When the Great Commission Doesn’t Feel Great
Let’s get it out in the open right at the beginning. Doesn’t something about mission and evangelism just feel “off” to you? Every Christian knows we’re meant to share the gospel and look for opportunities to witness to Christ, yet almost all of us find it a genuine struggle, if not a gloomy discouragement. The vital, final thing Jesus left his followers to do—the Great Commission!—seems to be the one thing about the Christian life that, frankly, doesn’t feel so great. While we’ve heard the motivational sermons, sat in the “how to” seminars, and tried to crank ourselves up to initiating a deep conversation with friends or colleagues, the whole enterprise tends to flood us with dread rather than enthusiasm. And that leaves us feeling awkward and ashamed.
Complicating matters is that most of us do have a sincere desire that the people we love would come to know the Lord as we do. When we give even a moment’s thought to the blessings of the Christian life now, let alone the hope of eternity with Christ, we hope and pray with real feeling that our loved ones might come to saving faith. The thing is that this longing doesn’t seem to translate very easily or very often into actual evangelism. Any passion and boldness we may have in prayer apparently evaporates under the spotlight at the dinner table or on the coffee break. Our words dry up, our confidence deserts us, and we could wish we were almost anywhere else in the world. If this all sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. Christians the world over will recognize your guilty gulp when evangelism is mentioned in the pulpit. We all experience the strange tension you’ve felt between the theory of cheerfully sharing the good news and the reality of frantically retreating and locking the door behind you. So, what is going on? What is the mysterious cause of our complicated relationship with mission?
Some Christians have decided to dispense with evangelism altogether, because they believe it to be downright inappropriate. The Barna Group found in 2019 that 47 percent of Christian millennials (defined here as those between ages twenty and thirty-four) believe “it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.”1 After all, is it really any of our business who goes to hell?2 Surely, they argue, it’s the epitome of pride to press oneself and one’s God onto another person. Within mainline denominations, “born again Christians” who believe in such “conversion” are sometimes looked on with suspicion as oddball fundamentalists. In 1993 representatives of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches drafted the Balamand Document, which included an agreement not to seek “conversion of persons from one Church to the other,” calling it a “source of proselytism.”3 This was a moratorium on mission. Meanwhile, some argue that certain groups are out of bounds when it comes to mission. In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced a report on Catholic-Jewish relations, which concluded that “campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”4 Similarly, in 2015, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews published a document that made it clear “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”5 In the secular world, attempting to bring someone else over to faith in Christ may once have been viewed as impolite or crass: now it may be regarded as something far more sinister. With the history of Western missionaries importing European culture to Africa and Asia, forced conversions, the complicity of the German church in the Holocaust, and Christians’ generally conservative social outlook, the spread of Christianity is seen as a means of oppression. Christian mission is associated by some with imperialism, White supremacy, and the hegemony of the powerful over minority groups. Brian D. McLaren argues that evangelism has historically been “a proclamation of the superiority of the Christian religion.”6
These intellectual and cultural sensitivities might be on the radar for some of us, but they are almost certainly not the real root of our internal nagging discomfort about mission. They may be a hindrance, but they don’t get to the bottom of what we’re feeling. It’s possible that other explanations come closer to the mark. Perhaps insecurity keeps us from evangelism. We worry what other people might think of us if we start “Bible-thumping,” so we keep quiet. Or perhaps our problem is fear of failure. We don’t feel well enough equipped or aren’t confident enough in the power of the gospel, so we dare not risk rejection or (perhaps worse) indifference. Again, these things may play a part in our predicament, but the diagnosis still doesn’t quite fit the symptoms. Cultural pressure, personal insecurity, or fear of failure seems to presuppose a burning passion in us to share the gospel that is simply being inhibited by some external barriers needing to be removed. A little training or a good pep talk could have us out on the streets in no time, fulfilling our hearts’ desire to proclaim Christ every moment of every day!
But here is the great admission that many of us need to make: when it comes to the Great Commission, our hearts aren’t really in it. Something far deeper than practical or operational limitations is causing our mission fatigue. What ails us goes right to the core of our relationship with God.
Here’s the Catch
If we are entirely honest, when we think about evangelism, we often feel something close to resentment. Many of us silently grumble that, in being recruited to evangelism, we’re being put upon. We first came to know Jesus very happily, receiving his mercy and his invitation to new life, but then along came this unexpected and slightly puzzling additional step of having to be a witness to him in the world. Like a car shifting into the wrong gear, we came to a juddering halt. We’d been offered free grace and forgiveness, but now there’s a demand? Christianity, we fear, was just too good to be true. Mission is the inevitable catch tacked on to the list of benefits we signed up for. It’s the complicated and rather unwelcome add-on to salvation that God has included in the deal as the sweetener for himself.
