A New Look at the Great Commission

Ralph V Harvey, 2002

Since my involvement in the founding and development of the Austrian Bible Institute, the Lord has been burdening me to search for the best investment of my remaining years (or minutes?) of missionary service. I am thankful for the insights which God has given me as a result of these studies (I’m still learning!).

I have attempted to analyze and reassess missionary policies and strategies presently in effect or currently popular in Austria as well as around the world. In forming opinions and drawing conclusions, I have sought to examine scriptural teachings relating to missions, analyze our own personal ministries and those of others in the light of effectiveness, permanence and historical significance. In all of these studies, I have attempted to remain unaffected by traditional, fashionable or commonly held views of Christian workers and leaders which are not clearly taught in the Bible.

Common sense and human logic seem to have lost their ability to influence thinking in this day and age. I have attempted to use whatever capabilities the Lord has endowed me with to develop an apologetic approach to what we call "missions".

Incidentally, “missions” is not Bible terminology. It is interesting to observe how Christians have developed their own language rules. Some words may have various connotations in everyday usage, but in theological circles they come to mean only one thing. During my commissioning service, I made the mistake of using the word “revelation” in a non- theological context and was strongly reprimanded. In the eyes of the men interrogating me, my usage of the word bordered on heresy. This is one reason why Christians often prefer words and phrases which do not appear in the Bible. Such terms may be defined at will by both the speaker and the listener. “Missions” and “counseling” are examples which have myriad interpretations for different people and groups.

Beginning in New Testament times, many believers shared their faith with others, and some individual Christians took the gospel of Jesus Christ to far away places. The latter were few and bore little resemblance to modern day missionaries. Until the 1800s there was little Christian ministry that could be called "missions" in the way we now understand the word. Moravian Brethren in Herrnhut, Germany founded one of the first mission societies designed to take the gospel to distant places in 1732. The same group established the earliest known North American mission society in 1745. A few other missions were established in the 1700s but the "missionary movement" was really born in the 1800s. Most of the early missionaries we hear and read about, like Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, William Carey, David Brainerd, Mary Slessor, Adoniram Judson and Robert Moffat, served in the 19th century.

The task of foreign missions prior to 1900 was difficult and costly in terms of hard work, loss of life and health, yet those missionary efforts proved to be surprisingly simple and effective.

Since there were few Christians on most foreign mission fields, evangelism was the clear mandate. Due to widespread illiteracy and ignorance of God's Word, the Gospel was presented in the most concise and simple form possible. Many strongholds of Christianity today are countries where only simplified means of evangelism were implemented. Modern missiology and sophisticated church growth programs are still little-known in some lands which register rapid growth among Evangelicals.

Although many missionaries must have felt that they were ineffective, history has shown that this was not often the case. In the Arab world little missionary work was accomplished, and the result is quite evident today. On the other hand, extensive missionary work was carried out in many countries which soon became dominated by atheistic communist governments. With the opening of the Iron Curtain, western Christians are discovering that the church not only continued to exist but in many cases, it flourished. In Rumania, where missionary endeavor was outlawed for years, the churches grew and multiplied. More than 1,000 new Evangelical churches were started alone in 1991! I know of one Baptist church which has 2,500 baptized members and another with 2000 children in Sunday School! This is about equivalent to the total membership of all Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and other Evangelical churches (the so-called "free churches") in Austria! Similar situations exist in other countries of Eastern Europe. There are also encouraging reports of a thriving church behind the Bamboo Curtain in China.

Foreign missions has generally become a complicated, bureaucratic and expensive operation. Effectiveness can be measured in different ways and statistics are of course subject to manipulation, but even a casual glance at numbers should cause us concern. The deployment of money and missionaries seems to be in no way related to church growth. I am not an expert on world missions, but right here in Austria there is strong evidence that an urgent reassessment and course correction is needed.

I put out an annual listing of evangelical missionaries and pastors in Austria. In 1995, about eighty missions and Christian organizations deployed approximately 600 workers in this country. Although the number of workers doubled during the past three decades, membership in most evangelical churches has remained relatively constant. Churches and missions which have numerous workers, utilize modern technology, and have developed sophisticated mission strategies often show little or no growth and in a few cases, the number of believers in the local church has actually decreased.

