The Great Commission is, in many ways, the marching orders of the church and the benchmark by which we measure success. Inherent to the Great Commission is the command to make disciples, which implies two types of growth: width and depth. We are to reach people from every nation on earth. That’s width. We are to make true disciples of them, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded. That’s depth. To be faithful, a church must vigorously pursue both.
Width Without Depth Is Unfaithful
When a church produces converts who aren’t really disciples, the “width” they’ve produced is illusory. Jesus did not command us to make converts but to make disciples and to teach them all the things he commanded us. I shudder when I hear pastors imply that their task is to just get people “saved and baptized” and that other people can worry about growing people up in their faith. That is a faulty—and deadly—view of conversion.
Think of the parable of the seeds (Matthew 13:1-9). Jesus warned us that there would be those who appear saved but ultimately fade in the sun or get choked out by thorns. Where are those people? Many of them are in our churches, blissfully relying on a past experience and refusing to go all the way in their faith. Make no mistake: Teaching people to walk faithfully with Christ is not a matter of simply bringing people to maturity; it is a matter of salvation.
I am not against counting numbers. The shepherd in Jesus’ parable was so in touch with his number of sheep that he knew when one was missing. But count and celebrate the right ones, recognizing that heaven counts different numbers than many of our Christian magazines. Heaven counts disciples, not those who merely prayed a prayer, signed a card, or got dunked in a baptismal.
Depth Without Width Is Unfaithful
I know that it is very possible to be faithful to God and to see very little visible fruit, particularly in terms of quantifiable numbers. Many great men and women of God labored (and labor) for years to no apparent avail; I don’t want to disparage their faithfulness in any way. But these people would be the first to admit that while the fruit seemed sparing, their vision was still immense. The gospel teaches you to dream big and to continue yearning for it, even when you don’t see it.
Jesus taught his disciples to think like this. When he called Peter, he did so by bringing in a huge haul of fish and saying, “This is how you will catch men.” And remember, the Great Commission has as its scope every nation on earth. So the question for those of you who are not seeing growth is this: Do you desire to see a harvest? Do you weep over the lost of your city—like Paul did, like Jesus did?
Five Tests to Determine If Your Church Is Truly Gospel-centered
Faithfulness and effectiveness cannot be separated. Churches that grow wide without growing deep are not producing width that lasts. Churches that grow deep without growing wide are not as deep as they think.
The Bible gives us five “tests” of gospel-centrality in Acts 2:41-47. If we are preaching the Spirit-anointed gospel, these five things will be the result in our churches as they grow deep and wide, just like the first church.
1. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by evangelistic effectiveness and doctrinal depth (Acts 2:41-42, 47).
The first church grew in a hurry. At the same time, the people were “devoted to the teaching of the apostles” and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory.
While church depth is often placed at odds with church width, healthy churches do both (Colossians 1:5-6). Gospel depth almost always produces gospel fruitfulness (Mark 4:16-17). Understanding the gospel gives you a sense of people’s lostness. You understand the wrath of God against their sin and how great his grace is toward them. Understanding the gospel gives you humility, because you realize how lost you were before God saved you. Understanding the gospel gives you the faith to believe God for great things, because the gospel reveals how willing and able God is to save. You show me someone characterized by a sense of urgency, humility, love, and the boldness that comes from great faith, and I’ll show you someone who will be an effective evangelist.
2. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by the presence of God (Acts 2:43).
This first church was full of the Spirit. Verse 43 gives you a classic description of the effect of the fullness of the Spirit: It says that “awe came upon every soul” (ESV). Their sense of the presence of God was not the result of a musical crescendo or an emotive preacher. It came simply from the preaching of the gospel by ones who really believed it and felt its passions within their souls.
It is hard for me to believe that a church can really “get” the gospel when its services are not characterized by joy. Yes, there are times for somberness and mourning and repentance in worship, but the predominant motif of biblical worship is joy. Scripture tells us that in God’s presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). So how can we claim to have gospel-centered churches if our services are not characterized by exuberant joy?
3. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by fervent, faith-filled prayer (Acts 2:42).
The early church was born from prayer. After Jesus ascended to heaven, Acts 1:14 reports that the disciples “were devoting themselves to prayer.” This went on for 10 days before the arrival of the Spirit on Pentecost. These believers prayed for 10 days, Peter preached for 10 minutes, and 3,000 people were saved. Today we’re more likely to pray for 10 minutes, preach for 10 days, and see three people saved.
Acts shows us a profound connection between corporate prayer and our community getting a sense of the glory of God. When we pray, our eyes are opened to the glory of God. When our eyes are opened to his glory, we preach with boldness, passion, and power (Acts 4:24-31). In Acts 7:55-56, we see Stephen lift his eyes to heaven in prayer, catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, and in awe begin to proclaim it to those around him. When this happens on a city-wide scale, what you get is a spiritual awakening.
4. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by empowered members (Acts 8:1, 28:15).
A stubborn theme throughout the book of Acts is that God’s most effective vehicles are “regular” people. Acts 8:1 notes that when persecution rose up against the church, the church was scattered around the world preaching the gospel. But note that Luke tells you this worldwide fulfillment of Acts 1:8 did not include the apostles. These anonymous Christians were so effective in ministry that when Paul showed up in Rome to preach the gospel “where Christ had never been named,” he was greeted by “the brothers” (Acts 28:15).
This flows from the very nature of the gospel. The gospel is not about recognizing the gifted but about gifting the unrecognized. Church leaders who understand that gospel won’t try to build their church around a handful of mega-talented superstars but rather dedicate themselves to empowering and releasing the church for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).
5. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by extravagant generosity (Acts 2:45).
The gospel is that Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for your sake … became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). When a church gets this, they become extravagantly generous toward others. The first Christians didn’t just give out of their excess. They voluntarily sold their stuff so that there were no needs among them.
Eventually this sort of gospel generosity overflowed into the streets, but it started in the church. As the apostle Paul says in Galatians, “Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Ultimately, the love that Christians show to one another is a profound statement to an unbelieving world. It is by our love for one another, Jesus said, that the world will know that we are his disciples (John 13:35; cf. 1 Peter 4:9).
These are the indelible marks of a gospel movement. If one of these five characteristics is missing from your church, the answer is not to “go and try harder.” We need to ask ourselves, “Why is the gospel I am preaching not producing these things?”
God’s arm has not grown short. His ear has not grown heavy. He is as moved with compassion today as he was the day he cried out for their forgiveness from the cross; and he is as powerful to save as the day he walked out of the grave. So let us follow God faithfully, expecting great things from him and attempting great things for him.