Why Churches Talk the Great Commission but Don’t Do It

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?  


  • Mark says:

    I think you have a typo in 6. Shouldn’t that with be without?

    Otherwise, good article.
    Some fear getting too many new people. Others see missionaries who come over to the US merely to beg for money. The missionary either preaches on why more people, money, etc are needed or the previous year’s results. Few people ever meet the missionary at a church social event. The church leaders just decide how much money to send and where without taking input. Look, a great mission field are US universities but few people see it that way.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      You’re correct about the typo, Mark. Thanks for pointing it out. Good points in the rest of your response.

  • David Rubemeyer says:

    I believe we don’t use the filter of Christ when talking about the Great Commission and think more in the realm of reaching “Jerusalem” or “the ends of the earth”. Jesus command was just that a command and not a suggestion to reach across the street and around the world.
    The proclamation must come from the lead Pastor/Elder and not only via lip service but also a life service of “leading” the body to go.

    Thank you for a great reminder!

  • Jeff says:

    I think for #6 you meant to say “…without teaching them how.”

  • Carlton says:

    Lazy – pastors and people, s-I-n. Life is all about me and the heaven I am trying to make of it here on earth. We have lost perspective on death, heaven and hell.

  • Come on … we all know how easy it is to join a Baptist church … just come up with a letter from a “sister church” that says you’ve been baptized, and you’re in. Or, come forward during the last hymn and pray the prayer they prescribe for you, and agree to be baptized, and you’re in. No requirements, no obligations other than the nebulous “Be an active and faithful member”, and you’ll be on the rolls forever.

    I know of no other way to account for 16 million members, of whom we can locate perhaps 4 million on Sunday. And THAT is not making disciples of all nations.

    We don’t want to face the problem; we don’t even want to admit it or talk about it.

    I’m not God, but if I were, I wouldn’t see much reason to send people to most SBC churches, either. Our church has been having terrific revivals and wonderful VBS’s since we moved into our nice new building in 2000, and attendance today is 15% to 25% less than it was 14 years ago. With everything looking so right, the only explanation I can envision is that Good has simply stopped sending us people., We can’t be trusted with them.

  • I am a full-time Missionary serving the last eight years in East Africa,, Nairobi, Kenya, developing programs and projects for Orphans and Widows, first to tell then about Jesus Christ.
    All Pastors and churches should realize that MISSIONS IS THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE CHURCH.”

  • Have you heard about “Apocity: The Greatest Omission?” It speaks about some of the same things you mention here. Apocity is the sin of not evangelizing. This book not only diagnosis the problem, but provides a gospel-centered remedy. Check it out! More information here: http://www.watersourceministries.com/apocity/

  • It is hard to be a great commission church when so many congregations are preoccupied by internal strife and conflict. I also think that much of what we see in evangelical circles is “easy believer-ism” in which we recite the sinners prayer and we are in. Francis Chan’s book, “Crazy Love” and Idleman’s book, “Not a Fan” both address this tendency in many of our churches. Could it be that the great commission may need to start with those sitting in the pews? Just a thought.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      No question, Steve, that a renewed commitment to the Great Commission must not ignore the people in the pews.

  • Matthew says:

    I do not want to get tangled in semantics. However, the great commission is about “making disciples”. Two points:
    This goes beyond (A) simply securing a confession for faith in Christ. (B) Rather it encompasses the totality of the communally Shared Christian journey in Jesus from new birth to glorification.
    Your concern is correct concerning North American Christians indifference concerning point (a). What concerns me even more so is that they are abysmally indifferent to communally encouraging & admonishing towards the goal of point (b).

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      I don’t disagree with you, Matthew (see points #5 and #6, where I talk about the issue of discipleship). The Great Commission is more than securing professions of faith. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Kirk says:

    I wish we would stop asking the question about why we are not fulfilling the Great Commission and start realizing that if we do not follow the Great Commandment the outcome will stay on the same downward path. The problem is that most people in our churches (and most pastors) have no clue what it means to love God with ALL their heart, soul, mind, and strength and most of us think that we can love God who we cannot see without really learning to love our neighbor who we can see (see 1 John 4:20-21). We have become a self-seeking generation who looks at everything we do (personal spiritual formation, church growth, employment, “spare” time) with the mindset of a consumer…we have a good distance to travel before we hit rock bottom, but we are headed in that direction and until we learn to lay aside our pride and arrogance and recognize that we are headed down the wrong path, we will continue to lose ground. We have become a Christian society who measures what we do and what we know over who we are. The very fact that we talk about the Great Commission all the time (i.e. what we should do) over the Great Commandment (i.e. who we should be) is revealing. My heart grieves for what I see in our churches and for that matter (at times) what I see in my own life. We have created a complex monster (here in America) that we call Christianity and that monster is chewing up our churches one at a time. God have mercy on us.

  • David Scott says:

    Thanks for this reminder, challenge and kick in the pants concerning the task we have to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I agree with your points completely. Additionally, I believe our going is directly linked to our loving.
    It seems to me that we will never become fully committed to the Great Commission until we become fully consumed by the Great Commandment. On the most basic level, in the life of the believer, it seems to me that our supreme love for God is what will fuel a Gospel-driven love for others. So maybe as we let the Biblical texts speak to and form our hearts, we will see that our greatest challenge is more of a “Love” issue than a lack in any other area.
    Thanks for a great article and thanks for your steadfast love of the Gospel and it’s advancement.

    David Scott

  • Steve Miller says:

    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:

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

    • jonathon says:

      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.

      • Gary Sweeten says:

        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.

    • Steve says:

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

  • Mickey Willard says:

    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:

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

      • Mickey Willard says:

        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.

  • Gerald pimpleton says:

    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.

  • Hazel Garrett says:

    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:

      Thanks, Hazel. Blessings on your work with children!

    • Mickey Willard says:

      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.

  • 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.


  • Mark says:

    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.

  • David says:

    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.

  • 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!!!!

  • Scott says:

    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

  • jonathon says:

    In response to #2, how many pastors are willing to lead a weekly Bible study for non-Christians, knowing that after a decade, maybe as many as a quarter of the original attendees will have converted?

    That was the result an _effective_ missionary from the US had, when working in new, foreign field, up until the mid-sixties.

    (I am suggesting that the US is best treated like a nineteenth century non-Christian country, for the purpose of evangelism.)

  • Missionary says:

    I appreciate this post. As a relatively new missionary (2 years), I believe that the issues you have described have created an environment that produces unproductive missionaries in situations where missionaries are not sent out by a denomination (faith-based missionaries). Here’s my brief two cents:

    The current sending model for faith-based missionaries highlights the lack of concern for productive, biblically-based missions. By and large, churches no longer send missionaries, they simply give a small amount of money to one or more missionaries. These missionaries are then forced to travel across the country to raise the support that is required to live and minister in the country where they believe God has called them. This process typically takes a minimum of 20-30% of the missionary’s total career. Many of the churches that support missionaries in this way proudly display a map that shows all the countries around the world where they “support” a missionary.

    In addition to requiring a tremendous amount of missionary time, this hands-off approach has allowed missionary sending organizations to grow with little or no accountability from churches that support missions. As a result, the cost to send a missionary from North America grows every year. I personally know of missionaries who are ministering in third-world countries that have raised support that is more than 34,000% higher than the average household income. Where is the accountability from the church?

    Unfortunately, I believe that I could provide many more examples that should make the truly mission-minded person’s blood boil. The church needs to reevaluate how it does missions, hold sending organizations and missionaries accountable (or fully send & support a missionary or missionaries themselves), and redefine what it means to “support a missionary.”

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