The headline “51% of Churchgoers Don’t Know of the Great Commission” from a Barna report in March 2018 caught my eye and caused me great concern. The report said that for 25 percent of churchgoers, the term “Great Commission” sounded familiar, but they could not remember the meaning of it. Only 17 percent of churchgoers said they had heard of the Great Commission and knew what it meant.
Although not even half of any age group knew the term Great Commission well, the youngest adult generation was the least likely to recognize it. Only 10 percent of millennials (those born 1981 to 1997) had heard of or could remember the term.
On a positive note, evangelicals were the churchgoing group most likely to say they had heard of the Great Commission and remembered what it was (60 percent). And three-fourths of evangelicals (74 percent) were able to correctly select the Great Commission from a collection of five different Bible verses.
What Has Caused the Great Commission to Go M.I.A.?
Some of the lack of awareness of the Great Commission may be attributed to preachers not using the phrase in sermons these days. And some might be the result of preachers de-emphasizing the challenge and responsibility of the Great Commission in their weekend messages.
Of the sermons I’ve heard by a host of preachers over the last couple of years, an increasing percentage sound to me more like trite, inspirational posters you’d find at Hobby Lobby than a call to be disciples and make disciples. It also seems that much preaching today is predicated on a foundation of “moral therapeutic deism.” This misguided theology also reflects what millennials have believed for years, based on research findings.
The term was coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. They summarize “moral therapeutic deism” in five points:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to Heaven when they die.
My conclusion is the shift toward moral therapeutic deism in preachers’ sermons and churchgoers’ personal beliefs has sadly created a scenario where the Great Commission is missing in action, forgotten, or unknown.
What About Missions and Evangelism?
Additionally, this apparent theological shift has created a reality where almost half (47 percent) of millennials (ages 23-39) said they “agreed strongly” or “agreed somewhat” that “it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith,” according to an August 2019 Barna study. Given this foundational belief of so many, it seems safe to conclude that many young adult Christians are unlikely to even attempt to make disciples of anyone adhering to another faith or having no faith at all.
While it seems to conflict with the finding above, the same Barna report stated that 96 percent of those same millennials said they “agreed strongly” or “agreed somewhat” that “part of my faith means being a witness about Jesus.” But the report did not elaborate on what this meant for millennials in terms of practical application.
With regard to missions, a majority (72 percent) of young adults ages 18-34 said missionary work is “very valuable,” according to a July 2020 Barna report. This may bode well for the future of missions support and recruiting young adults to serve on the mission field.
What Impact Are Online Services Having on the Church?
In mid-March, when the pandemic struck, many churches were forced to cease on-site worship services and shift to online church. Initially, there seemed to be a positive response and many churches reported record attendance numbers for online worshippers.
But it appears the allure of online church has worn off for many, according to a July research report by Barna. The study found that among practicing Christians—those who identify as Christian and agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and attended church at least monthly prior to COVID-19—just over half (53 percent) said they had streamed their regular church online within the past four weeks. Another 34 percent said they had streamed a church service other than their own church.
Finally, almost one-third of practicing Christians (32 percent) said they had not watched any online services during the previous month. Therefore, Barna concluded with confidence that this group of Christians had “dropped out” of church, at least for the time being.
Among Christian millennials, half (50 percent) said they had not attended online church for at least the last four weeks. Just over one-third of gen X/busters (35 percent of those born from about 1965 to 1980) said they had stopped watching church, and a little more than one-fourth of boomers (26 percent of those born 1946 to 1964) said the same.
The Barna study concluded that those churchgoers who stopped attending online services still seek support from a church community. Over half said they wanted “prayer and emotional support” from churches. Not surprisingly, those who have stopped attending online services reported higher levels of anxiety and stress compared with those Christians who continued worshipping online.
Millennials have been called “digital natives” for years, meaning they were the first generation to grow up with technology. My concern is that if Christians in this group, many of whom are parents to younger children, are not watching online, then their children most likely are not receiving any form of worship or Bible teaching. The long-ranging impact of these negative habits being formed now could impact the church for years to come.
Where does this leave the church moving forward? Whenever the pandemic is over and people feel safe to regather fully in larger groups, it’s going to be essential for the shepherds of the church (elders and ministers) to go on a search and rescue mission to find the “sheep” who have wandered off and disappeared. Do not assume they will come “home” on their own.
In the interim, it is critical for church leaders to keep doing their best to connect with their flock regularly and repeatedly, to offer encouragement and hope, but also to challenge and call them to continued faithfulness and perseverance. The more this can be done in person, rather than online, the better.
Rethinking how to do church online is also essential because so many previously active Christians have stopped logging on to watch. My suggestion is to make your online worship experience look different from your in-person worship venues and experience.
Return to Bible-based messages rather than “pop psychology” ponderings. Reformat your sermons to be closer to the length of TED Talks (15 to 18 minutes). Reset your online services by starting with your Bible message and conclude with no more than 10 minutes of worship so that the whole online experience is less than 30 minutes. Recharge your church by including some surprises in your online worship experiences to keep people tuning in each week.