Reclaiming the Great Commission

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I’ll admit, I don’t have statistics to back this up yet, but I’m still willing to wager a considerable sum on the proposition that most of our hearers, when they hear the “Great Commission” in Matthew, feel neither inspired nor encouraged but instead just a tad guilty. Why? Because day in and day out they do not perceive themselves as called and sent to bear witness to their faith and, even more, do not feel equipped to do so. So when they hear Jesus’ very clear instructions they are reminded of one more thing they should, but regularly do not, do — which is as sure a recipe for guilt as I know.

And, truth be told, if they feel guilty about this verse with its explicit words of commissioning, how often do other elements of the worship service that implicitly invite them to share their faith or send them into the world to bear witness to Christ create the same uncomfortable sensation of failing our Lord’s expectations.

So what do we do, Working Preacher? Surely we’re not called to water down the Great Commission or make our hearers feel comfortable with their inability to witness to their faith? If not, then I’d suggest instead we recognize our own complicity in the present situation and do something about it. Now, please, hear me out. I know we didn’t invent the current situation, but nevertheless I think it’s high time we recognize that most of our worship and preaching practices were not designed to equip our parishioners to share their faith. Allow me to explain before offering some suggestions for moving forward.

Okay, so here’s the thing: because, as adults, we derive a great deal of our sense of ourselves from our areas of competence — at work, at home, in volunteer activities or hobbies — when we find ourselves in situations where we do not feel competent our anxiety shoots through the roof. (This, by the way, is why adults have a hard time learning a new language or musical instrument — it’s not that our brains are too old or hardwired to learn something new; it’s that we can’t stand feeling incompetent and so quit before making much progress.) Now, think about how often our hearers have been invited, for instance, to make connections between their faith and life, share that faith with others, or invite others to come to church. Truth be told, they’ve almost never been asked, let alone shown how, to do these kinds of things even in the relatively safe confines of church let alone in more threatening situations outside of church. Which means that, bottom line, they don’t feel competent to fulfill anything remotely resembling Jesus’ Commission.

Not only that, but we regularly signal that these kinds of activities are not, in fact, very important. How? By almost never, ever taking time in our worship to talk about, model, and practice these skills. Think about it: why else would we do the same things week in and week out, except that they must very important? Similarly when we don’t ever do something in church, most of us conclude, perhaps unconsciously, that it must be because these things aren’t very important. So, week after week, we signal that saying the Lord’s prayer, reciting parts of the liturgy, singing hymns, and listening to sermons is much more important than talking about our faith or learning how to invite someone to church.

All of this is to say, Working Preacher, that if we want our people to get excited about, rather than feel guilty because of, the Great Commission, we need to commit to reclaiming Sunday worship and preaching as the God-given time in which to rehearse and practice the skills essential to Christian living: making connections between faith and daily life, being generous, talking about our faith, pointing to where we see God active in our lives and world, inviting others to church, and so forth.

How do we go about doing this? Well, let’s start small. On this day, let’s admit that most of us — pastors too, more often than not — feel a little guilty when we hear Jesus’ instructions. More than that, most of us don’t have the foggiest idea of what it would look like in everyday life to take Jesus seriously. After acknowledging where we are, let’s then invite our people to think with us about how we might gain a sense of competence in these matters and thereby grow in our confidence to share our faith. Perhaps it starts with moving to a more participatory style of preaching, inviting our hearers to do more than just hear but to respond to the word proclaimed in the service and in daily life and, perhaps, over time to share in that proclamation. (For a longer description of “participatory preaching” and some suggested steps to move in that direction, you can reference an article I wrote about a year ago called “Preaching 2.0”. )

In some ways, this is what many of the exercises and activities I’ve suggested in recent months are all about: ways of re-imagining preaching as a time when we not only proclaim the mighty acts of God but give people practice in naming and sharing where they see God active in their lives and the world. Over time, gaining competence in these basic skills makes it easier to entertain the possibility that, like Jesus’ disciples, we too are not only called, but also equipped and prepared, to go out into the world and make other disciples by our preaching, teaching, acts of mercy, and other ways of sharing God’s abundant grace.

This is hard work, Working Preacher. I know that. But it’s also good work, and I am grateful to God for your commitment to doing it. And, when you feel discouraged, don’t forget: Jesus has not only commissioned us for this work but has promised to go out with us as we do it. Indeed, he is with us, even to the ends of the age. Thanks be to God!

Blessings on your ministry this week and always, Working Preacher. What you do has never mattered more!

Yours in Christ,