Apr 20, 2022

Pastors See Missions as a Mandate, But Christians Aren’t So Sure

Is Jesus’ message that Christians should “go and make disciples” a calling or a mandate?

The Great Disconnect: Reclaiming the Heart of the Great Commission in Your Church, Barna’s newest study conducted in partnership with Mission India, reveals misconceptions and inconsistencies in how U.S. churches perceive and approach missionary work. This article zooms in on Christians’ and pastors’ beliefs about who bears responsibility for the Great Commission and how it should be carried out.

The Great Disconnect

Reclaiming the Heart of the Great Commission in Your Church

85% of Pastors View Missions as a Biblical Mandate
Matthew 28:18–20 is one of the biblical records of what is commonly referred to extra-biblically as “the Great Commission.” It has been cited as a driving force for evangelism or missions work. In it, we read, “Jesus came and told his disciples, ‘I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” In recent years, Barna has learned that churchgoers lack awareness of this passage—a trend that holds steady in The Great Disconnect research, with 53 percent of practicing Christians having heard of the Great Commission.

Further, new Barna data reveal Christians may find exceptions in Jesus’ parting command; they tend to believe missions is a calling for some (51%), not a mandate for all (25%). On the other hand, the vast majority of pastors (85%)—regardless of denomination—says missions is work that all Christians participate in. This is a profound difference, with pastors nearly doubling practicing Christians and more than tripling Christians in general with their agreement that missions is a mandate for every Christian.

Both leaders and churchgoers must unpack why this gap exists. Pastors  could lean in to better understand and shape how  congregants interpret missions. Does their participation mean donating money, praying, educating, evangelizing, relocating or something else?

There are patterns among certain groups that underscore the Bible’s central role in these conversations. Among Christians who can correctly identify the Great Commission, 61 percent view missions as a mandate, pointing to a correlation between scriptural context and perception of a missional assignment. We also see that those who view missions as a mandate for all believe a biblical understanding of missions is essential for their church’s involvement in missions.

Pastors Focus on Missions’ Spiritual Impact, While Christians See Other Community Needs
Whether they see missions work as an option or a responsibility, pastors and Christians have varying views on what matters most in missions and what it should accomplish.

For example, pastors say it is more important that missions equip indigenous or local leaders to spread the gospel (88%) as opposed to being short-term (6%). (Interestingly, regardless of its perceived importance, the latter remains much more common as a missions model for U.S. churches today.) Meanwhile, just 46 percent of Christians say equipping local leaders is most important, with short-term missions (18%) gaining a bit more traction.

Pastors also stress the importance of spreading the gospel over promoting justice (77% vs. 15%). To Christians, however, spreading the gospel (43%) and promoting justice (37%) hold nearly equal importance when it comes to missions. Accordingly, we see Christians favor transforming the health of communities and meeting physical needs, while pastors hope to meet spiritual needs foremost.

Overall, missions values differ considerably between the pulpit and the pew. Notably, Christians are also more likely than pastors to be neutral on many of these points, which could suggest they lack the information or guidance they need on the subject.

Some disconnects exist, but 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:

  • 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 latest report.
  • 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
  • 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.

The Great Disconnect

Reclaiming the Heart of the Great Commission in Your Church

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 Shivam Dewan from Unsplash

© Barna Group, 2022.

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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