McCotter, whose family's religious background was with the Plymouth Brethren, has stated that his desire to form the movement stemmed from his belief that God had shown him in the Bible's Book of Acts a strategy instructing Christians on how God wanted to use church planting to "reach the world for Christ" within one generation. This strategy came to be known as the "Heavenly Vision", and was a cornerstone belief of the early movement. McCotter also believed that the Bible was instructing every Christian to emulate the actions of the Apostle Paul's life as he imitated Christ and that this was the model life for all Christians to imitate based upon Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11:1.
Early members believed they were returning to the lost lifestyle of the first century Christians. This lifestyle included a devotion to discipleship which has been criticized and compared to the "Shepherding Movement."
After arriving in Greeley, McCotter attended and began sharing his faith at the University of Northern Colorado campus. According to McCotter, by the end of the first year 12 people had joined him, after 1966 there were thirty, and in the following years it "doubled and tripled." The movement eventually spread to other cities in Colorado, as well as Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the form of missions or "works".
McCotter dropped out of college to focus on ministry full-time, and was planning to move down to Pueblo, Colorado to continue his efforts; however, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was drafted into the United States Army. During basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, McCotter met Dennis Clark and on McCotter's return from Vietnam in 1970 he met Herschel Martindale. Clark and Martindale would become two of the founders of the movement in the summer of 1970.
In 1985, GCI undertook a mass outreach and expansion effort called Invasion '85. During this effort, teams were sent to 50 college campuses with a goal of starting new campus ministries. While many "works" were successfully established during Invasion '85, most of them did not continue. According to GCAC, "team members were not properly trained nor were they given adequate support."
GCI continued to be scrutinized in some newspapers and by former members of the movement, and in 1985 several conferences were held with the purpose of helping former members of churches that were part of GCI "recover from the emotional and psychological damage they'd experienced" while in the movement. Shortly thereafter, Wellspring Retreat and Recovery Center, the world's first accredited cult and abusive religion recovery center, was formed by several ex-members of the movement.
In late 1986, founder Jim McCotter announced his resignation from GCI, stating a desire to utilize his entrepreneurial abilities in an attempt to influence secular media for Christ. Two years later, McCotter moved to Florida and has not since attended a church affiliated with the movement, with the exception of the 2003 Faithwalkers conference.
At this point in GCAC history, its churches claimed approximately 5,000 members.
In 1989, Great Commission International changed its name to the Great Commission Association of Churches (GCAC), and is known today as Great Commission Churches (GCC). Also in 1989, Great Commission Ministries (GCM), under the initial leadership of Dave Bovenmyer, was formed. Its aim was to "mobilize people into campus ministry by training them to raise financial support and by equipping them for campus ministry."
In 1996, the Internal Revenue Service selected GCM as a test case to eliminate the common practice known as "deputation", (allows non-profit mission organizations to raise funds for its activities, while allowing contributors to claim income tax deduction) "setting off alarm bells throughout the Christian parachurch community." The IRS reaffirmed GCM's non-profit status.
Approximately 60 churches in the United States are affiliated with GCA, and approximately a dozen internationally in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Together these churches claimed over 43,000 members in 2005. According to a 2001 Ivy Jungle report as cited by John Schmalzbauer of Missouri State University, there were 6,900 college students involved in GCM. GCA maintains an administrative support staff in Columbus, Ohio.
GCC publishes the periodical "Daylights" and other doctrinal papers, written principally by pastors within the movement. Regional and national conferences are attended by both leaders and members of churches in the movement. Conferences include Faithwalkers, High School Leadership Training (HSLT), and National Pastor's Conferences.
Great Commission Ministries (GCM) is the campus and international mission agency for Great Commission Association of Churches.
In 2004, Boundless webzine (associated with Focus on the Family published an article listing GCM as one of the "ten top college ministries across the U.S.", saying that their strategy of "seeking to incorporate students into the starting of a church based campus ministry" "has been effective to attract and involve thousands of students." The article also stated that "Their outstanding Board of Directors and dedicated staff are committed to world missions and leadership development and thus supplying the church around the world with a fresh supply of equipped laborers.
Following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, GCM's Virginia Tech campus church New Life Christian Fellowship (NLCF) received widespread media coverage. NLCF pastor Jim Pace was a guest on Larry King Live and Good Morning America, CNN created a video of their memorial service Several newspapers, magazines, and radio shows carried quotes from NLCF pastors.
Later that year, another GCM church was again in national news as rescue workers and volunteers combed the forest for Jacob Allen. Allen, an 18 year old autistic man, was a lifelong member of Chestnut Ridge Community Church along with his parents.
The largest financial supporters of Great Commission Ministries are individual donors. In 2002, 92% of GCM's income came from contributions of this nature. GCM missionaries are required to raise 100% of their support goal, which includes base salary, benefits, and ministry expenses. Twelve percent of all funds raised goes toward administrative overhead. GCM has been a member of the ECFA since 1992.
Great Commission Latin America (GCLA) is a Latin American outgrowth of Great Commission Ministries founded in 1974 by Daniel Sierra, a Cuban-American missionary from Florida Bible College and directed by Nelson Guerra since 1981, a native Honduran and former president of the Honduran National Association of Evangelicals. As of 2007 it consisted of 25 member churches.