A few missionaries in Austria, however, have witnessed exceptional growth. A dozen new churches and numerous home Bible study groups have sprung up in the past fifteen years. Their secret weapons are low-key witnessing ("friendship evangelism"), Home Bible Studies and discipling. They avoid the term "missionary" and speak of “building the Lord’s church” instead of “church planting”. This has caused me to re-analyze my own thinking in the realm of mission priorities and terminology. It would seem that simple methodology and effectiveness still go hand in hand.

Although I call myself a "church planter," I have become increasingly disenchanted with the term because of some of the thinking attached to it. In my opinion "Church planting" tends to overemphasize the human element and diminish the importance of Christ's statement, "I will build MY church!"

Somehow I feel that many missions, churches and missionaries (including our own) have unwittingly equated the great commission with "church planting." There are missions whose sole stated purpose is "church planting" and I have spoken in churches which will not support a missionary who has any other declared priority.

Certainly every missionary, even every Christian, should be actively involved in planting and building the Lord's church. After decades of just plain evangelism, the importance of getting believers established in local churches certainly needs emphasizing. However, when a special emphasis becomes a trend and then "our mandate," I believe that we have gone too far.

Another critical observation is that some missionaries treat their "church planting strategies" (often those of renowned missiologists) as though they were inspired Scripture. Mission strategy is generally based upon experience, statistics and special case studies. There is nothing wrong with this. To the contrary, we should by all means examine and evaluate experiences, study results and make necessary course corrections. If during this process we prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we may rightly consider our drawn conclusions to be "God's leading." We must be careful however, not to equate this human undertaking with God's mandate or with scripture. Church planting and mission strategies should not be considered infallible for us and certainly not for others.

My own experience during three decades of missionary work in Austria, has taught me that some of the most rewarding and fruitful ministries came about contrary to our own strategies and plans. At times, God took us completely by surprise! Our return to work in Ampflwang is a good example of this.

When we moved back to Ampflwang in 1979, we broke nearly every rule of logic in mission strategy. If our mission had known of all the circumstances, we might not have received permission for the move. Ampflwang is a small town (4000 pop.); the church had split and the building was owned by another mission. Worst of all, that mission seemed to have little vision for the development of an indigenous church and showed even less concern for the spiritual conditions in its "mission station."

Many of our Christian friends were convinced that we were making a mistake and believed that we would give up in discouragement. We ourselves could see no good reason for going back, yet the Lord spent two years convincing us that this was what HE wanted.

Ministries are sometimes exceptions to strategy. Instead of a dismal failure and discouragement, we rejoiced to see the church thrive, become financially independent, purchase property and call its own pastor. The print shop also thrived and in 1982, we were asked to take on a ten-year project involving ten million Dollars worth of printing for Eastern Europe! We turned down the request because we could not see printing as our main priority.

In 1984, the Austrian Bible Institute was founded in Ampflwang. Many Christian leaders in Austria had voiced skepticism about that project and some openly opposed it. Several attempts to start an Austrian Bible training school had failed and many said that we were wasting our time. Even some fellow missionaries had serious doubts. Mission management hesitantly agreed to the project only after I promised to accept full financial responsibility. The mission was also reluctant to report on the project in its publications, arguing that a possible failure could place the mission in a bad light. Only after the school was well established and had received recognition from other sources was an article placed in the mission's magazine.

God chose to bless the school, which became financially independent in 1987. In 1991, a property in Lower Austria was purchased for $700,000 and we raised approximately $500,000 in gifts and pledges within three months! Even more amazing, is the fact that all this money came from Europeans, mostly Austrians!

When we moved to Ampflwang in 1979, the nearest Evangelical churches were in Wels, Bad Ischl and Salzburg, all approximately an hour's drive from Ampflwang. Since the founding of the Austrian Bible Institute, thriving new churches have been started in Ried, Gmunden and Vöcklabruck. Students and staff were much involved in these churches. Two Austrian mission organizations also located nearby; these regional changes in the spiritual situation were hardly the result of any mission strategy!

