Two of the most influential men in my life were seminary professors. When I was a student in the 1980s, my life was forever changed for the better by Dr. Timothy George and by the late Dr. Lewis Drummond. In essence, these men taught me how to grasp more fully the Great Commission, particularly the Great Commission passage of Matthew 28:18-20.
Dr. George and Dr. Drummond helped me prepare for my first pastorate in ways I could not fully grasp at the time. Above all, they taught me the priority and passion of personal evangelism and what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ.
The rebirth of evangelism in the local church
Shortly after studying under these two men, I accepted a call to serve as pastor of a small and struggling rural church. According to the church’s records, no one had been baptized in that church in 26 years. My first reaction was to blame the few remaining members of the church for the evangelistic apathy of the previous quarter century.
I then recalled the lessons I learned from Dr. Drummond. He said bluntly in class that we should never blame evangelistic anemia on others. God often uses the faithful witness of one to turn a city or church upside down. We should be that faithful witness even if no one else follows.
I eventually took heed of the lesson and began sharing the gospel wherever God gave me the opportunity. And it was amazing to see how many opportunities He gave me when I was willing. Eventually many church members caught the fire of evangelism, and that little church saw people come to Christ almost every week.
Learning the lessons of high commitment
Like many church leaders, I was dismayed at the number of our purported church members. I did not know two-thirds of the names on our membership rolls, even though we were a small congregation. I learned quickly and experientially that the expectation of commitment was very low in our church. In fact, it was so low that over one-half of the members never showed their faces!
It was at that point that I reflected back on the passionate teaching of church history by Dr. George. He taught his classes that becoming a Christian in the early church was not a decision made lightly or unadvisedly. The church placed heavy emphasis on catechesis, the rigorous instruction in Christian life and faith required of every new convert. Indeed, this intense time of preparation could have lasted up to three years!
The young believer, called a neophyte, would be taught the basics of Christian theology and initiated into the disciplines of the Christian life such as prayer, fasting, visitation of the sick and the elderly, and the ability to lead others to faith in Christ. So committed were these new believers that many of them were numbered among the martyrs of the faith.
Of course, I never led the rural church to such high levels of commitment, but the church did begin to take his membership standards more seriously. As a consequence, the phenomena of the "disappearing" church members no longer manifested itself at our church.
Lessons learned, lessons applied
I am ever grateful for mentors such as Lewis Drummond and Timothy George. Their lessons were really pretty basic: share the good news with others and lead them to become high commitment Christians. And that is the essence of the Great Commission, that we should be "teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20, HCSB).
May we be the kind of church leaders who share our faith with consistency and faithfulness. And may we be the leader who, in God’s power, leads believers in Christ to new and higher levels of commitment. So it was in the early church. And so it should be today.
Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of 22 books, including his latest, Transformational Church.