will never end this side of Heaven.
The Bible is replete with examples of the call to disciple new believers and of the urgency of that call. New believers are referred to as new born babes, as needing to grow, and believers are given the mandate to care for them in that growth. Churches must realize that this call is just as much a part of fulfilling the Great Commission as the call to go and to tell.
All you need to look at is how we determine whether or not we have been faithful to achieve the Great Commission. A cursory look will show us that our definition might need biblical adjustment. We tend to talk about conversions and give baptismal data and analyze those as markers of our faithfulness.
Are they markers? Yes, most definitely and necessary to complete the task, but they are not the sole measure of faithfulness. We find a sad commentary on our faithfulness to take up the call to teach new believers not in our evangelism numbers or our baptism certificates (although there is plenty of sadness in both), but rather in our church roles. In 2008, the SBC presented a resolution on “Regenerate Church Membership and Church Discipline.” What the SBC was pointing out is what we all already knew, our church rolls are filled while our pews are empty. These aren’t people who haven’t heard the Gospel, these are converts whom we have baptized. “Going” . . . check. “Baptizing”. . . check. These are the ones who fill our rolls and not our churches. The pervasive nature of this problem for all our churches should frighten us and surely humble us. It is a glaring indicator that although well intentioned, we have fallen short in our Great Commission task.
These empty pews and wayward members are not just numbers, they are a testimony—a testimony that says we as churches are satisfied with less than obedience to the Great Commission. Sadly, it is the very converts we seek who are left to suffer, and the Gospel we seek to proclaim that is left to wither on the vine. These new lives are a blessing from the Lord, and to not care for them is a stewardship problem of grave proportions.
Not finishing the Great Commission is to take the easy way out. I can share the Gospel in a conversation, and I can see baptism in a Sunday service, but to fulfill that final command, to teach them, will take my life, and, sadly, that is often more than I and many in our churches are willing to give. Perhaps we are short selling the Great Commission. Perhaps its call is far more demanding than we realized.
The Great Commission does not end at conversion. Until we as Southern Baptists and as churches of Christ’s body take seriously the call of the Great Commission to commit to discipling new believers—to commit not just our moments but our lives to the task—then we will never fulfill the Great Commission, no matter how many different programs or entities or how much money we give. And in the end, we might have a Great Commission resurgence, but no Great Commission fulfillment.
Yet this problem is not without hope. I am confident that if there is any group who can motivate itself toward a full commitment to the Great Commission, it is Southern Baptists. God has given us everything we need to complete the task. He has given us His Word by which we can teach them (1 Peter 2.2), and He has given us His body in whom we can stir them up to love and good works, that is to obedience (Heb. 10.24-25). If we will take seriously the Great Commission, and if we will heed the words of Romans 12.1-2 and sacrifice our lives for the good of the Gospel, then we as Southern Baptists and more importantly as Christians (who want more than anything to glorify the One who gave them life) can fulfill the task, can complete the Great Commission, and can be the people, the churches and the convention God calls us to be.
I am excited about our future, excited about what this task force might do for us, excited about where we might go. But we cannot fool ourselves, if we are going to fulfill the Great Commission, it is going to be a most difficult task. It won’t be when we give our conversations or our finances to the Great Commission, but rather when we give our lives to Christ and to the Gospel and to those Christ is changing through that Gospel. That is our great call. That is Christ’s Great Commission.
Chris Gore is pastor of Beggs, First.