Winning the world to Jesus isn’t all the Great Commission says—it’s not even the main point. God’s Kingdom is established on earth by living as Jesus told us day by day. If everyone goes to heaven but their lives do not change on earth, the Great Commission would still not be fulfilled. Letting people think it’s okay to hate others, ignore the hurting, stay unforgiving and live basically selfish lives simply because God will let us into heaven anyway is not the purpose of the Gospel.
Ever since I was a teenager, I have self-identified as an “evangelical” Christian. Evangelicalism is more than just a statement of belief–it’s a culture where I feel at home.
Living inside a culture makes it hard to view it objectively. We cannot imagine other ways of looking at being a Christian besides that of our own experience. The world around us certainly sees our faults, even if we don’t. The evangelical tradition has its problems, just like everyone else.
George Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture makes an astute observation about the fundamentalist/evangelical culture. He points out that it is a religion based on a never-ending campaign. We are good at crusading for salvation and various social causes, but we have been historically unsuccessful holding ground. There have been revivals which brought thousands to faith in Jesus, yet most of those converts disappear when the passion dies down.
If we look at the two-thousand-year history of Christianity, short-lived converts are not the norm. People who were converted stayed converted. In the first three hundred years of the faith, the Roman Empire was converted to Christ despite fierce persecution. Puritans and the Lutherans transformed the face of Europe.
Even so, American evangelicals are seeing a whole generation turn against us —not because they haven’t heard us, but because they have–and were not impressed. It is about time we ask ourselves why.
The problem isn’t Jesus—the world is still impressed with Christ. Talking about Christ–the real Christ, that is–will still stir the hearts of unbelievers. No, the problem is how we present Him.
One of the most quoted verses the Great Commission–Matthew 28:18-20 —
“Go into the world and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.”
Evangelicals are good at keeping the first part of this commandment, but not the rest. We have gone into all the world. There’s still more to be done here, of course, but there are now Bible-believing churches on every continent and in nearly every country.
Much of our effort now is aimed not at spreading the Gospel where it has never gone but trying to reclaim the places where the Gospel was once widely known but is dying out. Places like South Korea, Latin America, and Africa are now sending missionaries to Europe and North America.
We are still good at making initial disciples. We teach people to pray, read the Bible, share the Gospel and give to Christian causes. The last two points–evangelism and stewardship, have almost become an obsession with us.
We baptize people into churches, making them part of the organization. We sell them Christian T-shirts, bumper stickers, music, and a wide variety of simple “Bible” studies which tell them how to be better fathers, mothers, workers, etc.
We still stress the need to “witness” to others. Witnessing is usually defined as inviting friends to church and telling them about Jesus. Success is measured by numbers of baptisms and converts–by how many came to the altar, prayed the “sinners’ prayer” or joined our fellowship.
Over and over we dance the evangelical three-step—1) win them to Jesus, 2) give them basic training, and 3) send them out to win others. Then, if our churches are attractive and entertaining enough to keep people coming back and if the cost of discipleship is not too high, they may keep coming. Then they can be trained to bring their friends, who bring their friends, etc. This continues until people get run out of souls to tell.
Eventually, people get tired and start to fall away. We hardly notice at first, since new people keep coming. One by one, the old converts drop out, and we hardly see them. People come in but are not permanently changed. They still do not forgive their enemies, love their neighbors, or turn the other cheek. They are what they always were, but now they are doing it with a Christian label. The longer the dance keeps up the more they tire of dancing, and the harder it is to get others to join in. Christianity, which is supposed to be life-changing, becomes a multilevel marketing scheme for souls, guaranteeing salvation for the next life without bringing about lasting changes in this one. Eventually, society gets wise to it and stops responding.
The Great Commission is true, but we must read the second part. “Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.” It doesn’t end with conversion and baptism–it begins there. That is when we start the process of learning do to what Jesus commanded in every area of our lives.
The problem with the way we are presenting the Gospel is that we’re selling condos in an unfinished building. We invite people to eat meals of undercooked food. We’re promoting a lifestyle we’ve barely tried ourselves.
It’s good to invite people to Jesus, but all the while we should be seeking Him ourselves. The Kingdom of God must be completed in us by obeying all that He commanded. If we are to produce lasting fruit for the Kingdom, we must eat of it ourselves.
Discipleship is a lifetime pursuit. It involves laying aside our past as well as our old habits. We become one with Christ in the way we think, feel and behave—imitating Him in all things. It is more than laying aside our old life; we have put on our new life in Christ. We focus on transforming everyone else around while the one mission field over which we have absolute control—our own lives—goes unevangelized. To help others follow Christ, we must first follow Him ourselves.
Being a witness is not something we do, but something we are. When we are like Jesus, then we are a witness. People who look at us, see our sins more than they see Jesus. We are not world changers or conquerors, but empty vessels unless we are transformed by the Spirit.
— Do we really “take no thought for tomorrow” or do we worry about the future?
— Do we love our enemies, and pray for the welfare of those who don’t like us?
— Are we committed to being like Jesus, or comfortable in our own hidden sins and hypocrisies?
— Do we “abide in His love”, knowing that God likes and knows us personally?
— Do we have empathy for our neighbors, or do we ignore them?
— Can we trust in God when we don’t have all the answers?
— If we don’t experience God’s unconditional love in our souls, how do we expect to give it to our non-Christian neighbors?
What do you think? Are evangelical churches strong enough in teaching us to observe what Jesus commanded? Are churches too shallow in what they teach? Let us know.