In Operation World: 21st Century Edition (2001), Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk reported that the twentieth century global Church was very successful in her pursuit of evangelizing the world. In that period of time, Christianity was judged to have been the fastest growing religion. This was occasioned by the spirited efforts of such bodies as the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), the AD2000 Movement, and others. These all produced a combined thrust which drove evangelism beyond its traditional limits.
The Great Commission as Missions
A rallying feature of most of the Christian bodies mentioned above is their commitment to the Great Commission. In the last four or five decades particularly, this has brought a powerful renewal of focus and emphasis on evangelism, especially reaching the unreached people groups.
I recall, for example, that at the 1997 Global Consultation on World Evangelization (GCOWE) in Pretoria, South Africa, a heavenly fire ignited in the hearts of many church leaders. There were new commitments to winning the lost. Follow-up consultations and strategizing in different nations helped to realize the massive turning of people to the Church. The GCOWE made two impressions on me.
1. My local church should do more in reaching the unreached people groups in my country. After returning home, I consulted with my church leaders. We immediately adopted three unreached people groups. Our local church involvement in mission was also revised positively. We worked out how to involve every church member in mission support.
To be contextually realistic, we adopted a sponsorship approach different from any Western style. Through our Partial Missionary Sponsorship Program (PMSP), our church developed an increasing sponsorship capacity, and we are now supporting more missionaries. In 2007, we spent about $6.2 million NGN ($58,000USD) on 240 missionaries across our nation.
2. The global Church’s interpretation of the Great Commission was stuck. About ten years after GCOWE ‘97, Christian leaders have not realized the mistake of regarding mission as almost the absolute interpretation of the Great Commission.
It has been 216 years since William Carey presented his mission burden to his church board and invariably to the world. The passion of Christian leaders to reach the unreached people groups has not waned. In fact, new challenges keep emerging as mission proponents are diversifying the definition of “unreached people groups.”
As the pastor of a local congregation, I strongly believe that mission is the responsibility of the Church. Any church leader who has no vision for mission has no legitimate right to continue in that office. But are we right if we regard mission as the overriding interpretation of the Great Commission?
Re-visiting the Great Commission
People hold different views of what constitutes the Great Commission. A church in my city is named “Great Commission Ministry,” and has Matthew 28:19 as its motto. Many people refer to only this verse when speaking of the Great Commission. But other people, including myself, think the Great Commission needs to be spoken in terms of the whole of Matthew 28:18-20. If we include these verses, we have the promise of God’s power (v. 18) and presence (v. 20). In between these promises is the very divine intention of the Great Commission (v. 19-20). In it, the Lord has commanded three specific action steps: go, baptize, and teach. These combined will result in making disciples of all nations.
When we consider global Church emphases, it is obvious we have been faithful to go and baptize—as indicated by our pursuit of mission, evangelism, church growth, and church planting. In every mission conference I have attended, these have been the focus.
But the fact remains that making converts among the unreached people groups and planting churches in every hamlet on this globe cannot necessarily equate to making disciples of all nations.
The Challenge of Declining Spirituality
The research of Johnstone and Mandryk not only indicated that the twentieth century Church prospered greatly. It also identified nine needs emanating from such a rapid expansion of Christianity. The authors suggested that these needs should be regarded as important prayer points. But upon a closer consideration, each is undeniably symptomatic of spiritual decline. They are the strongest research evidence that the Church is experiencing a problem of spiritual decline.
We know that people are being won to the Church. Figures of the rate of conversion in countries around the world are often quoted. Pioneer and saturation church planting are going on. But what is the spiritual health of the Church? And, why is it taking Christian leaders so much time to appreciate and acknowledge that there is an increasing gulf between the growth of the Church in number and spread, and her spiritual growth?
Two possible answers would be that:
- Most leaders of the bodies which drive the pursuit of the Great Commission are not pastors by calling. Consequently, they tend to be more program-oriented, and less mindful of believers’ spirituality. Their understanding and presentation of the Great Commission constrain everyone else to missiological concepts and theology.
- Pastors’ emphases in the last few decades have shifted from concern for believers’ spiritual growth to more humanistic issues.
Africa’s incommensurate growth of spirituality has been described as “one mile wide and one inch deep.”
In June 2006, I shared at the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission that church leaders, particularly mission proponents, should not shy away from the critical challenge which observations like the “one mile wide and one inch deep” phenomenon poses for the global Church.
For example, the said phenomenon identifies Africa’s crucial spiritual challenge for this moment. However, it may point to a possible global problem yet unacknowledged by many Western Christian leaders. I argued in June 2006 that the “one mile wide and one inch deep” phenomenon was a direct outcome of Africa’s faithful and committed response to what popular Christian initiatives like the LCWE, AD2000 Movement, and others emphasized and encouraged us and the rest of the world to pursue.
Therefore, we should be asking questions such as,
- Has there been some deficit in the global Church interpretation, emphases, and pursuit of the Great Commission, such that growth in number and spread resulted, while growth in spiritual depth was suppressed?
- Why and how did the growth of Christianity in Africa come to be one mile wide and one inch deep?
- What was responsible for the general decline in biblical spirituality in the twentieth century Church, as identified by Johnstone and Mandryk?
Discipleship as the Missing Link
It is time church leaders realize the third action step is the spiritual-depth imbuing component of the Great Commission. Because the command to “teach” is yet to be interpreted and pursued with any sense of urgency, spiritual decline has set in. There are several reasons teaching has not been a major focus in our Great Commission efforts:
1. An assumption that teaching is a common church activity which most church leaders can do. However, much of the teaching in churches may well be “preaching.” Also, not all teaching can lead to positive change in believers’ lives.
2. An assumption that the initiative to interpret “teaching them to observe all things” is exclusively the responsibility of theologians and Bible scholars. But then, has their attention ever been drawn to this as it affects a holistic implementation of the Great Commission? Whenever church and denominational leaders participate in mission conferences, their agenda is usually narrowed down to the improvement of local church participation in the missions drive, and never on establishing and growing the converts.
The time has come when leaders of churches and mission initiatives should appreciate that the three necessary action steps in the Great Commission are critically related. As we obey the command “go” by engaging in mission and evangelism, souls are won. As these converts are baptized and brought into believers’ fellowship, the Church grows and spreads. As the Church teaches the converts to observe or abide in all the commandments of Christ, disciples are raised. In this context, teaching should be regarded as “the systematic training of believers in the accurate words of God and teachings of Christ, in order to facilitate their spiritual growth toward becoming his genuine disciples as their lives conform increasingly to his lifestyle.” I refer to this as transformational discipleship.
Christian leaders should not just be satisfied with converts. We should not only be counting how many churches we have planted and in how many places. We must turn the converts into genuine disciples of Christ. Genuine disciples constitute the most reliable spiritual force and resource for the Church both now and in the future.
The Bold Step of MANI
The Movement for African National Initiatives (MANI) took steps in Nairobi in February 2006 toward ameliorating this spiritual depth deficit in Africa. It recognized the indispensability of transformational discipleship, and sought to integrate it into a holistic pursuit of the Great Commission.
Global Christian leaders should emulate MANI’s bold step. Transformational discipleship should rightly be perceived as the key to the future of qualitative and sustainable Christianity. It should be given priority in any further emphases and implementation of the Great Commission if we are to maintain the drive for mission and church planting beyond this generation. To overlook this obvious challenge is to sustain the increasing decline in biblical spirituality, which most probably will continue to impact negatively even our most sincere efforts to fulfill the Great Commission.