Great Commandment or Great Commission — Must We Choose?

I’ve reached a distressing conclusion about the church in America—and I really hope you can prove me wrong. My premise is that there are only two kinds of churches  in our country: Great Commandment churches and Great Commission churches.

Which one of these is your  church?

A Great Commandment church points to the teaching of Jesus that LOVE is the greatest commandment. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and we must love each other as He has loved us. Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? Churches that emphasize the Great Commandment correctly point out that nothing  should be more important.

A Great Commission  church, in contrast, has a much different focus. Although it may pay lip service to things like “love” and “community,” its passion is to win the lost and reach the unchurched. Instead of focusing on the Lord’s greatest commandment, it emphasizes that “Jesus’ final request should be our highest priority.” Such churches point out that immediately before ascending into heaven, Jesus was urging His disciples to go into all the world to preach, make disciples, and be His witnesses (Mark 16:15, Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).

So which of these two perspectives is right? Should we be a Great Commandment church or a Great Commission church?

Of course, this is a trick question. I remember the guy who asked me years ago whether I would rather have the FRUIT of the Spirit or the GIFTS of the Spirit. I answered that I would prefer to have BOTH—just like the early church did.

In the same way, it doesn’t seem like we should have to choose between the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. The Christians in the book of Acts clearly were full of love for one another. But they also  had a powerful outreach, and “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved”  (Acts 2:41-47). A pretty impressive combination, wasn’t it?

However, it’s not easy to find this kind of powerful combination in the American churches today. We have Great Commandment churches that inevitably become small and ingrown. Rarely do they win new converts or even attract new members among people who are already Christians. The demographic in most of the Great Commandment churches is getting older and older, with very few young people in the pipeline of leadership or church life.

Meanwhile, some of the Great Commission churches are growing by leaps and bounds. Almost overnight, some new churches have gone from a handful of people to a massive crowd of many thousands. But while these churches claim to have a vision beyond evangelism—producing real disciples and integrating them into a loving Christian community—rarely does this happen on a very deep level. Church attendees typically become spectators in an audience rather than functional members of a body. Can we really say that this is the Biblical model?

Few churches will admit that they’ve chosen between the Great Commandment and Great Commission. Years ago, I was the pastor of a church that had a wonderful mission statement: “Building together to reach out for Jesus.”  We placed a great value on creating an authentic community of Christians who loved each other and lived their lives together. According to our motto, we were developing these strong relationships in order to “reach out for Jesus.”

But as the years went by, our church increasingly focused on the first part of the mission statement and neglected the second. There were few converts, and the size of our church reached a plateau for several years. This troubled me. I wanted to be BOTH a Great Commandment church AND a Great Commission church. So I endeavored to make changes that would steer the church toward more outreach and growth.

So what were the results  of my effort to move our congregation toward being more of a Great Commission church? Frankly, the outcome was horrible, ultimately resulting in a devastating church split. (See if you’ve had a similar experience.) Because of our divisions, we no longer modeled either  the Great Commandment OR the Great Commission. To those hurt during this awful ordeal, I am deeply sorry. I meant well.

What do you think about all of this? Please tell me your thoughts on my premise about Great Commandment churches and Great Commission churches. I sincerely need your help in understanding this.

Do you have a church that truly models both  the Great Commandment and the Great Commission—not just in its mission statement, but in reality? Does your church truly win converts and equip them to be disciples and leaders in a healthy community of believers? If so, please give me your address so I can come and visit! We desperately need more churches like yours.