It was never our plan for the Meiers to move to Attnang, yet God chose to harvest souls for his kingdom in that city. We planned for Guenthers to join with Poffenroths as a team working in Frankenburg and Vöcklamarkt. The Poffenroths found housing and moved according to plan, but the Guenthers searched futilely for seven months for a home in Vöcklamarkt. They finally found housing in Abtsdorf, about ten miles from the target area. Their home was located near a refugee camp and before long they were effectively reaching refugees from Eastern Europe, Africa, former Yugoslavia and the Near East. Only after witnessing the Lord's leading and blessing in their ministry, did the FEC recommend a priority ministry among refugees. When it was time for us to move, several years later, the Lord promptly provided housing where Guenthers had been seeking to locate!

When the Wiebes wanted to move to Passau, Germany, I rigorously opposed the move. The Lord continued to impress upon them that this was what He wanted. After much prayer, mission management gave the green light for such a move. A few years later, the church in Passau was recognized as the fastest growing evangelical church in German-speaking Europe! The church in Straubing, where Wiebes later ministered also become a healthy, thriving church. Our team strategy called for the Weibes to return to Austria, which they did. But the church they served in Austria did not grow and was later closed.

The fact that local churches sprung up nearly everywhere Paul ministered is clear from Scripture, yet I doubt seriously if Paul would have called himself a "church planter" or claim that this was according to a carefully developed “strategy”. The great apostle never lost sight of the fact that it was Christ Himself who was building HIS church. He considered every aspect of ministry (including the uncomfortable circumstances listed in I Corinthians 11) as part of the Lord's great plan in building His church.

There is no doubt that Paul planned. He was a thinker and organizer, prayerfully deliberating his next steps. He even set his sights on far-away Spain, yet Paul's experiences described in Acts 16:5-13 and I Thess. 2:17-18 give evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit which was not much different from what we have experienced in this century.

The conclusion to which I have arrived is as follows: Mission strategy? YES! I believe strongly in strategy and organization, but God does not always see things our way. Sometimes I feel that the Lord doesn't reveal his plan to us because we might "leak" it to enemies of the gospel! Or we might be tempted to take credit for "our" successes. We must do our homework, pray much, plan well and consider all the possible consequences, yet we must be prepared at any moment to recognize and follow the clear leading of the Lord. Sometimes, our dependency on strategy can be a substitute for personal faith. It is often easier to follow a specified set of rules or plans than to discover and do what God wants.

Ben Sawatsky's study on church planting (copy received from our mission) was basically very helpful, but I had a problem with some of his matter-of-fact statements. Sawatsky speaks of Paul's "strategy" in aiming at the cities, saying, "There is no record of the apostle going to remote villages." Sawatsky's claim cannot be supported by Scripture. Paul proclaimed the Gospel everywhere he went: in the country, in villages, cities, on ships, desert islands, in jail and in his own house. Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul and others not only preached to multitudes, but also witnessed to individuals. Jesus sent his disciples into towns and villages (Matt.9:35; 10:11). Paul preached in the large city of Athens (where no church was founded) and Acts 17:15ff indicates that there was no strategy whatsoever involved. He and Silas sang in jail until the earth quaked, resulting in the birth of the Philippian Church. What "strategy" was involved in all this?

Another popular postulation of missiologists is that the biblical method of church planting is through teams. The fact that Paul seems to have always traveled and worked with others does not make it a "teaching" of Scripture. Certainly we should give team effort careful consideration; after all, Paul was successful and team efforts have proven to be effective throughout church history! Our missionaries in Austria have also chosen to work in teams, but I would be reticent to criticize those who do not. In my opinion, what missiologists call the "team strategy" of Paul and Christ could better be termed "discipleship."

The personal, individual leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit together with His leading in the body of believers is the real dynamic of missions (Acts 13:2). This is the "cement" that enables individual Christians to stand under formidable opposition and even persecution. It also binds Christians with different personalities and gifts into teams devoted to the multifaceted task of reaching the lost for Christ, teaching and discipling believers and building Christ's church.

Between 1525 and 1528, the Austrian Emperor, Franz Ferdinand II, desperately sought to discover the leader and underground organization of the Anabaptists. He himself was a mighty Emperor with large armies at his disposal. The Roman Catholic Church was also ruled by a powerful Pope. It was only natural that the Emperor should be convinced that "these heretics" also had a powerful and influential leader. If he could only eliminate the “leader”, he was certain that the growing movement could easily be destroyed. Thousands of Anabaptists were imprisoned and horribly tortured in hopes of eliciting information about their supposedly powerful leader.

