Only One in Ten Millennial Churchgoers Say They Know the Great Commission

Jesus points forward, telling His disciples to preach the word.

According to a new poll, only one in ten millennial Christians who attend church say they know the Great Commission, the final directive Jesus Christ gave to His followers before His Ascension in Matthew 28. A vast majority of American churchgoers could not identify the Bible passage, but millennial Christians were even less likely than their older peers to know this pivotal part of the Bible.

Only one in ten millennial churchgoers (born between 1984 and 2002) said they had heard of the text and could identify it. By contrast, 29 percent of those born before 1946 (termed "Elders") said they knew the passage, while 26 percent of Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) said so, along with 17 percent of Gen X (born between 1965 and 1983), according to Barna Research Group, which published the poll last week.

More than half of U.S. churchgoers (51 percent) said they had not previously "heard of the Great Commission." Only 17 percent said they had heard the term and could identify it. Another quarter (25 percent) of church-attending Christians said they had heard the term, but "can't recall the exact meaning." Six percent said they were unsure.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives an inspiring last message to His disciples. He gave an important final command, often called the "Great Commission:"

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

While only 17 percent of U.S. church attending Christians said they could identify the Great Commission, 37 percent identified it from five different Bible passages, each quoting Jesus.

Sixteen percent identified Matthew 22:36-40 ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself."), while 8 percent said the Great Commission was John 14:6 ("I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.").

Even so, a full 33 percent, when presented with these and two other options, said they were not sure "if any of these passages are the Great Commission."

About two in five people among the three oldest generations correctly identified the Great Commission (43 percent of Elders, 42 percent of Boomers, 41 percent of Gen X). Only 34 percent of millennial churchgoers correctly identified the passage, and just as many (36 percent) chose the wrong passage.

The Great Commission is considered akin to a "mission statement" for the Christian church worldwide. Jesus's call to "make disciples of all nations" has inspired missionaries and Bible translators, and can rightly be described as the beating heart of the evangelical movement.

Indeed, evangelicals proved the most likely group of church-going Christians to state that they have heard of the Great Commission and remember what it is (60 percent). When presented the five verses, nearly three-quarters of evangelicals (74 percent) correctly chose Matthew 28:18-20 as the Great Commission.

"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," the Barna Group reported.

Barna applies a strict definition of evangelical, using no less than nine criteria. The poll found a correlation between evangelicals and "Bible-mindedness," full faith in and regular engagement with scripture, as well as a correlation between evangelicals and a thorough knowledge of the New Testament.

Unsurprisingly, more than a third of churchgoers who are Bible-minded (36 percent) said they knew about the Great Commission, and more than half (57 percent) correctly identified the passage. Similarly, those with higher levels of New Testament knowledge were more likely to say they know the Great Commission (33 percent) and to correctly identify it (52 percent).

The Barna Research Group admitted that this study could not determine whether churchgoers did not know the "Great Commission" because they were simply unfamiliar with the term. While it seems natural to interpret the results as a sign of poor Bible knowledge and lax dedication to learning the words of Jesus, there might be other factors at play.

That said, the Great Commission is a pivotal part of the Bible. Jesus's decision to urge His followers to "make disciples of all nations" launched the preaching of Christianity to the corners of the earth, and helped inspire the decision (recorded in Acts 10) to welcome non-Jews into the Christian church.

A few other passages — such as John 3:16, Romans 10:9, and John 14:6 — explain that Jesus is the only way to heaven, but only in Matthew 28:18-20 does Jesus explicitly commission His disciples to spread the message and teach others to follow Jesus they way they did.

All Christians should know this passage and put it into practice, whether they refer to it as the "Great Commission" or not. Following this directive is indeed a central part of what it means to be a Christian. Millennial Christians in particular need to hear about and gain familiarity with this passage.