Deep and Wide: How Your Church Can Pursue Both

Depth without width and width without depth — you can't have one without the other and make strong disciples.

The Great Commission is, in many ways, the marching orders of the church, the benchmark by which we measure success. Inherent to the Great Commission is the command to make disciples, which implies two types of growth — width and depth. We are to reach people from every nation on earth. That’s width. We are to make true disciples of them, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded. That’s depth. To be faithful, a church must vigorously pursue both.

Depending on a person’s disposition, however, it is easy to gravitate toward one or the other. It certainly makes decision making a lot easier. But evaluating success by width alone or by depth alone is both unfaithful and self-defeating. Churches that grow only wide (and not deep) are not growing nearly as wide as they think; and those that grow deep (without caring about width) are not nearly as deep as they think.

Width Without Depth is Unfaithful

When a church produces converts who aren’t really disciples, the “width” they’ve produced is illusory. Jesus did not command us to make converts, but to make disciples and to teach them all the things he commanded us. I shudder when I hear pastors imply that their task is to just get people “saved and baptized,” and that other people can worry about growing people up in their faith. That is a faulty — and a deadly — view of conversion.

Think of the parable of the seeds (Matt 13:1–9). Jesus warned us that there would be those who appear saved, but ultimately fade in the sun or get choked out by thorns. Where are those people? Many of them are in our churches, blissfully relying on a past experience and refusing to go all the way in their faith. Make no mistake: Teaching people to walk faithfully with Christ is not a matter of simply bringing people to maturity; it is a matter of salvation.

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I am not against counting numbers. Jesus counted them; Acts is full of them; the shepherd in Jesus’ parable was so in touch with his number of sheep that he knew when one was missing. But count and celebrate the right ones, recognizing that heaven counts different numbers than many of our Christian magazines. Heaven counts disciples, not those who merely prayed a prayer, signed a card or got dunked in a baptismal.

So those who grow wide without also focusing on growing deep are not really growing as wide as they might think. If they are producing only converts and not disciples, then their growth is a charade.

Depth Without Width is Unfaithful

I know that it is very possible to be faithful to God and to see very little visible fruit, particularly in terms of quantifiable numbers. Many great men and women of God labored (and labor) for years to apparently no avail; I don’t want to disparage their faithfulness in any way. But these people would be the first to admit that while the fruit seemed sparing, their vision was still immense. The gospel teaches you to dream big, and to continue yearning for it even when you don’t see it.

Jesus taught his disciples to think like this. When he called Peter, he did so by bringing in a huge haul of fish and saying, “This is how you will catch men.” And remember, the Great Commission has as its scope every nation on earth. So the question for those of you who are not seeing growth is: Do you desire to see a harvest? Do you weep over the lost of your city — like Paul did, like Jesus did?

Is it possible that you are using an excuse of “faithfulness” to hide a root of unbelief? Perhaps you simply do not believe that God could bring a flood of growth. You would not be prepared for it if it happened. You are skeptical when you hear of growth from others. God’s arm, however, has not grown short. His ear has not grown heavy. He is as moved with compassion as he was the day he cried out for their forgiveness from the cross; and he is as powerful to save as the day he walked out of the grave. So let us follow God faithfully, expecting great things from him and attempting great things for him.

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