Why Denominations Cannot Complete the Great Commission

Why Denominations Cannot Complete the Great Commission

First of all, I am not anti-denominational.  I spent more than 15 years as a denominational employee and 10 years in various denominational church staff roles, and have been a member of the same denomination’s churches for 50 years.  So, please reserve your judgments until you finish reading this article.

What distinguishes a denomination or denomination-like church is the insistence that all related churches and any churches they start adhere to a particular and peculiar perspective and associated practices related to the Bible, as well as their particular church history.  All denominational churches are Bible-based and history-based.  They may require a strict or loose adherence to their doctrine and/or practices.  Their doctrine, however, is at best a subset of what Scripture has to say, and at worst contain extra-Biblical teachings and practices based on their church history.  All worship styles, leadership styles, and governance styles are mostly extra-Biblical, even though all denominations will claim a Biblical background for their practices.

All denominations and denomination-like churches exclude or minimize certain passages in the Bible and highlight other passages that support their views.  They will often play the “interpretation” game when challenged with passages from the Bible that do not support their doctrine, or they may even redefine those passages as “spurious” or not really Scripture, or  not relevant today.

In almost all cases denominations and denominational-like churches will raise their historical extra-Biblical beliefs and church practices to the level of Scripture.  Some denominations openly embrace this practice.  Others deny it, but in practice affirm it.  I’ll let you look at your own denomination and determine where your beliefs and practices are in light of the whole counsel of Scripture.  (Hint: Look at the doctrines and/or practices on which you are unwilling to compromise or look at the doctrines and/or practices for which you criticize others.)

And herein lays the problem.  When we look at the attendance records of any given denomination, even in state church countries, we find that a small percentage of the population even attend any particular church.  In most cases this number is only 2 to 5 percent, even in countries with state churches.  Everyone who wants to go to a particular church is already attending.  Everyone else knows something about that church and chooses not to attend and not to be a part of organized and religious Christianity.

So, no matter what denominational stance is comfortable to you, it will only appeal to about 5% of the population, at most.  And everyone who is interested is already a member, most of whom only attend on special occasions. 

So, what makes us think that any one denomination or even all denominations working for the Great Commission can succeed in reaching the world for Christ?  We have had 1600 years of denominational Christianity, and best case numbers of those who call themselves Christian put us roughly at 1/6th of the world’s population.  And we know that only about 20% of so-called Christians ever participate in any kind of church on a regular basis.

If we keep doing what we have always done, we will keep getting the same results.  Denominational approaches to the Great Commission have not succeeded in 1600 years or the 492 years since the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517.  The reality is that Christianity does not have a good name in most of the world.  We have made Christ like us, which is the vilest form of idolatry, instead of becoming like Christ.  What makes us think that anyone wants our religion?  They have seen it at work, and have rejected it.  And the heart of Christian religion is denominationalism.

Another barrier that results from denominationalism is that leaders must go through extensive educational and indoctrinational processes before they are qualified to lead.  This bottleneck precludes any hope of completing the Great Commission before another generation dies.  All the seminaries, theological schools and Bible schools combined cannot produce enough leaders to finish the task.  The denominational education and indoctrination processes make it impossible to fulfill the Great Commission.  We have come a long way from First Century illiterate fishermen entering new people groups, nations, and cities and starting a church within months and then moving on.  With the loss of simplicity we lost the ability to replicate leaders quickly and move through people groups efficiently.  By over training and over managing new believers we stop the process of replication that could reach a nation and a world.

Jesus left eleven men, some of whom doubted, standing on a hilltop.  Some were illiterate.  Others were rebels.  All would be considered ill prepared to fulfill the task Christ gave to them and the Church.  If Christ deemed these eleven-very-marginal-leaders fit enough to carry forward the Great Commission, perhaps we need to rethink what we are doing.

CPM is about doing what was done in the First Century.  Give the Gospel to a people and teach them to obey it.  See them become faithful Disciples of Christ. Leave them to struggle in obeying the Word of God in their own context and history, developing their own unique practices for worship, leadership, and governance within the confines of Biblical obedience.

When denominations forget their differences and get back to planting the Gospel instead of their doctrines, we may have a chance to complete the Great Commission.  When we turn to making Disciples of Christ instead of converts for our denominations, we may have a chance to complete the Great Commission.  Until then we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers.  I prefer to learn from mistakes, not repeat them.

When denominations and denominational-like churches begin to plant the Gospel, make obedient Disciples of Christ, and forget their own pet doctrines and practices, we will see the Great Commission fulfilled in a generation.  When denominations and denomination-like churches do this, they will see their own denominations grow as never before, because they will become relevant to the people as they serve them in obedience to the Word of God.

In the mean time, I will keep working with lost who want to know the Creator, and help them to become obedient Disciples of Christ who will take seriously the planting of the Gospel, the making of Disciples, and the salvation of a generation.


David Watson
Irving, Texas

17 Replies to “Why Denominations Cannot Complete the Great Commission”

  1. "We have come a long way from First Century illiterate fishermen entering new people groups, nations, and cities and starting a church within months and then moving on." Good stuff. Keep writing more!

  2. Hi David,

    I like your blog. But denominationalism is a Protestant animal. So you cannot say it failed for 16 centuries, because it has not been around that long. You say one denomination never reaches the whole population. Mostly true, though the organziational breadth of Roman Catholicism seems to be able to encompass a broader range of people than Protestant denominations. So your argument should be that we need more denominations. And that is basically what you say in the end. You use denomination as a curse word, but in reality it is irrelevant to what you say.

