No one can argue its importance. It is the final command Jesus gave us. Yet half of the people in American churches can’t say what it is or even select it from a list of verses.
How can this be, and what does this mean for Christianity in America?
The Great Commission
Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Of course you’ve heard these verses, right? Or have you? In March 2017, Barna Group 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. When asked if they had “heard of the Great Commission,” about half of U.S. churchgoers (51 percent) responded they hadn’t.
It would be reassuring to assume the other half who know the term were also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion was low. Only 17 percent of those who said they were familiar with the term “Great Commission” could also say they knew what it meant. Beyond this, only 37 percent of churchgoers could recognize which was the Great Commission when asked to choose it from five passages in a list.
Barna’s research begs the question: How can we carry out the greatest task Jesus has given us if we don’t even know what it is?
Let’s look a little closer at what Jesus was asking his disciples (and us) to do.
The message Christians are commanded to carry to the ends of the earth is called the “gospel.” What is the gospel? If Barna had asked this question, the numbers might have been even lower. And we can’t really ask people to choose it from a list of verses, because the message of the gospel runs throughout the Bible.
We’re all supposed to be sharing the gospel, but many Christians aren’t, because they aren’t sure what it is.
The good news of the gospel is God’s response to the bad news of sin. It is the answer to God’s promise to right what is wrong in the world, and in us. God sent his Son, Jesus, who took on flesh to come and live among us. God became man in the person of Jesus. Then, after living a life of perfect obedience to God, he gave up that life to pay the price justice demands for our sin, according to the Scriptures. God raised him up on the third day (1 Corinthians 15). Without the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, there would be no salvation for any of us.
Jesus preached about the gospel while he was still on earth – the good news that the kingdom God had promised for hundreds of years was finally coming. For the Jewish leaders, the kingdom meant healing and restoration were imminent. And while he was on earth, Jesus gave them a taste of this kingdom when he valued the poor, set captives free, healed the blind, and released people from oppression (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).
The apostle Paul preached that Jesus is the way to belong in this kingdom. So did Jesus, himself, (John 14:6) and Peter (Acts 2), and all of the apostles. Literally, the word “gospel” means “good news,” but to understand the good news, we have to understand the bad news about sin. “Despite our own ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to each other, we are all in the same spiritual boat – we have sinned,” and the punishment for sin is eternal separation from our source of life and all goodness (Romans 3:23), God.
Everyone sins, and sin brings death. But Jesus’ death and resurrection brings us eternal life and restores our relationship with the Father. Paul said there are some facts that are of “first importance” to this gospel we are to bring to the ends of the earth:
- Christ died for our sins in accordance with Scripture
- He was buried
- He was raised on the third day
- He appeared to all of the apostles and then to more than 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
By identifying with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, we are made righteous. We are empowered by his Holy Spirit to live a holy life. And in him, our place in God’s kingdom is secure (John 10:28). This is good news.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
The “Great Commission reprise,” so to speak, comes in Acts 1. If we are the beneficiaries of God’s good news in Jesus, we ourselves receive power to become disciples, students, and followers of Jesus, our teacher. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to be witnesses. And if we are truly learning from him, what we’re learning is too good to keep to ourselves. We will be led to share it. That is the nature of the Christian faith and the direction of the Holy Spirit, who is always leading us to testify about Jesus and glorify him (John 15:26 and 16:14).
Followers of Jesus become witnesses to what he has done in our lives. We talk about it with those around us, and we carry out the Great Commission … even if we don’t know that’s what it’s called. That is what followers of Christ do, even if they don’t call it by name.
So, in spite of the very real concern about people’s familiarity with Scripture, the good news about the Great Commission is that the people of God, Jesus’ church, by his grace and power, are still carrying out the command.
The good news about the good news
The truth about the term “Great Commission” is that it is less than well-known and declining in familiarity. Barna’s research shows that the younger a generation, the less likely they are to know what it is. Yet while spiritual conversations may be happening less and less in America, still the gospel continues to be carried to the ends of the earth.
Actually, the lack of familiarity with the term doesn’t mean evangelism is entirely forgotten, even in America. Recent research offers hope that the Great Commission continues to be carried out, despite all speculation about its decline.
And the very good news about the good news is that people all over the world are still carrying out the Great Commission every day. The borders of God’s kingdom are expanding in places like Africa and Asia, quietly in the Middle East, and among the world’s refugee populations.
Is it possible for us to do the same that is being done in these countries where the gospel is spreading rapidly: to hold onto the command, to teach it to our children and those we are telling about Jesus, even if the term has fallen out of favor? Of course it is. It is the most important thing Jesus ever asked of us.
Top photo: courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse