How do Christians define missions?
Recent data published in The Great Disconnect, a Barna report produced in partnership with Mission India, show that Christians’ and pastors’ perceptions of missions—whether it’s a calling or a mandate—vary widely. This article goes deeper into the data, exploring exactly how Christians define the term “missions” and what actions they believe best fit this definition.
29% of All Christians Define Missions as Proclaiming the Truth of Jesus Wherever You Are
Generally speaking, the Church sees missions and evangelism running in parallel.
Asked to select a statement that best defines missions, Christians’ top answer is “proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ wherever you are” (29%). This definition sees increased support among practicing Christians (41%), and also accounts for pastors’ highest response (30%). The second highest response among Christians is “the calling to proclaim the gospel to a specific people group or region” (17% all Christians, 19% practicing Christians). Pastors, however, rank “the holistic transformation of people’s lives by caring for their physical, social and spiritual needs” as second (28%).
Looking at responses by tradition, we see a divergence of opinion in how Christians view missions. This is especially apparent among pastors. Mainline leaders lean decidedly toward defining missions by transformation (44% vs. 28% non-mainline) and justice (20% vs. 6%), and non-mainline leaders lean toward defining missions as the proclamation of the truth of Jesus (30% vs. 10% mainline) or of the gospel to a specific population (23% vs. 6%). This trend is muted among all Christians, though here, too, non-mainliners stand out in favoring missions as “proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ wherever you are” (38% vs. 25% mainline).
64% of Pastors Say Sharing About Jesus with Others Qualifies as Missions Work
With varying definitions of missions being held by both congregants and pastors, what activities qualify as missions work? Half of all Christians (47%)—and three in five practicing Christians (60%)—say “sharing about Jesus with others” best fits “what missions is.”
Beyond “sharing Jesus,” Christians’ best explanations of missions blur together, with most statements landing within small percentages of each other. There isn’t much clarity or preference about what missions should look like. This fuzziness is consistent throughout the data: Christians’ views vary, and they aren’t always sure what to make of missions.
Pastors mostly agree with characterizing missions as “sharing about Jesus with others” (64%). On other options, however, pastors’ opinions of missions diverge somewhat from Christians in general and stress practical, global activity. “Starting churches in places that don’t have them” (43%) and “overseas or cross-cultural outreach” (39%) strike roughly two in five pastors as missions work, far more so than among Christians. More than one-third of pastors (35%) sees missions embodied in partnering with organizations that help people in need.
Church leaders have clear, tangible expectations for what qualifies as missions. Add this to pastors’ deeply felt consensus that the call to missions extends to all Christians, and a question arises: Why don’t those in their pews share these views?
In Barna-led focus groups of U.S. pastors, leaders described the common frustration of feeling unable to translate missions work from pastoral vision to congregants’ action. No matter where pastors land with their perceptions of and approach toward missions, they feel their congregation is a few steps behind in embracing the Great Commission and recognizing their role in missions. Missions is an area where pastors experience a disconnect with their congregations—and congregants in turn seem disconnected from the reality of missions.
Still, many opportunities are also present—for the Christian, the pastor and the Church. The Great Disconnect both equips and challenges pastors to build an expanded, global view of missions within their churches and evaluate ways God is calling their congregations to uniquely reach the unreached.
Related resources and further reading:
- If you’re ready to understand and address the disconnects that are hindering your church from effectively engaging with the Great Commission, check out The Great Disconnect.
- Read Barna Takes: Living Out the Great Commission with a Global Perspective, written by Cicely Corry (Managing Editor), to learn more about some of the key findings and themes brought to light in Barna's recent report.
- Interested in learning more about how the next generation views missions? Read The Future of Missions to discover 10 vital questions about global ministry that the Church must address with young people.
- More research on the Church’s understanding and interpretation of the Great Commission can be found in Translating the Great Commission, a Barna study produced in partnership with Seed Company.
- Check out past Barna releases on global ministry, including trends currently impacting global missions, how young adults prefer to talk about missions, how different generation view the value of missions and a Q&A about churchgoers’ knowledge of the Great Commission.
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About the Research
Both qualitative and quantitative research were utilized for the success of this report.
Qualitative research included six focus groups with U.S. Protestant pastors to better understand their perceptions of missions, their involvement with missions organizations and what they would consider successful missions work. These focus groups were 90-minute discussions conducted from November 9–December 15, 2020, via Zoom. Groups were curated to ensure demographic and denominational diversity. These focus groups made up the initial phase of Barna’s research and were designed to inform a broader study on U.S. missions engagement.
The first quantitative study consisted of one online survey of 2,000 U.S. self-identified Christian adults conducted June 8–28, 2021. The margin of error for this study is +/- 2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Respondents were quota sampled by region, ethnicity, education, age and gender and minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation (using the U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison).
The second quantitative study surveyed 507 Protestant senior pastors between October 12–28, 2021. The margin of error for this study is +/- 1.7 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. Respondents were quota sampled by region, church size and denomination and minimal statistical weighting was applied to maximize representation.
In addition to this research, the Activating Missions Barna CoLab helped inform the data storytelling within this report. This six-week cohort sponsored by Mission India was held September 7–October 12, 2021. Pastors and church leaders participated in this interactive learning experience via Zoom for research-driven insight on global missions strategy.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who have attended a worship service within the past month and strongly agree their faith is very important to their life.
Photo by Joshua Hanson from Unsplash.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2022