How could an evil monarch realize that such unity of faith and purpose could be achieved with no singular human leader or organization and no particular strategy? The amazing unity, growth and fortitude of these believers was the work of the Holy Spirit together with the printed Scriptures, which had only recently become available in the language of the people.

I have a copy of a treatise written by six imprisoned Anabaptists who futilely attempted to convince the Emperor that their only Master and Lord was the resurrected Christ as revealed in Scripture. After the Emperor finally realized that the source of the Anabaptists faith was not of human origin, he ordered the confiscation and destruction of all Bibles.

Thousands of Christians were killed or driven out of Austria, but the church was not destroyed. Some found refuge high up in the Alps and remained hidden for years. Those who fled also flourished. Hutterite colonies, the Amish, and some Mennonites retained their "refugee mentality" to some extent, but evangelical churches worldwide and numerous vibrant missionary movements of our time have their roots deeply imbedded in that fruitful soil, drenched with the blood of Christian martyrs. As the Lord himself declared, "The gates of hell cannot prevail" against His church.

The Lord involves his servants in every facet of this great undertaking. Christians are depicted in the New Testament as workers, tools, building materials and the building itself! We are HIS laborers, tools in HIS hand, HIS living stones, HIS temple, HIS workmanship!

The Lord knew that we human beings would not be capable of masterminding the task of building His church. Men are allowed an occasional glimpse of the larger plan however, and all of us have access to the basic blueprints revealed in God's Word. As we prayerfully seek the Lord's guidance, he allows us to become involved in some of the detail planning which we could rightfully call "developing a church planting strategy". I believe in prayerful planning, working out a strategy, setting goals and organizing. We are foolish if we do not "sit down and count the cost" (Luke 14:28). If we do not plan carefully, we cannot expect great blessing in our ministries. But too often we forget that OUR strategies, no matter how much we prayed about them and how hard we worked to develop them, are not necessarily the way our Lord may choose to work in, through or even in spite of us.

"Church planting strategy? -- YES!" But let's not forget that this is OUR RESPONSE to the great commission, not the commission itself. The Lord said, "I will build MY church." We must be careful to keep it that way or we are simply planting "our churches."

There are five post resurrection mandates of Christ recorded in the New Testament: Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-17; Luke 24:47; John 20:21 and Acts 1:8. These can be collectively called the "great commission." By following Christ's mandate in its entirety, we are in effect, building His church, however, we must keep the Lord's command in its proper perspective. A house is built brick by brick and a board at a time. It is a complicated and orderly construction process, carried out by many workers according to the blueprints of the master architect. We cannot claim to build Christ's church if we are not following HIS instructions. These are received in various ways:

1) The Bible is our blueprint. When Christ sent out his disciples, they were told to go, make disciples, baptize and teach obedience to all. We are to be ambassadors of Christ, calling men and women everywhere to repentance (II Cor. 5:11-20). The Bible contains specific commands (mandates), general teachings and examples to copy (or in some cases to avoid repeating!), which are also part of God's blueprint for the church.

2) The personal leading of the Holy Spirit is vitally important in our mission. Paul was especially sensitive to the day-by-day leading of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the Holy Spirit's leading and Satan's hindering (compare Acts 16:6-13 and I Thess. 2:18). Paul knew "that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). The apostle Paul was driven by a “missionary heart”. He loved the Jewish people and longed for the salvation of all men. We sometimes forget that this too is a result of the Holy Spirit’s working in our lives.

3) Another means that God uses to instruct his servants is through the body of believers (Acts 13:2), which is also based upon our understanding of scripture and the Holy Spirit’s leading. I am serving as Field Director, not because I sought the position or sensed God's calling, or because I felt best qualified for the job.  I recognized God's leading through fellow missionaries and mission leaders.

4) Finally, God leads us often through personal discipling and counseling of fellow Christians. Paul's special relationship to Timothy is an excellent example of this. 

