A major finding from Barna’s Translating the Great Commission report, produced in partnership with Seed Company, is that more than half of U.S. churchgoers have not heard of the Great Commission. Additionally, even when presented with a list of passages, 37 percent don’t recognize which well-known passage typically goes by this name.
Since releasing this data, Barna has heard from members and leaders of the church who were surprised or even concerned by this statistic, wondering what it might also reveal about the nature of sermon teaching, biblical literacy and engagement or Christian missions today. Below, Allen Yeh, an associate professor of intercultural studies and missiology at Biola University and the author of Polycentric Missiology, weighs in on how the dynamics of spreading the gospel and making disciples are playing out in their respective contexts.
Barna: A key (and some would say surprising) finding in our report is that half of U.S. churchgoers have not heard of “the Great Commission.” Why do you think this is?
I myself am very surprised by this finding. However, the phrase “Great Commission” is not found in the Bible whereas the phrase “Great Commandment” is (see Matt. 22:35–40), so that may be part of the problem. Also, there are actually five Great Commissions, not just Matthew 28, which may explain part of the confusion. A “Great Commission” is the last words of Jesus to his disciples, and he gives different words in Mark, Luke, John and Acts. I think all five are worth examining.
In addition, the Great Commission is a much younger concept, historically: William Carey, the “father of modern missions,” brought the Great Commission to light in 1792 through his writing of An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Despite its relative “newness,” I think Carey was right that the Great Commission is not a command only for the original 11 disciples (as everyone believed before 1792) but for all Christians. His rationale was that the main verb in Matthew 28 was to “make disciples.” But if the original 11 made more disciples, and the Great Commission is a command to all disciples, then it must be a command for all Christians. This launched the era known as the “Great Century of Missions” (the 19th century, so dubbed by Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette).
I think some of the ignorance of this term can be attributed to churches not teaching this concept enough any more. I certainly heard it a lot growing up, but perhaps it has been lost on this current generation of believers. Maybe we need a new “William Carey” to revitalize interest and educate people again on it.
For information on this research and more, go to Barna.com.