Although at our recent Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting the new descriptor “Great Commission Baptists” went over like a pregnant pole vaulter, there is another issue concerning the Great Commission in Southern Baptist life that has largely eluded our focus, even though it profoundly changes the very way we define the Great Commission given to us by our Lord. After explaining the two views, this article will briefly explore the strengths and weaknesses of each, along with their theological underpinnings, their associated missionary strategies, and the curiously nonexistent Southern Baptist conversation on this issue.
The “Reaching Souls” perspective is the predominant view I have heard preached and taught nearly my entire life, which considers the primary task of the Great Commission to be the effort of reaching as many souls as possible wherever they may be found. One might say this approach is geographically and societally neutral, which is to say that any soul reached for Jesus is no more or less important than any other in accomplishing the Great Commission task. No matter where a person might live, no matter which people group they represent, as we reach each person on the planet, we are fulfilling the Great Commission task in a measure equal to the reaching of any other person on earth.
The “Reaching Groups” perspective has more recently been embraced and proclaimed in Southern Baptist life, which considers the primary task of the Great Commission to be the effort of reaching at least some of the souls found among each of the various people groups on earth. In 2011, at the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, David Platt stated, “We have not been given a general command just to make disciples among as many people as possible, as natural as that might sound to us. Our God has said to us, ‘Make disciples among every single people group.’” In “Let the Nations Be Glad” (3rd ed., p. 211), John Piper has written, “Therefore in all likelihood Jesus did not send his apostles out with a general mission merely to win as many individuals as they could, but rather to reach all peoples of the world....”
With regard to the Reaching Souls position, one strength is a culturally blind approach, making every soul on earth an equal target for evangelism. Another is the grammatical emphasis upon the direct object of the Great Commission rather than the qualifying object of the preposition modifying it, which is another way of saying our focus is on the people themselves and not merely the groups to which they belong. One possible weakness might be a tendency to place so much focus on reaching souls in areas of evangelistic success that the people in harder, more resistant places are too often ignored in the process.
With regard to the Reaching Groups position, one strength is in taking seriously the meaning of “ethnos” and getting past our typical fascination with the names of countries to the underlying language and culture groups within such nations which require our intentional evangelistic efforts. Another is the recognition that, while many cultures are unreached, some are even unengaged, meaning that no one even appears to be attempting the task of sharing the gospel among them. One possible weakness might be the tendency to divert limited resources from an area where God is drawing many to Himself to a place where the harvest is not nearly as plentiful, essentially sending a fisherman to every pond rather than sending more fishermen to those places where the fish are biting the most.
Perhaps the theological underpinnings of each view fascinate me the most, for clearly our beliefs result in strategies that lead to actions. Perhaps the reader will have noticed that John Piper, earlier mentioned as a proponent of the Reaching Groups approach, is perhaps the most influential Calvinist in the world today. Assuming with the Calvinist that God not only foreknows the elect but that He also predetermines monergistically the salvation of some, the task evangelistically would logically consist in going throughout the people groups of the world and gathering the elect of God from among each group. This sort of approach differs, it seems to me, from the harvest approach suggested by a general atonement. In other words, behind the Reaching Souls approach there lies a soteriology that envisions God desiring to save every single soul on earth rather than just certain souls from every nation. This would seem to lead to a more individual approach instead of a people group approach. The heart of the matter is to ask these two questions: “What is the best way to describe God’s unlimited evangelistic purpose? Does He truly desire to reach every single soul on earth or merely every single people group on earth?”
One other theological underpinning possibly related to this issue concerns eschatology. Here is the central verse: “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, HCSB) It would seem that Postmillennial optimism lies behind many modern Calvinist pronouncements of triumph, such as, “We are the generation God has raised up to fulfill the Great Commission in our lifetime!” Alternatively, some other triumphal eschatology might be claimed, such as Piper’s “optimistic premillennialism.” While I join these brothers in praying for the hastening of our Lord’s return, I do not share this same optimism with regard to the events I believe the Bible predicts will occur next in God’s unfolding plan. In fact, many of us envision the worldwide preaching of Matthew 24:14 as being fulfilled by tribulation saints following the pretribulational rapture of the church. Regardless of which eschatological view we may prefer, Southern Baptists will remain united in spreading the gospel to all nations, a task which brings us closer each day to our Lord's return. However, the idea that the church will still be on earth when the last soul and people group are reached is an eschatological hope many Southern Baptists, myself included, would reject.
By this point, many readers may be asking the question, “Is there any practical difference between the Reaching Souls and Reaching Groups perspectives?” Most will concede that the two views can be identified and distinguished from one another, but might wonder about the actual significance in such a differentiation. Is this not merely a distinction without a difference, since reaching souls will necessarily involve reaching groups, and vice versa? Granted, the two positions are inextricably intertwined. We are right to think in terms of a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” However, in trying to strike a balance between the two views we face significant challenges because a slightly different missionary philosophy seems to be suggested by each, depending on which view is emphasized the most.
If the Great Commission is primarily to reach individual souls, and if God truly desires to reach every single soul on earth wherever he or she may live, then our purpose should logically be to maximize the number of souls we are capable of reaching and to apply our energies and resources where they might result in the greatest number of souls who can possibly be saved. This assumes, once again, that such a number is not at all limited by God’s purpose since He truly desires for every single soul to come to Him, but rather is limited only by the free response of those souls who hear the gospel. This is indeed the “save as many as you can anywhere and everywhere you can” approach.
If, on the other hand, the Great Commission is primarily to reach every single people group on the planet, so as to fulfill a more recently redefined Great Commission and hasten our Lord’s return in the process, then we must be far more intentional in targeting people groups than in targeting individual souls. Would it not be true that in our Send North America strategy at the North American Mission Board, and in our Adopt a People Group strategy at the International Mission Board, our current denominational emphasis clearly favors the “Reaching Groups” approach? If indeed this is our focus, is it fair to say that our mutual understanding of the Great Commission is the same as that expressed by Piper and Platt? Can we best define our mission as reaching as many as we can wherever we may find them or as reaching at least some from every single group?
Although I am still not quite persuaded of this redefined interpretation of the Great Commission, the more troubling aspect to me is the startling realization that, although we have spoken of little else over the past few years besides the Great Commission, we have not publicly addressed as a convention any sort of official recognition of this Great Commission philosophy. First, we formed a Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. Next, we voted on a Great Commission Resurgence Report. Later, we voted to adopt the new informal descriptor “Great Commission Baptists.” But somewhere along the way as we formed committees and passed reports and changed names, all concerning the Great Commission, we appear to have redefined the Great Commission itself with very little debate.
In conclusion, let me clearly and boldly proclaim that the desire of my heart is to see both souls and people groups won to faith in Jesus Christ for the glory of God. I do not raise these questions as some anti-missionary contrarian, but I do think the two approaches assume different things theologically and therefore produce different strategies practically. I also believe this represents a rather remarkable change in the direction of our denomination’s missionary philosophy without the kind of fanfare and attention usually associated with such a paradigm shift. When one considers all our conversations about the Great Commission over the past few years, the Reaching Souls versus Reaching Groups discussion is one I believe deserves far more public consideration among Southern Baptists than it has received. Like the Blues Brothers, Southern Baptists are on a mission for God. It would be nice if we could more clearly define exactly what we believe it is.