    1. Hi, Martin. In the post I defined denominational as a development of distinctive doctrines and practices from Scripture and the history of the organization, and insisting that all new churches follow the same. I do not use denomination as a curse word, but as a descriptor of behavior that has hindered the completion of the Great Commission. And what I argue for is allowing each new population of Believers be allowed to develop their own distinctive expressions of faith and practices, which is the development of more denominations by my definition. The propagation of denominations across cultural boundaries, and forcing a cultural expression of Christianity on another culture is a major barrier.


      David Watson
      From San Jose, CA

  3. @Marrten Catholicism comes in many 'flavours' too, maybe the word 'denomination' is incorrect but the essence remains marked on the pages of history: the Benedictines and the Franciscans arguing over the poverty of Christ for example.

    @David What you are saying seems to be that the Church over trains and under releases. I agree. Jesus spent 3 personal intense years with His 12 disciples before He left them to wait in the city.

  4. Thanks for the reminder, Marten. Jesus told us we would be know as his Disciples by our love for one another. He commanded us to love one another and to love our neighbor. We can disagree without being hateful. When we learn to do this we will have a greater impact on the societies around the world.


    David Watson
    From San Jose, CA

  5. Appreciate a statement I read the other day: "Jesus' vision was large enough to think small." Because denominations are often caught up in the desire to think big, they often overlook small things. Church (or denomination) is not the goal; it serves the goal.

  6. A friend of mine who "pastors" pastors spoke words of wisdom this week. He said, Tell me how your feel about yourself and I'll tell you your image of God. Tell me how you love yourself, and I'll tell you how you feel about others.

    I am struck by his idea that our own self-image is projected onto both God and others. Think how we reinvent God: awesome, stern, strict, powerful, loving, gentle, peaceful, white, male, American, Catholic, Baptist, wise, protective, nurturing. Denominations, new churches, spiritual leaders and world conflict seem to be born from those differences.

    Maybe we should consider my friend's idea that our personal image of God is mostly what we want him/her to be based on who we are or what we want! (That would explain cultural and generational differences in spiritual ideals and practice.) Then we can go on to let God be what everyone needs!

  7. Thanks for your comments, David. Of course the gospel is hindered, and we are so 'nice' we seldom expose the problem. If I may add a perspective of my own… I believe God gave a 'great commission' to the old creation (when Noah came out of the ark) to go forth and multiply. For a while the people did this, but eventually they decided they didn't want to be scattered all over the world, but they wanted to build a tower up to heaven and make a name for themselves. The result was Babel and God's response to that. To the new creation (men and women who are born again) God also gave a great commission which was virtually the same: go into all the world and make disciples / multiply; for a while Christians did this then people came along who wanted to build a tower up to heaven and make a name for themselves. Within the tower the most important is at the top, those who contribute to its reputation are positioned at suitably high levels in the tower, and the 'problem people' stay in the basement. I call this the spirit of 'empire' because it steals the God-given inheritance from ordinary people and gives all the goods to those at the top. This model is not limited to the Catholic Church, or any other big denomination. I have seen tiny churches in New York city that have just a handful of attendees bearing the most grandiose names. The heart of man is the problem. So many love to rule, and many abdicate their spiritual responsibilities. God open our eyes!
    Many blessings to you,
    Janet Lock

  8. David,
    Well done! The extension of the kingdom has always ben the responsibilty of individual people, not groups of people who represent a particular faith culture. If only we would just represent Jesus in all areas of life at al times. I guess this discussion is an old topic for me as I left denominational nonsense many years ago, denominations do not redeem people…EVER.
    My greater concern is what can we do, or better still what are we doing? It is counter productive to state the obvious in a negative way. (your article title is negative) My wife and I, both denominational pastors for more than 15 years as Baptist/Presbyterian Glergy founded a ministry that serves the 80+ % of the Canadian population that has abondanded the institutional church. We have a mission "to help people celebrate and navigate life's significant moments" we marry them, do their funerlas, bless their children and much more. We need to find new and creative means to serve our culture, we are doing that. We train alll our clergy and equip them to serve using their gifts and abilities, without having to waste years in a usless, irrelevant seminary. Check out our site at http://www.celebratinglife.ca


  9. Just curious: Statistically speaking, what does "completing the Great Commission" look like to you? Is your answer rooted in Scripture? Was Jesus always successful in disciple making? Were Jesus' "success stats" any better than ours? As I recall, he got himself killed and said his followers would be just as popular as he. What is God's responsibility in this whole Great Commission thing? Or is it all up to us? Is it possible that some people just don't want our Jesus to be their Savior, regardless of how well he is presented to them? We've had 400 years of denominationalism … and 400 years of expert strategies to go with it. Do you really think *yours* is finally the right key to unlock the door? Or might we be seeing the great falling away that Scripture predicts, against which no seminar junkie or missional expert can successfully fight? What if we all just dragged the net as best we can and trust God with the big picture results?

    1. Wow, thought provoking questions. Some of which I had as I read the above article. I appreciate your thoughts Carpenter Kid. I hesitate to believe anyone person or group has found the 'right' strategy, too. I personally prefer to trust God with the big picture myself as I faithfully follow him.

  10. "In the mean time, I will keep working with lost who want to know the Creator, and help them to become obedient Disciples of Christ who will take seriously the planting of the Gospel, the making of Disciples, and the salvation of a generation."

    I could not agree with you more.

    What the key is: Do you want a relationship with doctrine or a relationship with Jesus.
    I choose the latter. My experience is that He wants to be the Head of his Church.

    One of my T Austin Sparks questions is: What is the measure of Jesus Christ in this (thing or activity). When you answer that…it sure cuts to the chase on its value.

    For me there is nothing outside of Jesus. It has to be Christ centric.

    He has called a few of us here locally, passionate for Him, outside the trad church and has taken us into the marketplace (sounds like a familiar finger print eh?)

    Keep on posting salt and light bros!

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