Great Commission Churches (GCC) is a fellowship of churches in the Great Commission Association, which helps coordinate ministry activities in the U.S., including Great Commission Leadership Institute (GCLI), GCLI "Going Deeper" Regional conferences, Faithwalkers National Conferences, and national GCA Pastor's Conferences.
GCC has several regional subsidiaries as well, including GCC Regional Ministries (GCC-RM) and Great Commission Northlands (GCN) (which coordinates church planting, leadership training, and church coaching in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin).
Several Relevant Magazine articles have also been written by GCM staff and members.
Between 1976 and 1986, an estimated 500 individuals were excommunicated, or "shunned", by churches within the movement. Several former members of the movement have stated that they were only able to leave the movement after family members intervened and hired a professional "deprogrammer." In 1985, Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, the world's first accredited cult and abusive religion recovery center, was formed by several ex-members of the movement.
In 1986, 12 members of a GCI church ran for state office in Maryland, prompting attention from the national media, and speculation from Maryland political leaders that it was a concerted effort by GCI to enter the political arena. None of the GCI church members running for office were thought to have had prior political aspirations, yet many filed papers to run on the same day, June 30. In a Washington Post article, GCI leaders denied formal involvement, stating that each person's decision to run was made independent of GCI leadership. Former and current members were quoted in the article as saying that GCI took an active interest in politics, was heavily involved in member's personal decisions, and had instructed members of GCI churches during a two-month training seminar to distribute campaign literature for church member candidates, with canvassers being advised to "cover religious bumper stickers on their vehicles with political ones." On August 30, at a news conference held by Republican and Democratic Party leaders, a "shouting match" broke out as the GCI candidates rebuked Democratic and Republican leaders for "raising religion as an issue in the election and labeling their beliefs as 'cults.'" Republican Chairman Albert Bullock accused GCI candidates of practicing "deceptive campaign tactics", and said: "If this (campaign) isn't orchestrated, then this is an incredible coincidence." On September 11, 1986, The Montgomery County Sentinel reported that none of the candidates won election.
see also: Dominionism
In 2002, ex-member Larry Pile said he would not refer to the movement as a cult, but instead as a "Totalist Aberrant Christian Organization". Pile believed the movement was "Christian because they hold orthodox beliefs", and yet "aberrant on secondary issues."
On April 21, 1988, "The Diamondback" published an article by GCI's National Student Director, Tom Short, in which he defended the movement against an article written by Denny Gulick, professor of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, which charged that the movement was a "destructive cult." He also defended the movement against charges from the Cult Awareness Network that the movement was a cult. In part, he wrote:
Anyone who believes that a person can have a genuine, life-changing experience with God becomes the avowed enemy of CAN (The Cult Awareness Network). ... I’ve been a member of Great Commission for more than 14 years. When I joined my mom didn’t understand my conversion and deep interest in the Bible. She feared I was in a cult and would only serve to make the leaders rich. Now that I’m a leader she knows better! As she has gotten to know dozens of people in GCI, her fears have subsided and she thinks the world of our church. Could it be that Dr. Gulick would feel the same way if he took the time to look into GCI with an open mind?
According to GCC, "During the late 1980s and early 1990s a concerted effort was made to reach out to people who felt that they had been hurt by GCI and its churches. At the initial urging of Tom Short, the GCI leaders and pastors published a paper as part of a plan to follow the Biblical standard of humility and reconciliation in relationships. This effort towards reconciliation, formally called Project CARE, was led by Dave Bovenmyer and was instrumental in building unity with Christians within and outside of Great Commission."
In 1991, GCAC released a public statement acknowledging church error and weakness. Bovenmyer wrote:
We, the local pastors and national leaders of the Great Commission Association of Churches, are preparing this statement with the hope that we might accomplish three goals. First, it is intended to be a clear statement of the mistakes we believe we have made and the steps we have taken, and will continue to take, to rectify them. Secondly, the statement is a confession and a request for forgiveness from those who have been hurt by our errors. Finally, we have prepared this statement with the hope that it will be an important part of our plan for reconciliation, where possible, with former members, leaders, and others who, for various reasons are now estranged from us.In the statement, GCC clarified its position on many issues, and admitted responsibility for mistakes grouped into two categories; problems resulting from a "prideful attitude", and problems as "a result of a misapplication or misinterpretation of Scripture." Issues discussed in the statement include:
The statement also listed steps taken, or to be taken, to correct these issues. No specific people or incidents were named in the statement, other than Secretary David Bovenmyer, whose signature was printed at the end of it. Their statement in its entirety is available at the GCC website in the external links section below.
Dr. Paul Martin, director of Wellspring and a former member of Great Commission International (as the group was formerly called), concurs with the opinions of many other former members:
Some encouraging reforms have occurred in recent years after the founder, Jim McCotter, left the movement in the late 1980s. However, the current leadership has not yet revoked the excommunication of its earlier critics. The admissions of error so far have been mainly confined to a position paper, the circulation of which has been questioned by many ex-members. Furthermore, Great Commission leaders have not yet contacted a number of former members who feel wronged and who have personally sought reconciliation. There has been some positive movement in that direction, but most ex-members that I have talked to are not fully satisfied with the reforms or apologies and feel that the issues of deep personal hurt and offense have not been adequately addressed.