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Re-thinking Matthew 28:19, 20

Rethinking the Great Commission

William L. Owens



DISCLAMER: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE IS NOT AN ATTEMPT TO MINIMIZE CHRISTIAN EVANGELISM. HOWEVER, IT IS AN ATTEMPT TO RECAPTURE THE FOCUS OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH.


At some point, in the hallowed halls of seminary training, someone made the point that the word “go” in the “Great Commission” passage was translated from a Greek word meaning “as you go.” It was generally agreed, after some research, that the technical meaning was to move from one point to another. We also agreed that these first century Christians were to share the Good News as they went on their way.

The Commission has not changed. Now we must ask: “Who is to do the sharing?” It becomes apparent that the Apostles were the first charged, because they had been the ones with Jesus. He had taught them directly and therefore they were prepared. However, when you look at the context, you realize that those present included believers who were not apostles or ones who held no official office. 

The Commission was given to everyone present. In fact, during the initial stages of the persecution, the apostles remained in the region of Judea while the vast majority of believers fled from the area. Most of them went North, and as they went, they shared the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the sins of the world. 

From their sharing, many came to believe upon Christ and were baptized. They began to assemble themselves in homes for worship.  These assemblies infected their society with a way of life dictated by the Holy Spirit. As they lived for Christ, their neighbors began to come under conviction about their sin. Those under conviction sought out the help of believers. They perhaps asked about how to get relief from their grievous conviction. Thus, one taught another, and Christianity grew. The effect of this process has molded Western civilizations into perhaps the world’s most educated, generous and free societies. 

Church history is replete with stories of how the “faith of Jesus Christ” spread at an amazing rate and under the most adverse conditions. However, things began to change. As the assemblies grew, organization was needed to facilitate ministry, and to care  for orphans and widows. Deacons were appointed and then elders or overseers were chosen to teach, pastor and offer leadership. Soon a religious hierarchy developed to oversee the religious system called Christianity. Admittedly there were pockets of resistance to this type of governance, but over the centuries, with differences over doctrine, the vast numbers of the assemblies cooperated and various denominations of the church emerged.

With central governance, came a subtle change from “go” to “come.” An idea began to emerge that only the pastors were equipped to deal with the needs of the soul. Therefore the people of God were to bring their friends and acquaintances to the assembly where they could be evangelized by the pastor through his message. Thus began the plight of non-liturgical churches. Why a plight? Because, there was a shift in the orientation of the service from worship to evangelism.

It seems, with the emphasis on religious organization came a dampening of  individual spiritual spontaneity. Therefore, without realizing it, more focus was on programs to promote the church to share Christ as opposed to individuals sharing Christ as spontaneously led by God’s Spirit. Though I believe it was unintentional, we pastors have unwittingly robbed our people of the joy of spontaneously leading others to Christ. By emphasizing that member bring their friends to church to be evangelized, we have subtly and unwittingly conveyed the message that only the pastor is equipped to lead people to Christ. Such an emphasis is part of Satan’s great lie! I must admit, I too have been guilty of falling into the trap of promoting church evangelism, at the expense of emphasing the blessing every Christian has to lead others to Christ. In fact, it is God’s primary plan. It has taken us centuries to sink into our current condition. 

We have followed Satan and his lies about how to grow our churches. For example, there has been a shift from God centered worship to focus on the needs of man and what appeals to him. However, the biblical emphases is God. Out of our love and adoration for God, we should seek to show love for man who is made in the image of God. If this statement is true, and I believe it is, then we should design our worship services to focus on God, His attributes, His Word, and His instruction to His people.

If, what I have set forth is true, how can we reverse the trend? There is no simple answer and there certainly is no secret formula! 

With this maxim understood, I believe we must begin where the church began. What does that mean? 

  1. It means we will, will follow the pattern of the early church. We will follow the Holy spirit’s leadership by focusing our worship service on  God the Father, in the name of His Son, and in the power of His Spirit.
  2. It means the content of our services will center on God, His Word and His instruction to His people.
  3. It means evangelism will become a secondary focus for worship services.
    (It should be noted that the public invitation in Christian worship services is only about 200 years old. As best we can tell it began with pastors inviting seekers to meet him in an inquirer’s room and was introduced in America by preachers holding public evangelistic open-air events where sinners were encouraged through Gospel messages to publicly come to Christ.)
  4. It means the church will shift its evangelism strategy from worship services to evangelistic events.
  5. It means believers, after being baptized, will be discipled and taught about the joy of naturally sharing their faith in Christ with others.
  6. It means teaching believers to be sensitive to pray for the spiritual needs of people they know and meet.
  7. It means to teach believers to depend upon the Holy Spirit to bear a bold witness in how they live and speak.

The above suggestions are just a few things we can do to begin re-focusing church worship to be God centered. No doubt the Lord will lead us to make further changes that will help us to recapture a sense of His presence and His glory.