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SHOULD THE TAIL WAG THE DOG?

“If you indeed continue in the faith having been founded and steadfast and not being moved away from the hope of the Gospel which you heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, of which I Paul became a servant” (Colossians 1:23).

“In fact, Christ, Himself, spelled out the mission of the church in what we refer to as The Great Commission . . . . That commission from Christ is the sole reason why the church exists today.” – James Longstreet, http://www.christianpost.com

Is fulfilling the “Great Commission” the primary reason why the church is left on earth? You would think so from listening to many voices and reading a lot of articles in our day. It appears to me that this assumption needs to be closely scrutinized. For something that is said to be so central and vital, why is teaching and exhortation about it absent from the New Testament epistles and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation?

If one surveys the history of what called itself church, it would be discovered that there was virtually no thought or emphasis on “evangelism” or “missions” because church and state were joined together like Siamese twins from roughly AD 300 to AD 1700. When the age of exploration blossomed in the 1400’s, the religion of the nation was taken to the lands where her ships landed. For example, Christopher Columbus was sent forth by Spain as a representative of the state and church of that country. This was not evangelism, but rather empire-building.

What we call “missions” did not develop until 1792 when William Carey published his controversial book, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, and then in 1793 he left with family members for India.

In America in the 19th Century, fueled by the likes of Charles Finney and D.L. Moody, the necessity of “fulfilling the Great Commission” began to emerge. Mission Societies multiplied in the States and England.

After WWII American evangelicalism was bombarded with exhortations to “fulfill the Great Commission” because, it was taught, Jesus could not return until the Gospel had been preached to every people group on earth.

So, it would appear that in the 2000’s evangelicalism is now consumed with a wide range of “discipleship” programs based on the assumption that we are responsible to “make disciples of all nations” in order to pave the way for Jesus’ return.

What I sense is that we have allowed evangelism-discipleship to become our obsession, and in the process Jesus Christ is pushed to the periphery. Jesus becomes a means for us to fulfill a pressing duty. Everything is about “making disciples,” “multiplication,” and programs designed to accomplish these ends.

Would we do well to perhaps re-focus on Christ? As we are consumed with following Jesus, how can we not share him with others and reach out to the needy? If you are pursuing Christ, getting to know Him in the depths, then He will ooze from your being. You won’t be able to help but talk about Him to the lost and broken people around you! If He is truly your sole passion, your life will change and your character will be sharpened naturally. People will see Him in you and begin asking questions like, “What makes you tick?” Paul said, “Do good to everyone, especially those in the Lord’s household.” But it is a grave error to run after “causes” and “movements” and “fulfilling the Great Commission” in a way that functionally makes Christ just a means to such ends – instead of exalting Christ as the center, the Alpha and Omega of everything.

Bob Emery drives home a point I think we all need to ponder. “In our pursuit of Christ, assaults on that pursuit can come from many quarters. They may come from a friend, a relative, a parent. They may come in the form of seemingly innocent comments like . . . ‘You should be doing this or that.’ ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’ ‘You have a lot to give. Why don’t you start something?’ ‘Why aren’t you more involved in your church, in giving, in Bible studies, in missions?’ . . . . You should, you should, you should . . . . The question is, do we heed these voices or do we focus on ‘the one thing’ our Lord says is important? . . . What is that one thing? . . . . The one thing that is necessary is to sit at the feet of Jesus and take your place as a receiver. It is to behold his beauty. It is to spend time in his presence, admiring him, adoring him, and loving him, taking in all that he is and all that he has to give. It is to allow him the place he has always wanted to have in your life – to allow him to be the source and giver of all things” (His Desire Is For Me: The Story of Solomon and the Shulammite, Deep River Books, 2011, pp. 183, 185).

In Colossians 1:23 Paul affirmed that even in the First Century the Gospel had been proclaimed in all creation under heaven. Is the “Great Commission” something that is left for us to “complete,” or is the “knowledge of the Lord” coming to expression in people all over the world because Christ promised, “I will build my ekklesia”?

Does Father want us to constantly feel guilty about not “fulfilling” something, or does he desire for the life of his Son to come to expression through us – the Son he has put his seal upon – the Son he has told us to hear in all of life. Father delights in his Son. Isn’t that where our delight should be?

If it remains for us to “fulfill the Great Commission,” then truly it will be a mess. But we can put our confidence in the Lord who will bring to pass his eternal purpose in Christ. In my book Christ Minimized? A Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, I comment on the concerns expressed about eternal destinies depending on human efforts and resources:

Can Christ the King Overcome A Flat Tire?
Love Wins asks these questions, “If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us – what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire? This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else’s hands?” (p. 9).

Would the eternal purpose of God in Christ to secure and maintain a Bride for the Son – a purpose in which the Lord works everything out according to the counsel of his will – be left in the hands of frail human beings and adverse circumstances (Ephesians 1:11; 3:11)? Absolutely not! If Father intends to reveal Christ to a person, he will oversee all of the circumstances. If someone fails to speak when they should, or if a car breaks down in the middle of the road – the Lord will find other means to accomplish his plans.

Our life is not about “making disciples,” “multiplying churches,” or “completing the Great Commission in our generation.” Our life is Christ. The Lord’s word to us is – as branches are organically joined to the vine, so “abide/remain in me and you will bear fruit.” To lift up any goals, or means to such goals, is a sure snare. Of course, Paul traveled around and endured many hardships for the Gospel’s sake. But his passion in life was not to be a “soul-winner,” to see a church planted in every city, or to envision millions of house churches covering the earth. He summed up his life’s passion with clarity: “for me to live is Christ . . . . the love of Christ compels me . . . . that I might know him and the fellowship of his sufferings.”

If Jesus is the Alpha and Omega – the A to Z – then what else is there to pursue? Can we be satisfied with Jesus Christ, or must we descend to programs and/or strategies to “win the world”? — Jon Zens, December, 2011

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Comments

  1. Catherine Seebald says:

    I love the clarity the Lord gives you — thank you for speaking what He puts on your heart.

    • A definite Amen. We in so many ways put the cart before the horse whether mission or ministry.IE I met some brothers the other day and the plan was to feed and cloth the homeless. Great ! When I arrived we headed out to find that no one knew any homeless or where they were so for many hours we searched with flashlights. No one saw the humor in this except me who has done it this way for many years before I realized that when I abide in the vine MANY opportunities present themselves and before you know it you are meeting friends that want to know Jesus, or visit in prison or feed and cloth. Being in Him makes being a human being much more fun that a human doing :-) Can’t wait to meet you John

  2. Jon, I like your writings, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to say in this latest blog. If I accept your characterization of how people view the Great Commission, then certainly you are correct. But in reality I know few who would fit that characterization. I think the greatest danger in the OC “movement” is it’s growing introspective focus – which rejects or seeks to diminish anything that is not subjective and internal to our walk with the Lord and each other. It comes close to the historic problem of antinomianism as well as gnostic dualism (the spiritual is good, so we must avoid God’s material creation). The Great Commission and true ekklesia are not either/or. They are all part of an organic whole. One naturally leads to the other, where there is health.

    • Some further thoughts as I consider what Jon wrote. I do what I “ought” to do because the life of Jesus is in me – which is expressed by being holy, for He is holy. I also go out into the world to disciple the culture (the meaning of the Greek word “ethne” that’s sometimes mistranslated nations in the Great Commission) because of that life that’s in me and as an expression Jesus through me. I doubt Jon would disagree. However, we must be careful about our focus. When we make or suggest that things are either/or – or reinforce the pathology of those who reactively engage in false dichotomies because of their own bad experiences – then we create a problem that’s just as significant as the one we are trying to counter. We can’t promote one legitimate aspect of God’s redemptive plan by abusing or minimizing another. Outside OC, I see the Jesus-through-me “mission” mentality abusing the legitimacy of the Jesus-in-me and Jesus-among-us “ekklesia” mandate. Yet in the OC “movement”, I see the Jesus-in-me and among-us “ekklesia” mentality abusing the Jesus-through-me “mission” mandate. Like the false debate over faith and works, error often comes from truth out of balance.

      • Well said. My thoughts exactly. Humans always seem to swing from one extreme to another. I am seeing the OC’s aversion to programs and leadership manifesting in aversion to making a radical, physical life change such as moving to another country, and having any leadership in our Bodies, which the early church obviously had in elders. I hope and pray that the OC movement isn’t just another flash in the pan like so many before. For sure, the method of it’s undoing will be trying to do and speaking against all things institutional in the name of introspective Christianity. I have already seen this in some and they have ended up forgetting about the demands that Christ has made of our lives and the responsibilities that He did indeed leave us with.

      • Jim,

        This article is a breath of fresh air in light of the prevalent conversation that is occurring in the name of ‘organic’ church today. Many are using the ‘organic’ church conversation as just another means to accomplish the misguided end of producing individual ‘disciples’. In light of the New Testament vision of Jesus Christ (Head & Body) that fills Paul’s epistles, the term ‘individual disciple’ is an oxymoron.

        The Lord NEVER desired us to take our focus off of Him and His life so that we can have the goal of making individual disciples. In light of the rest of the New Testament, ‘discipleship’ is to be understood in the context of the whole (ekklesia), not the parts. Apart from the whole, the ‘parts’ have no function anyway.

        With that said, the ‘mission’ of the whole is to express Christ’s life through deep communion with an indwelling Christ. Just like in marriage, when intimacy occurs, new life (conception and birth) is the byproduct. If your focus is on conception and birth, however, intimacy & communion between the couple will eventually die. When this occurs, long term conception and birth will cease.

        • Jamal, you mix your metaphores. I am all into intimacy, and I love intimacy. But when birth occurs, I’m also into fatherhood. Fatherhood involves discipleship, mentoring, showing by example. I’m into reproducing not just through conception, but also reproducing what it means to be mature. No child is born with the maturity and skills required for life. Yes, new life is a byproduct of intimacy, but mature sonship through dedicated fatherhood is not necessarily so. Our society is dysfunctional largely because we have much conception but no so much fatherhood. Why would we want to “reproduce” such a dysfunctional mentality in any local ekklesia?

          • Jim,

            Thx for your reply to my comment, but what you said here has nothing to so with this article. Setting the example for the flock (ekklesia) is something that will occur as a byproduct of living by Christ’s divine life. Again, the goal is not ‘trying’ to be an example for the flock, (that is a distraction). Rather the goal is living by Christ’s divine life which, in itself, is a great example to the flock.

  3. Well said Jon.

    These last few days God has been speaking to me about being “concise” with my life and my “stuff”. He wants a “clarified” Sybiljean.

    To make clarified butter you must heat the butter slowly til the water evaporates and the solids sink to the bottom of the pan. What’s left is pure butter that can burn at a very high temperature.
    I believe this is what the Father wants for His Son’s Bride. He wants us to spend time alone with Him until all of our own human spirit guidance (water) evaporates and those “solid” ideas and beliefs, we are so sure of, removed.
    Once we ourselves are “clarified”, we will then be ready to be lead by the Holy Spirit, our true Water of Life, and no longer be held back by so-called “time-tested solid programs and plans”. (In deed they have been “tested” and found wanting.)

  4. Great Blog Jon!
    I have been relational housechurching and planting for 30 years
    The only way it really works is if Jesus is central, no other plan
    or program works. In fact doing evangelism or discipleship
    often is very counter productive.
    http://notesfromthebridge.wordpress.com

    Christopher “Captain” Kirk

  5. Amen, Jon.

    When we turn our focus and our passion onto the Lord Jesus Christ, evangelism, discipleship, and spiritual growth will happen naturally. We need not strive in religious duty to “make disciples”, we need only rest in Him and get to know Him. Besides, how can we tell people about someone we hardly know?

  6. Jim,

    I don’t get that from Jon’s article at all.

    To me, it was very clear that what he was saying is that if we are living by Christ, with Him as our Life, then the fruit will be born quite naturally. Am I missing something here? How is that being one-sided? I don’t see it as emphasizing one aspect of God’s plan over another. It’s more a question of order. Which comes first? Jesus made it quite clear that apart from Him you can do nothing. That abiding in Him as the Vine is everything there is for spiritual fruit. It’s definitely NOT an either or situation. It’s a First things First situation! Just as you cannot have a tree without a seed, you cannot have fruit without the root.

    As I see it, Christ must have the preeminence in all things before we can ever hope to see fruit that is the expression of the nature and character of Christ. I’m just sayin.

    Thanks Jon for a great post!

    • Milt, let me emphasize how much I respect and have benefited from Jon’s writings. I have changed my views on some crucial things based on Jon’s influence. However, I don’t think this blog does what you say. You see in the blog an affirmation that that ekklesia leads to fruit, but it doesn’t tell us what that fruit is – other than apparently ekklesia itself. I will go so far as saying that the Kingdom of God is bigger than ekklesia. Healthy ekklesia is part of the Kingdom of God, for sure, but not the sum total of His Kingdom. Thus, the object and fruit of ekklesia is not itself. Maybe that’s where we disagree.

      The blog pointedly tells us what mission and the Great Commission are not, while trying to express what ekklesia is. So how can it be anything, in practical terms, other than an either/or exposition on God’s redemptive plan – especially if the Great Commission has already been fulfilled (which could be interpreted several ways, and it’s not clear to me what Jon means by that, which also I fear feeds the growing introverted trends within the OC community).

      I agree with what ekklesia is – as far as Jon goes. I fully agree 100% that a local expression of the ekklesia must never become focused on a particular “mission” – whether it is discipleship, evangelism or whatever. However, any healthy ekklesia – which goes from Jesus in us to Jesus through us – will be involved in more than itself. If that’s what Jon is saying, then we do in fact agree. But I don’t get that from the blog.

      As part of a team that’s been planting “organic” churches in our area, we understand that point about not imposing “mission” and we practice it. In fact, it was the Lord’s focus during Sunday’s time of fellowship together.

      Ekklesia must never latch onto one aspect of Jesus’ ultimate purpose of reconciling all things to Himself, to the exclusion of other aspects of his utlimate purpose. We get that. But it is hard to see how the Lord’s ultimate purpose will ever be more than an introspective ekklesia if we simply say what the Great Commission is not, and what does not look like to disciple whole cultures, and what it does not mean to reconcile ALL things to Christ.

      Look, I’ve been very vocal in objecting to the same things Jon is criticizing in his blog – especially when it comes to how the Church has distorted God’s redemptive purpose and how the Church has lost its way. But I think this blog feeds the growing isolation and introversion among OC folk. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Let’s find balance and learn how to participate in all aspects of God’s redemptive plan.

      At least, that’s my appeal to Jon as a man I respect and listen to very, very carefully.

    • I can’t speak for Jim, but I see my reaction to this as very similar. It is rooted in the knowledge that Christ must come as the root and center of everything we do, not just evangelism or long distance evangelism, missions. All movements throughout history tend to over focus and sway one way without swaying back the other. We are not as steady and solid as Christ. He is the Rock our lives are built on but the fact is that the building still sways from one side to the other while the Rock remains steady and secure. And the leaning to one side is a ‘proven’ concept among Christians from 1 century until today. Beings that the truth is so obvious it makes one wonder if he is implying something else. That may not be the case, as you have said. But it always good to confront and address these things at the head. People tend to hold back on the rougher, more extreme side to their beliefs and so when someone purposes something that seems may be leaning and not swaying back and forth it makes people worry that the house is eventually going to come crashing down in the name of a limited one-sided belief.

    • Jim, thanks for your response! You indicate that you are not sure what I was trying to say in this post. Your overall remarks would point to the fact that indeed you didn’t get my basic points. And this seems to stem from the fact that you do not see what I see. You admit that if my characterization of the “Great Commission” wagging everything is true, then I am certainly correct. But you say that you only know a few that fit my characterization. Well, my observations lead me to conclude that many, many fit this characterization. That’s why I wrote this piece.

      I began with citing a person who represents what numerous others believe — “That commission from Christ is the sole reason why the church exists today.” This is what I am taking issue with, Jim. And I am suggesting that the serious problem with this tail wagging the dog is that – as Milt so well pointed out – the One who is First so often is absorbed into an agenda. When people focus on “multiplication” and “covering the earth with millions of house churches,” it just seems like Jesus gets left in the dust kicked up by the pursuit of programs and strategies.

      The ekklesia is at the center of God’s eternal purpose in Christ (Eph. 3:10). A vital part of that eternal purpose is the inclusion of people from all over the earth – in answer to the Abrahamic promise that Messiah’s seed would be numberless. So of course the ekklesia reaches out and extends an invitation to the nations to find genuine life in Jesus Christ. The natural way for this to occur is by the Body of Christ pulsing with the life of Christ in their daily walk among believers and “those outside.”

      I think it is a stretch to say that we “disciple the culture.” We mingle with people in a myriad of various cultures. We are bringing Jesus to people within cultures all over the earth. We don’t baptize culture and teach Jesus to culture, but we baptize and teach persons.

      Again, Paul’s passion was Christ, not to see house churches multiply until they cover the earth. I love the way Milt put it – “I don’t see it as emphasizing one aspect of God’s plan over another. It’s more a question of order. Which comes first? Jesus made it quite clear that apart from Him you can do nothing. That abiding in Him as the Vine is everything there is for spiritual fruit. It’s definitely NOT an either or situation. It’s a First things First situation! Just as you cannot have a tree without a seed, you cannot have fruit without the root. As I see it, Christ must have the preeminence in all things before we can ever hope to see fruit that is the expression of the nature and character of Christ.”

  7. Excellent.
    When we get the commission before the new commandment the commission is abit pointless.

  8. Wonderful, wonderful article, Jon. I appreciate what you’ve said here very much. Thanks.

  9. Jon, I’ve been working this out for a few years myself. It amazes me just how strong our cultural & religious traditions are. Thank God we have been redeemed from the traditions handed down to us.(1Pet.1:18) Thank you for articulating it so well.

  10. Jesus in every gospel (and specifically in the last chapters of each gospel) asked that His message and teaching (for remission of sins and discipleship) be preached and taught to all people and in all nations. Jesus also commanded us as His followers to love one another. If we love Him, we will love one another and we would also naturally and supernaturally extend that love to others who don’t know Him. That is the great commission repeated by Jesus in Acts 1:8 – being His witnesses filled with His Spirit and power.

    Evangelism/ Discipleship and Loving One Another/ Fellowship are not (and should not) be mutually exclusive. The fact that we believe and have been saved (and know the consequences of unbelief and how the Father desires that none should perish) should compel us to witness and preach the good news/evangelize. We do this and every other thing, including loving one another, in His power for without Him we can not do anything of eternal value.

    The fact that some lifeguards may be showing off their ‘rescues’ as trophies or abusing their function should not make us allow those drowning to drown. The consequence of unbelief, Jesus said is condemnation and destruction which is even worse than drowning.

  11. Lynn Wenzel says:

    An enjoyable article Jon! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Letshego Lechoenyo says:

    From this article I have learnt that Jesus Christ is the vine, we are the branches and that if we, the branches, remain in Christ, the vine, then we will produce much more fruit. The fruit that we will produce, is not firstly making more disciples, multiplying churches and in any way becoming greater in numbers. But rather the fruit that we will produce is the very nature, character and expression of Christ which is in itself more than capable in achieving the making of disciples and multiplication of churches, naturally so and not by us trying to make it through our human efforts, innovations and programs or what we might “think” will work. The balance here comes from being Christ centered and headed as He is our life, and if indeed Christ lives in us, then we should be dead to ourselves so that he can be clearly and purely expressed through his body, after all, what good is a body without a head?

  13. Thanks for sharing, Jon.

    I have always felt like churches were putting pressure on people in regards to the “great commission” as though those who are “busy with the work of the Lord” are those who find their true identity and happiness.
    Yet I have seen many “ministers” and church workers who are not truly happy and fulfilled, because they are trying to find their identity in a work to be done for God.
    I think that missional movements have certainly lost their focus, in the sense that they reflect that mistake of Martha, who someone believes that Christ will accept them more if they are out there witnessing for Him.
    I think indeed it is a matter of putting the cart before the horses – “Let’s be good witnesses for the Lord, so we can be really close to Him.”
    But He want to be close to us based on His finished work on the cross, not on us completing the great commission. Indeed bearing fruit (including reaching the lost) is a secondary event, which follows the main event, which is to have communion with Christ.

  14. “Our life is not about “making disciples,” “multiplying churches,” or “completing the Great Commission in our generation.” Our life is Christ. The Lord’s word to us is – as branches are organically joined to the vine, so “abide/remain in me and you will bear fruit.” To lift up any goals, or means to such goals, is a sure snare. ”

    These words are so essential. The temptation to make life Jesus + an agenda, or Jesus + a tradition, or Jesus + the burden that Jesus has put on my heart; is so overwhelming and yet so commonly accepted that not only is it not seen as sin it is sold in the marketplace of the church as good and productive use of time and money. Thanks for writing.

  15. Thanks to you, Jon, for allopwing God to speak to me through your words. What you have shared here continues to build upon the foundation God has been laying in my life after leveling 45 years of “religious” bricks I had been constructing as my own “tower of Babel”. May God bless as you continue to seek and serve Him.

  16. rafael ortiz says:

    God’s plan and God’s goal is the Church: a Church that enjoys Him and express Him. Preaching the Gospel is a mean, but not an end. the end is the glory of Christ enjoyed and expressed in a Corporate Body. If you notice carefully the Bible is all about Christ and the Church. This was the vision that was given to Paul.

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