The Great Commission: Fulfilled by Churches and for Churches
Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 is most often coupled with an appeal for individual Christians to consider their calling to go into the world as missionaries. While it is certainly a text that every follower of Christ ought to meditate upon and apply, it would seem that a primarily individualistic application of this command is more a product of our Western culture than from a natural reading of the text.
Christ’s command was given to the church.
According to verse 16, it was the eleven disciples who were the original hearers of the command. The apostles were more than individuals seeking to privately obey Christ’s teachings. These men stood as founders and leaders of the Church that would be established and multiplied through their testimony and the power of the Holy Spirit. It was understood that every member of the church would be taught to obey everything that the Lord commanded, including the command to make disciples of all nations.
Christ’s command was given to all members of the church.
It’s a common joke that “Missions Sundays” are reserved for weeks when service attendance is at a low. The assumption, it seems, is that messages about the nations are particularly for a subset of the congregation: men and women who are already predisposed to thinking about or interacting with internationals. This would make sense if (a) an affinity for peoples and cultures was the primary motivation for reaching the nations with the gospel; and (b) the only means of obedience to Christ’s command was to actually leave home and live elsewhere for the sake of the gospel.
However, neither is true. The ultimate motivation for proclaiming the gospel and making disciples is not rooted in sociology. It is Christ’s immeasurable worth and glory that compels us to spread the message of the gospel. When anything about our marvelous God stirs our affections toward worship and obedience, a natural overflow ought to be a desire to see others who don’t know him yet stirred to worship.
Furthermore, the application of the Great Commission is not solely to go, but to pray to the Lord of the harvest for more laborers (Luke 10:2), to send them out as the church of Antioch did with Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2-3), and to support missionaries as “fellow workers in the truth” (3 John 8). It is a corporate endeavor that involves every member of Christ’s body. Thus, our goal is not to persuade everyone to become a missionary, but to help everyone in our congregations think and act with a global evangelization mindset.
Christ’s command was given to all churches
The mission to go and make disciples of all nations was given to churches in every nation. The gospel continues to spread around the world, and as churches have multiplied and matured, they, too, have engaged in sending and supporting missionaries. The reality is that churches all around the world are deeply engaged in international missions; it’s not an exclusively Western enterprise.
There are two potential pitfalls for Western church leaders in light of this. On one side, we might fall into the trap of believing, “If WE don’t go, how will they hear?” The mission of spreading the gospel to every tongue, tribe, and nation can be seen as a task solely for the churches in America without a thought of our brothers and sisters around the globe who are laboring alongside us. The other danger is believing, “There are so many others going, so we are no longer needed.” Yes, countries like South Korea and India are sending tens of thousands of missionaries, but this does not mean we may abdicate our responsibility.
A few years ago, while I was in South America, I asked a respected Brazilian missiologist and church planter his opinion regarding the claim that the era of Western missions was over and that it was now time to “pass the baton.” His response was gracious and sincere: “I’ve heard this before,” he said, “and my question is, ‘Why did you think the baton was yours to pass in the first place?’” He’s right. The Great Commission doesn’t belong to any particular era or region of the church; rather, all churches at all times and in all places must endeavor together in making disciples of all nations. Our opportunity in light of these global trends is not only to send from our congregations but to partner with international churches in sending, supporting, and serving missionaries among the nations.
Christ’s command was to make disciples, who would become churches.
The goal of missions is not to evangelize all peoples, but to make disciples who observe all that Christ commanded. The former can be accomplished rapidly through individuals, whereas the latter takes time and requires community. Therefore, fulfilling the Great Commission necessitates church planting.
Any effort in missions ought to be connected to the goal of reproducing local bodies of believers through the declaration and demonstration of the gospel. Mercy ministries are good and healthy but they will remain stunted if stone hearts are not made flesh through the power of the Spirit of God by the Word of God. Conversely, proclamation ministry is necessary but intangible without the outworking of the Word in service to the felt needs of the community. The goal then is to see communities of disciples raised up who both proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and display the fruit of the Spirit through their love for their neighbor.
If it is the role of every local church to obey the Great Commission for the sake of birthing new local churches locally and globally, where do we begin? I would suggest we start at the same point as Christ’s disciples. As church leaders, we must consider the Lord’s commands and we must seek the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit as we step out in faith. No matter our church’s size, age, resources, or challenges, we are not powerless, poor, or alone. Christ’s promise is for us today. He rules all things, earthly and heavenly, and he is with us to the end of the age. He will complete his mission.