So we imagine that, in our salvation, God has done his part, and with that dealt with, he now sits in his heaven with his feet up while we are left below with what seems like the hard, dirty work of mission.
Psalm 96:3 says,
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
Isaiah 12:4 is similar:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.
There is simply no avoiding these clear commands of Scripture. God wants us to make him known in the world. This is our responsibility and our work as Christians. Jesus only adds to the task when he says that, as well as making him known, we’re to persuade other people to become his obedient followers: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20). As if the pressure weren’t enough already, Paul writes that the fate of the world is dependent on our broadcasting the message, for “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14).
So it seems that the Christian is left with no choice. In light of everything God has done for us, we owe him—and this is what he’s stipulated. So we buckle in, brace ourselves, and make the occasional attempt at sharing the gospel, when we can bear it. Like stepping into a cold shower, we grit our teeth and get it over with.
When encouragements come from our snatched evangelistic conversations or a friend agrees to come to church with us, we reveal our true approach by our secret reactions. We tell ourselves we’ve ticked the evangelism box or met our mission quota, paying off little installments on our debt to the Lord. Now we have something holy sounding to report to our church friends. We pat ourselves on the back for our moment of pious bravery.
Unless we honestly find God to be beautiful and enjoyable, we’ll have nothing worth saying to the people around us.
Nevertheless, having been drawn in by promises of easy yokes and light burdens, we have the sensation of being trapped in a contractual obligation. The thought of enjoying God forever had sounded warm and inviting, but the very word evangelism can send a chill down the spine. It makes the whole dynamic of the Christian life—even the very gospel we tout as such good news—seem almost distasteful. The worst of it is that all this ultimately reflects very badly on God, who begins not to look so good and attractive as we first thought. Like a PR agency representing a difficult client, we begin to wonder what we’ve got ourselves into. This reveals the real issue. The problem at the root of all our struggles with mission is almost certainly right at the beginning: with our view of God.
Getting God Right
If we believe that God is simply out to impose himself on the world and suck it dry of glory and praise, then we will never love and want to share him (even if we tell ourselves that God is entitled to do whatever he wants). If God seems to us a demanding taskmaster, we will never be his eager ambassadors in the world. If we feel ourselves conned into having to perform evangelism, we will never warm to the calling he has set before us. Unless we honestly find God to be beautiful and enjoyable, we’ll have nothing worth saying to the people around us. Until we see him aright, we’ll have no genuine desire to fill the world with the knowledge of our God.
This is an invitation to start again at the beginning with your vision of God. Our aim is to set before your eyes God as he truly is: God who is so full of life and goodness that he loves to be known; not as a campaign to impose himself on us or on the world but to give himself and share his own life with the world. We want to show that the God of mission is no different from the God of the gospel. In fact, it is precisely because God is outgoing and communicative that he is so good and delightful. His natural fullness and superabundance mean that he does not need to take or demand from us but freely and kindly loves to bless us. His mission is not to wring out the world for every last drop but to fill it with his own divine joy and beauty. Seeing this glorious God will change everything for us.
Mission is no clunky add-on to your own delighting in God. Instead, it is the natural overflow and expression of the enjoyment you have of him so that, like him, you gladly go out to fill the world with the word of his goodness. None of us can drum up enthusiasm for “mission” as an abstract activity to be gotten on with, especially if it’s caked in all kinds of negative assumptions and worries. But to see God as he really is is to delight in him. And as we grow in the knowledge and love of this God, we’ll find blossoming in ourselves his own desire to see the world filled with his blessing.
William Tyndale once described the gospel as “good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy . . . [for] which tidings, as many as believe, laud, praise and thank God.”7 The surge of happiness we know, as we appreciate God in his radiant kindness, is one and the same movement that opens our mouths in praise and proclamation. Our going out to the world with the gospel is not an endeavor that Christians have to hitch on to knowing God, bringing to the task a vigor and vim outsourced from elsewhere. Rather, the heart-gladdening, feetquickening reality of God is itself at once all the motivation, the content, and the zest of our going. It is precisely because God, from his own glorious fullness, fills us with joy in him that we begin to bubble over with it to those around. This is the theological dynamic of mission. The wellspring of healthy, happy mission is God himself.
- “Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” Barna (website), February 5, 2019, https://www.barna.com.
- Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2001), chap. 14.
- “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion,” Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, June 23, 1993, http://www.christianunity.va/, 10, 15.
- Consultation of the National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” (PDF), August 12, 2002, 1.
- Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable,” EWTN (website), December, 10, 2015, https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism, 6.40.
- Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Fait (London: HarperOne, 2010), 216.
- William Tyndale, A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, in The Works of the English Reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith, ed. Thomas Russell, vol. 2 (London: Palmer, 1831), 490.
This article is adapted from God Shines Forth: How the Nature of God Shapes and Drives the Mission of the Church by Michael Reeves and Daniel Hames.
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