Ministry Success & The Great Commission

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.

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There are 18 Comments

Jim's picture

I think it is important to understand that God is blessing non-fundamentalist churches. They have some strengths. 

The closest church to my home is the New Hope (Evangelical Free) church. We are not members there nor do we attend, but this is a very solid church. I rejoice in the way God has blessed them and pray for them often (I drive by it almost every day - twice) 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I often can't figure out what is a "fundmentalist church" and what isn't anymore. The battles are different and the cross pollination is so extensive. There are obvious cases of course, but so many are not. I don't lose any sleep over that.

Anyway, my point is that I stopped classifying churches as 'fund.' or 'not fund.' a long time ago. But I do continue to look closely at ministry philosophy and methodology, not for passing a "fundamentalist" litmus test, but for passing several biblical ones. (Yes, I do think the two correlate, but only to the degree that a fundamental ministry is also a biblical one. Which, since we're talking about human beings, is often not the case. This is a human thing and not any special failing of fundamentalism.)

SuzanneT's picture

Very helpful article, particularly the distinctions made between the "Great Commission" and its larger context. I think that has been getting overlooked more and more.

When a person walks through the doors of your church for the first time, no matter what they look like or how they dress and so forth, we can know one of two things about them: they have either been born-again or have not.

Part of a being a biblically healthy church, I think, would naturally include people who take notice of new faces and warmly welcome them, and even make it a point to talk to them after the service. We should be excited they are there! Because in a biblically healthy church they are going to see the the Word of God opened up before them in the sermon and be pointed to a glory belonging to the Savior as a focal point of the message. They will be pointed to Jesus Christ and implored to know their standing with Him (and/or in Him). If they keep coming back it isn't because we were "nice", had awesome coffee, our for the beauty of our sanctuary, sound system, or our kids programs, etc etc.. My hope is they come back and are saved, and/or return to continue growing in the knowledge and service and Joy of our Lord. 

...and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.  Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (ESV) (1 Cor 2:4-6)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I would pretty much echo all of that.

I've been thinking a lot lately as well about "gospel core" vs. "gospel implications" as a matter of ministry focus. I do think it's possible to focus on preaching the gospel core ("Christ died for sinners and rose again...") to the point that we neglect gospel implications ("walk worthy..." and all the practical stuff, like Proverbs' "don't sleep too much if you don't want to be poor"). But in my experience most churches are not in danger of that. More gospel core even as context for gospel implications would be healthy in so, so many ways... it humbles us, fills us with thankfulness, and--to get back to your focus, Suzanne--it makes us more welcoming.  

The reason: we know everybody who walks in is a believer or not a believer... we also know that everybody who walks in is a fallen human being who needs a whole lot of grace (including the role we each have in ministering grace to one another)

Bert Perry's picture

My family attended an E free church in Waseca that I'd consider pretty much fundamental in doctrine, really more fundamental in doctrine than the "wannabe KJVO" church we'd fled.  (we learned about a quarter of the older members at the E free church had fled the other church over time)   The music was modern (and generally a bit lame), culture was definitely freer, but the teaching was as fundamental as I've seen.   So I'm with Aaron in being reluctant to use the terms as commonly used, and with Jim in my love of e free churches.  

Maybe it would be worthwhile to delineate along somewhat different lines?  It would seem that fundamentalism is hopelessly muddled with culture and a lot of rules, evangelicalism is hopelessly muddled with "church fad of the month club."  Might be possible to reclaim one or both of the terms, or would it be better to choose a new one?  Maybe hard to quantify, but somehow we've got to nudge our churches towards theological fidelity resulting in our growth and connection to one another, no?

 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

SuzanneT's picture

Bert Perry wrote: "Maybe it would be worthwhile to delineate along somewhat different lines?  It would seem that fundamentalism is hopelessly muddled with culture and a lot of rules, evangelicalism is hopelessly muddled with "church fad of the month club."  Might be possible to reclaim one or both of the terms, or would it be better to choose a new one?  Maybe hard to quantify, but somehow we've got to nudge our churches towards theological fidelity resulting in our growth and connection to one another, no?"

You bring up some interesting points, Bert. 
I understand what you're saying and, just from outsider observation totally agree that these two ideologies (as such) have gotten "hopelessly muddled" in their respective contexts. I have to say though, that for someone like me who did not grow up in the church in any of these contexts, the words "fundamentalism" and "evangelicalism" used in contrast rather than in concert with one another seems odd. Why have these terms even gotten separated? Isn't Evangelicalism properly seen only through a fundamental understanding and adherence to scripture? And vice versa?  Indeed "theological fidelity" I think would be critical to true church growth (spiritual & otherwise) & fellowship.