Current events should make us aware of the tremendous cultural, political and philosophical changes that are taking place worldwide. Just as colonialism was replaced by nationalism, nationalism is giving way to "internationalism". Today, people in the East and West, in the North and South, are more world-conscious. As air travel and modern communications bring people closer together, folk tend to see themselves more as "world citizens". They are concerned about the rain forests in South America or the ozone readings in the Arctic Circle. They are determined to prevent oil pests and atomic testing. There is increasing disenchantment with bureaucracy and suspicion of institutionalism. People have learned that it is possible to throw off the yokes of bondage which despotic communism, greedy industry, big government and the institutionalized church have placed upon them down through the centuries.

Humanistic philosophy has swept the western world, but it has undergone a metamorphose. The original idea of humanism tended toward egoistic narcism. But collective humanism is gaining widespread acceptance. It is no longer personal freedom, that is deemed most important, but collective freedom. Rightist, environmentalist and peace movements are on the increase (exemplified in the rapid growth of organizations such as Amnesty International and Green Peace). The criteria for measuring what is considered socially acceptable or to be opposed (modern humanists dislike terms such as "right, wrong, good, evil...") no longer lies with the individual, but with the masses of people who are seeking to improve living conditions for all residents of our planet. I call this "collective narcism."

What can we as Bible-believing Christians learn from all this? What should be the consequences for us in respect to world missions in the new millennium? What effect might these trends have upon the local church? More importantly; how can we become more effective in carrying out the great commission in what are most certainly the last days?

In my closing paragraphs, I hope to present a challenge especially to young Christians. The Lord is building His church and I am convinced that evangelical Christians have never had better conditions for effective World missions.

Salvation is a personal matter, but it also involves others. True Christianity according to the teachings of Christ and the apostles precludes a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:32-38). But this relationship demands consequent personal relationships with others; not just with other Christians, but with all people and nations. In Christ, all men are equal; placed upon an equal basis. We are members of the "body" by reason of our personal relationship to the "Head", which is Christ. But Christ died not only for our sins, nor simply that we might enjoy the blessings of salvation and have eternal life; he died for the sins of ALL mankind.

We Christians carry a God-given responsibility for our friends, neighbors, family, nation, race and even our enemies! True men and women of God have always identified with their own people, whether righteous or wicked. They showed genuine compassion for them, were personally involved with them and earnestly desired their salvation (see Ezra 9:6; Neh. 1:67; Esther 4:15; Isaiah 59:1516).

It has been said, "Some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good!" Identification with Christ and an evangelical church does not nullify our responsibility to personally identify with people in the world around us 1). If our sinless Lord took upon Himself the form of a man in order to bring us salvation “while we were yet sinners”, what excuse can we offer for neglecting the lost? The above statement, however, is not inspired scripture! The greater danger for Christians is exactly the opposite. They are sometimes so earthly minded that they are no heavenly good!

The final and most important point I want to make is this: Whatever God says is true! God has given us His Word, which includes many promises. Some of those promises are conditional while others are unconditional. "So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). That, my friend, is an unconditional promise!

For many years, Communist border guards carefully searched each incoming vehicle for contraband. They were not looking for drugs or weapons, but for Bibles! If the devil believes and trembles, we had better not neglect to preach and teach God's Word!

Jesus said that He would build His church. Our God-given “Great Commission” is leading “lost sheep into the fold” and “making disciples”. He commanded us to go, make disciples, baptize them and teach them to obey all that He commanded us. He appoints some of us to serve His church in official capacities (Eph. 4), but He gives gifts to all of us (I Cor. 12) for the purpose of building up His church. We are ambassadors of Christ, calling men and women to repentance (II Cor. 5:11-20). We should be able to say with Christ and the Apostle Paul, "Follow my example!" (I Cor. 11:1). If we believe and if we obey, we identify ourselves with His Church and will also be His witnesses. If we are disciples of Christ, then we will also disciple others. Everything we do should build up His church (I Cor. 12-14, esp. 14:12) and if we are faithful, He is happy!

*1) We are not to be like the world or even try to please the world, as many appear to believe. We must show people that we love them and are concerned for their salvation. This cannot be done if we do not relate to them as fellow creatures. Paul claimed to be merely “a sinner, saved by grace”.

First draft: 1990
This revision: March, 2002