ARLINGTON, Texas (BP) — When it comes to the Conservative Resurgence, most agree the shot heard around the Convention was the “Genesis Controversy,” in which a former seminary professor authored a commentary arguing for a mythological interpretation of Genesis 1-11. This launched the battle for inerrancy, a conviction that the Bible is without error.
Concerns regarding liberal theology continued through the ‘60s and ‘70s until a strategy was developed to turn the Convention back toward a conservative theology founded on the inerrant Word of God. The plan worked, as the Convention was led by successive conservative presidents who influenced the installation of conservative trustees into the SBC’s entities. Present-day Southern Baptists agree this was an unfortunate but necessary battle.
However, in winning the battle for biblical inerrancy, Southern Baptists should ask an important question: have we practiced what we preached? While this question can be applied in various ways – most notably the Great Commandment to love God and love people – I’m interested in how we apply it to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). In the same way that Ralph Elliott argued that the earliest chapters of Genesis had been mythologized, I wonder if our practices show that we’ve mythologized the Great Commission? Let me explain.
A common question among pastors is to ask how much another church is “running.” This, of course, is another way of asking how big another pastor’s church is. However, the Great Commission says nothing about church size or about how many people are in a room for an hour on Sunday morning (which, by the way, is an incredibly anemic way of understanding Jesus’ master plan for building His kingdom). Instead, the Great Commission has to do with making disciples. Numbers are useful, but measuring success by the size of a service is the kind of hermeneutical thinking that warranted the need for the Conservative Resurgence.
The future of the SBC hinges upon a biblical understanding of discipleship that sees evangelism and conversion as the first step of discipleship rather than the goal. This is how Jesus employs “going” and “baptizing” in Matthew 28:18-20, which are steps in the process of making disciples, not the be-all end-all. Jesus further says disciples are to teach new disciples to “observe all that I commanded,” which includes the Great Commission that calls disciples to repeat the process of “going,” “baptizing” and “teaching.” This means that disciple-making is much more than evangelism, baptisms and attendance – three areas which often comprise our primary measurement of success.
But what does this look like?
I once heard a story about a magic penny that serves as a useful illustration regarding biblical discipleship. Imagine you were offered either a million dollars, or a magic penny that doubled in value every day for 30 days. Which would you choose? Most of us would choose the million dollars, but the better choice is the magic penny. Here’s why: If you choose the magic penny, by day 11 you would have $10.24, by day 24 you would have $83,886.08, and by day 30 you would have $5,368,709.12.
In a similar vein, imagine a church that focused on leading one person to the Lord every day of the year – a worthwhile aim, and one that we would all celebrate. Over the course of 15 years, that church would reach 5,475 people for Christ. Now imagine one single individual being multiplied over the course of 15 years. The result would be 32,768 people, all of whom would be more than merely Sunday morning attendees to report out on an Annual Church Profile, but disciples who are on the verge of multiplying themselves once again.
The fact is, there is a tendency to treat the Great Commission like Jesus told us to choose a quick buck. We want the quick return so that our Annual Church Profiles will show high attendance and baptisms, but the Great Commission is bigger than that. If we focused less on how many we were running on a Sunday and more on “disciples making disciples making disciples,” then we could see an incredible work of the Lord that would transform our Convention’s (and the Church’s) ailing numbers. The irony is that it would be accomplished by worrying less about the numbers and more on Jesus’ Word.
When is the last time we heard a report about how many disciples have been multiplied? As people who say we believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, what’s keeping us from following the Word made flesh’s framework for making disciples? Salvations and baptisms are wonderful things (of course they are!), but according to the Great Commission, they are the beginning of discipleship, not the end. So, why do we focus on the beginning as a measure of success instead of the end?
In the past two years, there has been a lot of talk about whether the SBC needs a new Conservative Resurgence. The truth is, the SBC doesn’t need a Conservative Resurgence, but a Great Commission Revolution. Whether it’s in the questions we ask in our Annual Church Profile, or in the statistics given before sermons and presidential election speeches, or merely in conversations with other pastors, as people who believe in the inerrant Word of God, we should reconsider how we measure success. This can be done by trusting Jesus’s inerrant Great Commission.
Jared Wellman is pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, and a member of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.