THE GREAT COMMISSION
“Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18–20, NLT)
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are given one simple task: GO! That’s it. Two letters: G-O! And we can say whatever we want about what that means and what it looks like, but one thing is for sure – GO is a verb. It requires movement. It takes action.
What are we commissioned to go and do? Make disciples of all nations. “Nations” could more accurately be translated as “people groups.” Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all types and groups of people.” Just like you can’t catch fish if you don’t go to where the fish are at, you can’t make disciples of all people if you don’t go to the people.
What are we supposed to do when we go to the people? Baptize and teach them to obey Jesus.
Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that Jesus never commanded us to “go and plant churches.” However, in the New Testament, baptism was a clear declaration of identification with a worshipping community.
“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.” (Acts 2:41, NLT)
This disciple-making didn’t result in individual believers floating through life on their own. Rather, they were gathered into a new community to learn and grow together.
“All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NLT)
The fulfillment of the Great Commission results directly in the formation of new churches. Wherever the Gospel is spread; wherever disciples are being made; the natural outcome should be the gathering of believers into new worshipping communities.
Churches are the organic product of the Gospel at work. That is not by chance, but by God’s design. The Church is God’s plan to extend his Gospel of grace to all people. It is his “Plan A” and there is no “Plan B.” Nothing else – not evangelistic crusades, radio broadcasts, TV programs, parachurch organizations, compassion ministries, educational institutions, or economic policies – has the consistent redemptive impact of the church.
In fact, I’ll take it even one step further. Study after study has proven unequivocally that nothing – not existing churches, revitalized churches, or even growing mega-churches – produces more disciples than dynamic new churches. It’s not even close! Church planting is the most-effective means of making more disciples. Hands down!
The problem is we don’t have nearly enough churches today to fulfill the Great Commission.
In 1820, there was one church for every 875 Americans. In the eyes of many Protestants, this was not nearly sufficient, so from 1860-1900 church planting boomed. Even though the population continued to grow, by the turn of the century there was one church for every 430 Americans. At that time, nearly one-third of all the congregations in the U.S. were less than 25 years old![i] These young churches reached into people’s lives and affected a shift in the religious landscape. The percentage of the country’s population involved in the life of the church and identifying themselves as “religious adherents,” rose steadily from 17% in 1776 all the way to 53% in 1916.[ii]
Did you catch that? One hundred years ago, more than half of Americans were in church on Sundays. What has happened since then? We’ve completely lost ground. We are back to where we were in 1776 with only 17.5% of Americans going to church on any given weekend.[iii] Could it be that our churches have become old and stale? Could it be that our churches have lost a zeal and vision for the creation of healthy new churches?
Church historians have noted that after World War I church planting in the U.S. plummeted. Towns across the country had their church and felt no need for additional ones. Turf wars began. There was resistance from older congregations to any new churches beginning in “their neighborhood.” Unfortunately the vast number of congregations peaked in size in the first 25 years.[iv] They either remained at that size or slowly began to shrink. So as time passed, the American population continued to grow, while church planting stalled, and current congregations shrank.
Today, experts say that we need to plant an additional 3,500 more churches per year than we are currently just to keep up with population growth. Every year, the number of unchurched Americans increases by 1 million people per year. [v] Is it any wonder why we’re seeing such a continuous downward spiral of moral and ethical behavior in our society? It’s not because we stopped praying in schools, or started teaching evolution. It’s because we stopped planting churches.
What can we do about this downward trend? We need to vigorously plant new churches all across the U.S. – in large cities, small cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural communities. New churches best reach new generations, new residents, and new people groups. Specifically, research shows that new congregations bring 6-8 times more new people into the life of the church than an older congregation of the same size.[vi] Evangelical churches under 10 years old grow at an annual rate of 16.5% compared to 0.6% for churches 10 – 40 years old and -1.1% for churches over 40 years.[vii]
This isn’t transitional growth, as many wrongly assume. Dozens of studies have shown that the average new church gains 60% – 80% of its new members from people who are not attending any prior church; whereas, churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80% – 90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.[viii] New churches have 4 times the conversion rate per attendee than established churches.[ix] A study of Southern Baptist churches found that existing congregations baptize 3.4 people per 100 resident members, while church plants average 11.7 per 100. [x]
Our experience with Epiphany Station, the church I helped plant 7 years ago in Thief River Falls, MN, validates this. In 7 years, we’ve grown from a dozen people to over 300. We’ve seen 126 people give their lives to Christ and 80 people baptized! All of this in a community that already had one church for every 500 people.
However you look at it, the evidence is overwhelming. New churches best reach un-churched people and simply grow faster than existing churches. Therefore, church planting best fulfills the Great Commission.
[i] Timothy Keller and Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer City to City, 2002), p. 29.
[ii] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008).
[iii] Dondald McGavran and George Hunter, Church Growth: Strategies that Work (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980) p. 100.
[v] Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird. Viral Church (Jossey-Bass, 2010), p. 25.
[vi]Timothy Keller and Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (New York: Redeemer City to City, 2002), p. 32.
[vii] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1992) p. 16.
[viii] Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, Why We Love The Church; In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009) p. 30.
[ix] Lyle Schaller, 44 Questions for Church Planters (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991) p. 12.
[x] The Church Leader’s Intelligence Report (email), April 1, 2009.