A two-fold assumption is often evident when believers are evaluating the effectiveness of churches, ministries, movements, and denominations. The assumption is, first, that the Great Commission is the standard of measurement and, second, that effectiveness is measured by the number of people who are hearing the gospel or are being brought into worship services.
Certainly it’s exciting whenever thousands or tens of thousands are gathering for worship and hearing the gospel. If they’re doing so in multiple locations linked by cutting edge video technology—well, many of us see that as progress into a new and wonderful future for the body of Christ.
But, to understate, exciting and wonderful in our estimation is not always exciting and wonderful in God’s—even when our hearts are in the right place. Four principles argue that if we’re going to evaluate churches, ministries, and movements in a way that approximates God’s evaluation, we’ll have to consider more than the Great Commission, understood as number of souls reached.
1. The Great Commission is not all there is.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, Acts 1:8) says nothing directly about worship or about the people of God as a worshiping community. Still, nobody questions that the NT church is worshiping community. However, many do doubt—or at least fail to fully appreciate—how vital the united, exclusive, divinely-regulated worship of God is to the identity and health of a local church.
Jesus did not specifically mention worship in the Commission because—for believers at the time, in their heavily Jewish context, steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures—it was too obvious to need mentioning. It’s doubtful that in the history of the church, anyone seriously questioned the primacy of proper worship until the 20th century (perhaps the 19th) when a new focus on “reaching the world with the gospel” fueled a neglect of the larger context of why the church exists and why there is a gospel to reach people with.
But long before Jesus said “Go and make disciples,” God told Adam and Eve to “have dominion.” And to the people He set apart for His name, He said—and Christ Himself repeated—“Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10).
The Great Commission neither reverses nor supersedes any of that, nor does it reduce the importance of the entire OT story as an exhibition of the both allure and devastation of idolatry (first, in the affections and only then in image-seeking). To put it another way, far from being the only standard by which to measure church effectiveness, the Commission is not even the most important standard.
And it isn’t just OT context that compels us to look beyond the Commission (as popularly understood) as the standard of effectiveness. Passages such as Ephesians 4:11-16 and many others throughout the epistles (e.g., Heb. 10:24, Col. 2:2-7, 1 Cor. 12:22-26) call us to score church health—and ministry effectiveness—far more comprehensively.
In fact, the Commission itself is often truncated these days. The times demand that we regularly take a closer look.
2. The Great Commission goes deeper than many realize.
The Acts 1:8 expression of the Commission is intentionally vague on several points in order to put the emphasis on a couple of very clear ones: the sufficiency of the power of the Spirit and our general identity as people who testify (“witnesses”). Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 28 reveals more clearly both the goal and the full scope of the Commission.
The famous “go” of 28:19 is a participle, suggesting perhaps “as you are going,” but certainly subordinating the action of going to the stout imperative that comes later: “make disciples.” The “baptizing” and “teaching” that follow are also participles and support that central command. In short, all the action in the Commission is subordinate to the command to make disciples.
Though the Commission includes Acts 1’s “be My witnesses” and Mark 16:15’s “proclaim the gospel,” making disciples goes well beyond that. A disciple is a committed, long-term follower. In the highest sense, a disciple is a wholly dedicated servant (Luke 14:26-33). Jesus makes things unmistakably clear (though we keep mistaking them anyway!) by adding, to paraphrase, “teach them everything I’ve taught you.”
Even if we suppose that the Great Commission is the only (or the highest) standard for evaluating church effectiveness, that standard does not consist of “get as many people as possible to hear the gospel.”
3. Great Commission effectiveness cannot be measured superficially.
Because the Commission compels us to make disciples and teach them a system of belief and values, as well as a distinctive way of life, effectiveness in it can’t really be seen in a couple of simple metrics. I do mean “can not” rather than “may not.” It is simply impossible.
As a result, if we look at ministry x or church y, visit several of its services and see enormous numbers of people who are apparently deeply and sincerely moved (and very welcoming), we have not made a Great Commission evaluation.
We have measured effectiveness in “reaching people,” to be sure (though even “reaching” has a qualitative component as well as the quantitative one). We have measured, to some extent, the level of engagement of the people. We have not measured Great Commission effectiveness in disciple-making.
A few test questions help reveal whether we’re equating Commission effectiveness with numbers-gathered or numbers-reached: If this ministry or church were not reaching or gathering thousands upon thousands, would we be at all impressed? Are we inclined to think a ministry is more effective in fulfilling the Great Commission than other groups that share all their other observable qualities but have a far smaller head count? Do we think a single church of 10,000 is accomplishing more than 100 congregations of 100?
4. The Great Commission may not be pursued in whatever way we choose.
Christians are called to pursue God’s goals within God’s constraints. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul spoke of making personal sacrifices in order to avoid unnecessary barriers to reaching people in their villages, towns, synagogues, and marketplaces. He did not speak at all of engineering church life and worship in order to attract larger numbers.
Consequently, “whatever it takes” may have value as expression of dedication, fervor, or relentless focus. (Many ministries that have run out of steam would probably do well to warm themselves just a bit at the “whatever it takes” fire pit.) But as an expression of church purpose or the essence of church life, it is sorely lacking. In times like these, it’s toxic.
We are here not only to reach lots of people but to bring people into something very specific, something very prescribed. That “something” begins with the gospel declaration that Christ died for sinners and rose again. But the gospel itself points to a question: why? What is the purpose of saving sinners? What we find in the NT (as well as the Old, more subtly) is that the transformation that begins with belief in the gospel and its Christ is the only way for fallen human beings to rightly relate to—rightly worship and serve—the holy, holy, holy God. As Paul put it, the point of the gospel is “the praise of the glory of [God’s] grace” (Eph. 1:6).
Both the Great Commission and the gospel itself serve the higher purpose of bringing people into a body that glorifies God on His terms and not their own. How, then, can we think we are entitled (or that it makes sense) to do “whatever it takes” to lead people into a body that exists to do “whatever it takes” to bring people into the body? Unless proper worship of the Almighty is primary—along with a fierce commitment to reject the idolatry of self-gratification and self-innovation—we really have little to reach people for. And it could hardly matter less how many of them we manage to gather.
Yes, debate has raged long and famously regarding how Christian distinctiveness relates to constantly shifting cultural trends. Hand in hand with that, believers disagree widely and strongly as to what sorts of forms are suitable as vehicles of worship (as well as how forms ought be evaluated). Two things ought to be obvious though—that the manner in which we worship is not dismissable as a secondary concern, and that the cultural preferences of a world order dominated by the Evil one (John 14:30, 2 Cor. 4:4) should be greeted with great caution and the best critical thinking we can employ.