We've been at our EFree church for about 6 years, we ended up there because of the excellent, expository teaching and the biblical standards they are careful to observe (think 9-Marks); and care for the lost, and grace..much much grace! That is our name, Grace Church Smile We are a small church, many young and growing (!) families and a smattering of empty-nesters.  We have seen many changes in 6 years, but one thing that has never changed is the philosophy of ministry and care of the leadership for the flock.  Tears form as I think of how blessed we are!  I know how far and few between solid, committed churches and leaders are. It's a huge struggle, I understand how churches can compromise in areas..no excuse for it, just saying...

Pray for your pastors, elders and ministry leaders! 
~

Aaron wrote: "we also know that everybody who walks in is a fallen human being who needs a whole lot of grace (including the role we each have in ministering grace to one another)"

Oh my yes..Amen to that much needed addition to the point! 

 

 

Larry Nelson's picture

Jim wrote:

I think it is important to understand that God is blessing non-fundamentalist churches. They have some strengths.

The closest church to my home is the New Hope (Evangelical Free) church. We are not members there nor do we attend, but this is a very solid church. I rejoice in the way God has blessed them and pray for them often (I drive by it almost every day - twice)

New Hope Church (NHC) is one that I attended on my rounds this past summer.  I was there @ their 8 am service on a Sunday morning in June.  In an earlier version of what became my article on Eagle Brook Church (EBC), I was fleshing out an article on very large churches in the Twin Cities.  New Hope Church and Eagle Brook Church were slated to be two of several.  The article eventually focused only on Eagle Brook, because I found their story to be very compelling.

The two churches have similarities.  NHC was founded in 1946; EBC was founded in 1948.  Both dropped the denominational identifiers from their names: NHC was originally Crystal Evangelical Free Church (in the nearby suburb of Crystal); EBC was originally the First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake.

Both are multi-service.  EBC holds 4 weekend services (at each location); NHC holds 4 weekend services at its single location.  (NHC's auditorium has 1,500 seats to accomodate its 3,600 average weekly attendance.  So do the math...)   So for those who say that multi-service formats are unacceptable, neither church would pass that test.

Whereas EBC used to hold both traditional and contemporary music services (up until about 10 years ago), NHC actually uses three different musical styles in worship services today:  http://www.newhopechurchmn.org/worship/index.php   (The 5:30 service is an even edgier version of CCM.)  In the case of either church, traditional-music only folks would find fault.

Doctrinally, the Evangelical Free Church (NHC) and Converge Worldwide/BGC (EBC) are nearly interchangable.  (I've heard them referred to as "kissing cousins.")  Both are 100% strong on the essential fundamentals of the faith, but both lack certain, particular distinctions that precludes them from being "fundamentalist."

For more on those distinctions, don't take my word for it.  Here is what fundamentalism has to say:

http://www.centralseminary.edu/about-central/foundational-documents/statement-on-fundamentalism-and-evangelicalism

 

 

Bert Perry's picture

What Dr. Bauder says about the proper near-equivalence of the terms "fundamentalism" and "evangelicalism", and the real-life contrast between one camp that extends fellowship to non-believers and another denying fellowship because they choose the wrong Bible translation or might have had a drink in the past decade.

There is also the reality that too many pastors of both camps seem to be running a business or system more than actually preaching the Gospel.  One follows what he learned at the feet of John R. Rice or Bob Jones Jr., another the style he learned at Pensacola, yet another apes Mark Driscoll, still others follow other megachurch pastors who have achieved what we think is success.....

.....and the Gospel is all too often lost by all of them.  It's along the lines, I think, of the semi-talented coach who learns the system from one of the greats and takes it to his first head coaching job.  He does well for a couple of years at his level--say one of the D2 schools or a minor D1 conference--but at a certain point, he's matched with coaches who know how to coach the game and not just a system, and then his team gets creamed.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ron Bean's picture

I like Dr. Bauder's assessment as well. I also believe that there are fundamentalists who are not Baptist, dispensational, pre-mill, or pre-trib. I believe there are fundamentalists who use different Bible versions, different music, and dress differently for church. I believe there are fundamentalists who don't call themselves fundamentalists.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Mark_Smith's picture

but can you please define "ordinate Christian affections" for me? I surely wouldn't want Dr Bauder to think I was "inordinate" in my Christian "affections"!

SuzanneT's picture

That article was really helpful in understanding much of what all the hub-bub is about between camps. Dr. Bauder has a wonderful way of making sense of things. His list at the end is a great illustration of a healthfully (healthily?) run church. Our church might be considered "conservative evangelical" while in some sense adhering to each of those 8 points.

I quite agree with what Ron Bean said. 

Joel Shaffer's picture

In Bauder's article, what the difference between a conservative evangelical and a new image fundamentalist?  

