“Now the eleven disciples came to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus commanded them, and when they saw him they worshiped him, though some had their doubts. And Jesus stepped forward and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. So, move out and disciple all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep absolutely all that I commanded you; And look! I myself am right there with you all the days, to the consummation of history’”
I could not believe I had never seen it before, because it now seemed obvious. Obeying the Great Commission demands church planting. I had only heard Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus’s Great Commission, preached and taught as if it only applied to the responsibility of individual Christians to share their faith and evangelize the lost. But as I studied the text, I was convinced that the text meant more, though not less, than individual evangelism.
The authoritative Christ commands his disciples to disciple. How? He tells them to “move out” among all the people groups, “baptizing” and “teaching” them all that he has commanded. The greatness of the Great Commission is appreciated when its expansive is noted by the use of “all” four times: “all authority” (Matt 28:18), “all nations” (Matt 28:19), “all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:20), and “all the days” (Matt 28:20). Notice that the statement in Matthew 28:16 begins with the sovereign authority of Christ and Matthew 28:20 ends with his sovereign authoritative presence demonstrated in history and in history’s consummation.
The work of discipleship in Matthew 28:16-20 demands churches. Aggressive and active churches, which reproduce themselves because they are schools of discipleship and their training is for the purpose of application, with obedience rendered to the authoritative Christ. The “therefore” or “so” (Matt 28:19) in the translation above means that before the Great Commission is given to the disciples, and by extension the churches, Christ clarifies that we are not on our own as we move out in his name. We move out in the power of the one who has all authority in the cosmos.
Matthew’s Gospel clarifies that Jesus’s design for us is to create intimate discipling communities, places that function as an outpost of the kingdom that produce loyal kingdom citizens2. The church is to be a community of disciplers and a gospel incubator for discipleship. In other words, the church does what individuals cannot do. Obeying the Great Commission requires kingdom community. Thus, fulfilling the Great Commission necessitates church planting. We can have too many churches in a particular area, but we cannot have too many healthy churches in any area. The more the better. Strategic thinking about the Great Commission prioritizes the spread of the gospel in unreached areas but it should never pit reaching the unreached against planting healthy churches in reached areas.
Our conviction at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church that the Great Commission demands church planting has driven our decision making as we have experienced growth in congregational size. We have frequently stated that our goal is not to see how infinitely large we can get on one site. Nine years ago, our church built a new facility to meet in. We decided to emblazon the words Great Commission Center across the front of the building as a persistent reminder of our mission. Our facility is not to be merely a place where people come but it must also be a place where people are constantly sent out from as well.
This past Sunday our church membership dropped significantly as we had a Launch Sunday service commissioning our members in Madison County, KY as an autonomous church, to be known now as Ashland Church. Some of our best and most passionate Christ-followers are now members of Ashland Church and no longer members of our congregation. Losing them was a triumph of the Great Commission that we enthusiastically celebrated. Yes, the Great Commission is causing our church to shrink and maybe it should yours as well.
We plan on losing church members because of the Great Commission until Jesus returns because we believe it is our best investment in the kingdom of Christ. In a couple of future posts, I will tell our story and let you know our strategy of Mission to Campus to Plant. It is a combination of church revitalization, temporary multi-site, and church planting. I will do this hoping to stimulate your thinking rather than to give you a blueprint to follow. The primary ingredient is a commitment to plant churches because you love Jesus and want to obey his Great Commission. If you possess that you will figure the rest out.
- Translation of Matthew 28:16-20 from F.D. Bruner, in Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 804.
- Broad movements that reveal Jesus’s design for us to keep producing discipling communities in Matthew: Kingdom life for disciples as they live together as the outpost of his kingdom (Matt 5-7). The secrets of the kingdom and its growth (Matt 13). The Messiah will build his church (Matt 16). The priority of community for kingdom citizens (Matt 18). The authoritative evangelistic mission of kingdom citizens to plant churches that plant churches (Matt 28). The continuing work of Jesus by the power of the Spirit through the disciples preaching the gospel and planting churches (Acts).