Mar 27, 2018

From the Archives

51% of Churchgoers Don’t Know of the Great Commission

Matthew 28:18-20 is the most well-known biblical record of what is commonly referred to extra-biblically as “the Great Commission.” But despite the significance of these and other verses that call Christians to “go and make disciples of all nations,” a surprising proportion of churchgoing Christians in the U.S. are generally unaware of these famous words from Jesus.

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, available now in the new report Translating the Great Commission.

Translating the Great Commission

What Spreading the Gospel Means to U.S. Christians in the 21st Century

When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.

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.

Taking a different tack, Barna 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 of churchgoers (37%) 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%) also select the passage in Matthew 28. The remainder of churchgoers either does not know which of these verses is the Great Commission (33%) or offers an incorrect answer (31%).

Age also makes a significant difference in whether churchgoers recognize the Great Commission. More than one-quarter of Elders (29%) and Boomers (26%) says they know the text, compared to 17 percent of Gen X and one in 10 Millennials (10%). As with other churchgoing groups, people in all generations are more likely to choose the right passage from a set of options than to remember it unprompted. Roughly two in five people among the three oldest generations correctly identify the Great Commission (43% of Elders, 42% of Boomers, 41% of Gen X). Churchgoing Millennials, however, are about as likely to misidentify (36%) as to correctly identify (34%) the Great Commission. Although not even half of any age group knows the Great Commission well, the youngest adult generation is least likely to recognize it. Again, this study cannot conclude whether respondents are ignorant of the scriptural mandate itself, or just unaware that it is commonly called the Great Commission; in this case, it’s possible older generations may be more familiar with the Great Commission because the term was previously more en vogue in Protestant missions.

Segments divide in their awareness of the Great Commission depending on denominational affiliation, church attendance, engagement with scripture and faith practice. For instance, practicing Christians recognize the Great Commission at four times the rate of non-practicing churchgoers (25% vs. 6%).

There is a correlation between what Barna calls “Bible-mindedness”—essentially, full faith in and regular engagement with scripture—and recognizing the Great Commission. More than a third of churchgoers who are Bible-minded (36%) knows the term, and over half (57%) correctly select the Great Commission from the list of possible passages. Similarly, those with higher levels of New Testament knowledge are more likely than those with less knowledge to say they know what the Great Commission is (33%) and to correctly identify it (52%). By comparison, only 1 percent of those with low New Testament knowledge are familiar with the Great Commission, and 12 percent can pick it from among other verses.

Translating the Great Commission

What Spreading the Gospel Means to U.S. Christians in the 21st Century

Evangelicals are the most likely churchgoing group to state that they have heard of the Great Commission and remember what it is (60%), which generally aligns with their theological disposition and the criteria to be characterized as “evangelical” in the first place. The traditional Christian views and personal spiritual commitment that shape evangelicals likely cultivate a higher level of awareness of the language of the Great Commission, and this missional jargon is more ubiquitous in the evangelical community. When selecting the Great Commission from the series of verses, three of four churchgoing evangelicals (74%) correctly identify it, the largest portion among churchgoing groups. Fittingly, American evangelicals also appear to be more Bible-minded, are more likely to be active in their churches and have deep knowledge of gospel context and the New Testament.

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. Some churchgoing groups are inevitably more likely to hear the Great Commission directly named in or connected to messages about missions. For example, 28 percent of Southern Baptist pastors and 18 percent of Baptist pastors say their last sermon about missions was specifically about the Great Commission. Non-mainline pastors are typically more likely than mainline ministers to mention the Great Commission in a missions sermon (15% vs. 6%). In other words, the degree to which an individual churchgoer is personally aware of the phrasing of the Great Commission could be explained by the degree to which their own church denomination or leader publicly references it.

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Twitter: @davidkinnaman@barnagroup
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About the Research

This study involved qualitative and quantitative research with pastors, churchgoers and U.S. adults. In initial research, an open-ended online survey was conducted in July 2017 to explore perceptions of missions and Bible translation. The 84 participants included 25 pastors, 31 practicing Christians (of any age) and 28 churchgoing Millennials. Subsequently, Barna surveyed the same types of respondents in a comprehensive online survey made up of primarily closed-end quantitative questions. These interviews were conducted in October 2017 with a nationally representative sample of 1,010 U.S. adults, as well as 619 U.S. Protestant senior pastors (senior, lead or executive roles) and 1,004 U.S. adult churchgoers (who have attended a regular church service within the past six months). An oversample of young adults contributed to a total of 692 Millennial churchgoing respondents.

PRACTICING CHRISTIANS are self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month

CHURCHGOERS are defined for this sample as those who have attended church within the past six months

BIBLE-MINDED are those who have read the Bible within the past seven days and agree strongly that the Bible is accurate.

EVANGELICALS meet nine criteria, which include having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believing that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. The seven other conditions include saying their faith is very important in their lives; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent on church attendance or denominational affiliation, and respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

NON-MAINLINE are those in charismatic / Pentecostal churches, churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and non-denominational churches, among others.
MAINLINE are those in American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church USA.

GEN Z were born between 1999 and 2015.
MILLENNIALS were born between 1984 and 2002.
GEN X were born between 1965 and 1983.
BOOMERS were born between 1946 and 1964.
ELDERS were born prior to 1946.

© Barna Group, 2018.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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