How to Overcome the Great Commission Gap

As I look back over almost four decades of ministry, I can identify all kinds of times and ways the church has missed the mark. This is not about being critical as much as being honest. Every candid pastor can point to times when things in ministry did not go as they should have. And of course, I have plenty of my own ministry failures along the way. 

Over the past five years, my wife Sherry and I have devoted ourselves to identifying and seeking to correct what we would call a massive miss. This epic fail has become common in churches and costs more than we recognize.

Somehow the church has come to see discipleship and evangelism as disconnected. Or, even more insidious, as rivals or enemies. Too many pastors devote themselves to the work of discipling church members and helping them grow up spiritually, but see no connection to mobilizing believers for the work of the Great Commission. 

The Red Flags

Picture this: a Jesus follower who is devoted to prayer, Scripture study, church attendance, giving and even serving, but has no commitment to reach lost people with the good news of the Savior. They are all about growing in Jesus but aren’t engaged in going with Jesus on his mission. 

In local churches, this dangerous dichotomy happens when people have many discipleship opportunities, but there is little or nothing happening that mobilizes Christians to share their faith. You would think the same problem exists of a church fixated on evangelism, with dozens of ministries to reach the lost but very few directed toward the spiritual growth of believers. But I have never seen a single example of this. Churches are almost exclusively weighted toward discipleship, and many have almost no meaningful engagement in sharing the gospel with lost people in their community. 

A massive red flag in the world of denominations is when there is a clear split between discipleship and evangelism. In many denominations, the discipleship department is completely separate from the mission, evangelism and church planting work. A very real chasm exists between calling Jesus’ people to grow up in faith and teaching them to share that faith with others.

Maybe they are different divisions or departments with different leaders and teams. Maybe there is competition for attention, promotion and resources. Rather than working in harmony, there can be resentment. Some denominations seek to overcome this dichotomy by putting the same person in charge of both evangelism and discipleship. Too often this means one staff person gives about 95% of their time and energy to discipleship and toss the leftovers to evangelism. 

Think about your life, church and denomination (or the churches you network with). Is there a separation between discipleship and evangelism? 

The Solution(s)

We have an urgent need to bring evangelism and discipleship back together. Believers, church leaders and denominational staff members need to make it a priority to find solutions to this dangerous failure. Here are some suggestions from our study of this topic over the past five years.  

1. Biblical Theology

When Jesus was about to return to the glory of heaven, he gave us the Great Commission. The call was crystal clear: Reach people who do not yet believe in him and then baptize those people and connect them in the family of faith. But that was just the beginning. Next, we are to teach those people all the truth Jesus revealed, and help them live it out. Draw people to Jesus (evangelism). Help people grow in that faith (discipleship). These are two sides of the same coin. 

2. Ministry Philosophy

If God has designed evangelism and discipleship to work in perfect union, we need to follow his plan. Local churches should fuse together their efforts to grow believers and reach lost people. We need to be sure that there is a robust commitment to help people grow in Jesus and go with Jesus on mission. Our discipleship pathway should always lead to the world. 

Every discipleship ministry should help Christians move closer to both Jesus and the world he came to save. And every outreach ministry should help new believers grow up in Christ. Evangelism and discipleship are inextricably bound to each other, and this will shape the way we do our ministry and live our lives. 

3. Practical Structures

In the church I pastor and serve, we focus on a series of biblical markers of spiritual maturity. Each and every one is about growing in Jesus to the point that we then go with Jesus on his mission. We work hard to make sure that we never bifurcate discipleship and evangelism. Here is a quick introduction to how these can connect naturally.

• Bible Engagement. When we read the Bible, we hear the story of God’s love and redemptive work to save lost sheep, and our hearts begin to beat with his. In the Bible, we hear the call to share our faith and love the lost like our Savior. The deeper we go into God’s Word, the more we should be captured by his call to shine his light and bear his message to the world.

• Passionate Prayer. When we pray like Jesus, we ask God to send out workers into his mission field (Matt. 9:35–37) and that includes us. When we pray like Jesus, we find ourselves praying for the lost people around us who need what only the Savior can give. Prayer leads to outreach.

• Wholehearted Worship. As we worship God in the community of his people, the very presence of the Spirit of God shows up. When a nonbeliever sees authentic worship, they discover that we are not playing church but encountering God. They see that we actually believe what we say we believe, and have a relationship with our God. This opens the door for spiritual conversations.

• Humble Service. In a self-centered world, acts of humble service reveal the presence of Jesus. When we serve others as Jesus would, they see the Savior in our lives and actions. When nonbelievers ask us, “Why?” we can point to the One who served and loved us while we were still enemies of God. Service opens the door for the gospel. 

• Joyful Generosity. If you want to get the attention of people who live in a selfish culture, just be generous and keep a smile on your face. When a Christian shares what they have with spiritually disconnected people, they become curious. When nonbelievers see kindness expressed in a generous spirit, Jesus is near and the gospel can be shared.

• Consistent Community. It was Jesus who said that the world will know we are his people by the way we love one another (John 13:34–35). When believers engage in community in the church and with other Christians, we shine a light in this dark world. When we grow in community with each other we create a place where spiritually hungry people want to be. 

It is time that we recognize that discipleship will always lead Christ followers outward on the mission Jesus is on. The closer we follow our Savior, the more we walk into the world. To grow in Jesus should always mean that we go with him wherever he is going.