More than half US churchgoers don’t know of the Great Commission

Fifty-one per cent of US churchgoers have never heard of the term “the Great Commission” – the famous words of Jesus in Matthew 28 calling on his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations,” a new study by US-based Barna Group in partnership with Seed Company has found.

Only 17 per cent of US churchgoers – defined as having attended church the past six months – were familiar with the passage known by this name.

However, among American evangelicals, recognition of the phrase was much higher, with 60 per cent of those surveyed saying they had heard of the Great Commission and could remember what it is.

When selecting the Great Commission from a choice of five verses, 74 per cent of evangelicals were able to correctly identify it – the largest portion among churchgoing groups identified in the survey.

Evangelicals were not defined according to a particular denomination but according to nine criteria, including having a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and accepting Jesus as their Saviour. Barna’s definition includes the main Pentecostal churches.

… only 17 per cent of Gen X (1965-83) and 10 per cent of Millennials (1984-2002) recognised it.

“The data indicates that churches are using the phrase less, which may reveal a lack of prioritising or focusing on the work of the Great Commission, but may also indicate that the phrase, rather than the Scriptures or the labour, has fallen out of favour with some,” Barna says on its website.

The likelihood that the phrase is less in vogue was reflected in a significant disparity of responses by age group, with older Christians far more likely to recognise the phrase than younger generations. Twenty-nine per cent of elders (born before 1946) and 26 per cent of Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) knew the text, while only 17 per cent of Gen X (1965-83) and 10 per cent of Millennials (1984-2002) recognised it.

People in all generations were more likely to choose the right passage from five options than to remember it unprompted. However, churchgoing Millennials were about as likely to misidentify (36 per cent) as to correctly identify (34 per cent) the Great Commission.

Barna points out that it’s not possible to conclude from this study that respondents are ignorant of the scriptural mandate; they may simply be unaware of a term that has become missional jargon.

“A survey of churchgoers’ knowledge about the Great Commission shouldn’t be conflated with an assessment of their understanding or commitment to the spirit of the Great Commission – a concept christened only fairly recently in church history and concentrated most in evangelical circles,” it says.

“Some churchgoing groups are inevitably more likely to hear the Great Commission directly named in or connected to messages about missions. For example, 28 per cent of Southern Baptist pastors and 18 per cent of Baptist pastors say their last sermon about missions was specifically about the Great Commission.”

Pastors in mainline churches – a term referring to liberal churches in the northern states – were less likely (6 per cent) to mention the Great Commission in sermons than non-mainline (southern) ministers (15 per cent), which could explain the different degrees to which individual churchgoers were aware of the phrase.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, said the new study, called Translating the Great Commission, looks at what US Christians, pastors and young Christians think about terms like the Great Commission, evangelism and missions to help the church communicate and mobilise people towards a missional future.

“It looks at the positives and negatives associated with these different terms and how do we as church leaders make sense of that language and then lead the church forward in this confusing and sceptical age,” he says on the Barna website.

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