Greg Linscott's picture

Joel Shaffer wrote:

In Bauder's article, what the difference between a conservative evangelical and a new image fundamentalist?  


Probably the difference between someone like a Mark Dever or Al Mohler (CE) vs someone like Pat Nemmers (N-I F): http://www.saylorvillechurch.com/people/pat-nemmers/

Greg Linscott
Marshall, MN

Joel Shaffer's picture

Greg Linscott wrote:

 

Joel Shaffer wrote:

 

In Bauder's article, what the difference between a conservative evangelical and a new image fundamentalist?  

 

Probably the difference between someone like a Mark Dever or Al Mohler (CE) vs someone like Pat Nemmers (N-I F): http://www.saylorvillechurch.com/people/pat-nemmers/

 

so probably very similar in doctrine and practice, but Nemmers is still within certain fundamentalist circles (GARBC, IRBC) and Dever and Mohler are immersed in Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical (TGC) circles? 

Greg Linscott's picture

Joel Shaffer wrote:

so probably very similar in doctrine and practice, but Nemmers is still within certain fundamentalist circles (GARBC, IRBC) and Dever and Mohler are immersed in Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical (TGC) circles? 

The Central document notes:

We also reject the "new-image Fundamentalism" that absorbs the current culture, producing a worldly worship and a pragmatic ministry. These self-professed fundamentalists often follow the latest trends in ministry, disparage theological labels such as Baptist, and aggressively criticize any version of Fundamentalism not following their ministry style.

The "practice" is where I think you see a lot of contrast. I think you would see more similarities in what Dever's church practices in corporate worship and what Central wishes to promote than you would between Central and Saylorville. I would also say that would be true about the "aggressive criticism" cited. Mohler and Dever have spoken of similarities, as have Bauder and others at Central. The similarities may be there in some areas at Saylorville with Central, but they aren't the kinds of things that are highlighted in an admiring or appreciative way.

Also, somewhat related, the IARBC and Saylorville are no longer affiliated--http://www.iarbc.org/Content/10822/352781.pdf (page 6)--though Saylorville is in fellowship with the GARBC, last I knew.

Greg Linscott
Marshall, MN

Greg Linscott's picture

I'm not meaning to highlight Saylorville as the sole example, Joel. You probably would know of churches in your neck of the woods that would have similar emphases as Saylorville in contrast to the practice and philosophy being articulated by Central.

Greg Linscott
Marshall, MN

Joel Shaffer's picture

Greg Linscott wrote:

 

Joel Shaffer wrote:

 

so probably very similar in doctrine and practice, but Nemmers is still within certain fundamentalist circles (GARBC, IRBC) and Dever and Mohler are immersed in Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical (TGC) circles? 

 

 

The Central document notes:

We also reject the "new-image Fundamentalism" that absorbs the current culture, producing a worldly worship and a pragmatic ministry. These self-professed fundamentalists often follow the latest trends in ministry, disparage theological labels such as Baptist, and aggressively criticize any version of Fundamentalism not following their ministry style.

The "practice" is where I think you see a lot of contrast. I think you would see more similarities in what Dever's church practices in corporate worship and what Central wishes to promote than you would between Central and Saylorville. I would also say that would be true about the "aggressive criticism" cited. Mohler and Dever have spoken of similarities, as have Bauder and others at Central. The similarities may be there in some areas at Saylorville with Central, but they aren't the kinds of things that are highlighted in an admiring or appreciative way.

Also, somewhat related, the IARBC and Saylorville are no longer affiliated--http://www.iarbc.org/Content/10822/352781.pdf (page 6)--though Saylorville is in fellowship with the GARBC, last I knew.

At the same time, when it comes to corporate worship philosophy and practice, Dever and his church is one of gospel-centered Hip-Hop's biggest supporters (both Trip Lee and Shai Linne have been taken part in their Elder Training ministry).  Granted I don't really know much about Saylorsville except for what's on their website.  Interestingly in the I'm New section of their website,  they share this about their worship. "At Saylorville our music in contemporary but our focus is on substance and truth over style and performance."  

 

Greg Linscott's picture

Joel Shaffer wrote:

At the same time, when it comes to corporate worship philosophy and practice, Dever and his church is one of gospel-centered Hip-Hop's biggest supporters (both Trip Lee and Shai Linne have been taken part in their Elder Training ministry).  Granted I don't really know much about Saylorsville except for what's on their website.  Interestingly in the I'm New section of their website,  they share this about their worship. "At Saylorville our music in contemporary but our focus is on substance and truth over style and performance."  

...which would to some degree explain why in the end, Central does not identify with either. Smile

Greg Linscott
Marshall, MN

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