Ever Heard of the ‘Great Commission’? 51% of Churchgoers Say No

Great Commission
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For some time evangelicals have said they’re suffering an identity crisis. A new study may tell us why. Barna reports a majority of churchgoers are unfamiliar with the term “The Great Commission.

The “Great Commission” is how the church has long identified Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  

In partnership with Seed Company, Barna conducted a study of the U.S. church’s ideas about missions, social justice, Bible translation and other aspects of spreading the gospel around the world. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51 percent) say they do not know this term. One in four (25 percent), said they had heard the term but weren’t sure what it meant. Sadly, just 17 percent said they knew the Great Commission is Jesus assigning his followers to spread the Gospel.

Six percent of churchgoers aren’t sure whether they have heard the term before.

Breaking the survey down by age groups, “roughly two in five people among the three oldest generations correctly identify the Great Commission (43 percent of Elders, 42 percent of Boomers, 41 percent of Gen Xers). Churchgoing Millennials, however, are about as likely to misidentify (36 percent) as to correctly identify (34 percent) the Great Commission,” the Barna report noted.

Barna’s report on the familiarity American Christians have with the term “Great Commission” comes a few months after the American Culture & Faith Institute released a study showing that American churches are not emphasizing evangelism.

ACFI is headed by Barna Group founder George Barna. The group noted last December that a decreasing number of churches “emphasize and equip people for evangelism these days, and the results are obvious and undeniable.”

“The implications of ignoring gospel outreach—especially among children, who are the most receptive audience to the gospel—are enormous,” stated ACFI.

“All the ‘church growth’ strategies in the world cannot compensate for the absence of an authentic transmission of the good news of what Jesus Christ has done for humanity.”

Barna researchers nevertheless cautioned that “this study cannot conclude whether respondents are ignorant of the scriptural mandate itself, or just unaware that it is commonly called the Great Commission.” But they still expressed concern in that “the data indicates that churches are using the phrase less, which may reveal a lack of prioritizing or focusing on the work of the Great Commission, but may also indicate that the phrase, rather than the scriptures or the labor, has simply fallen out of favor with some.”

In an attempt to assess the level of understanding of the biblical mandate, researchers also presented churchgoers with five different passages from scripture and asked them to identify which one is known as the Great Commission. “A little more than one-third (37 percent) correctly identifies the Bible passage—far more than those who recognize the Great Commission in name alone. Nearly all of the churchgoers who indicate they have previously heard of the Great Commission (94 percent) also select the passage in Matthew 28. The remainder of churchgoers either does not know which of these verses is the Great Commission (33 percent) or offers an incorrect answer (31 percent).”

Perhaps if we understand what the Great Commission is again we will have a better sense of identity as evangelicals.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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