The Great Commission
The Great Commission – What history and modern statistics can tell us about the success of the Church
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 (Mt 28:18-20).
Jesus’ last words to his disciples were a commission for the church: make disciples all over the world and teach those disciples to obey Jesus’ teachings. Whereas it is difficult to measure certain commandments like “Love the Lord your God,”(Mt 22:37) these two metrics – spreading Christianity and faithful Christian behaviors – can be measured. Historical data as well as the results of modern surveys can tell us whether the church has been successful in history and continues to succeed or whether it has failed in these two ways. I will argue that throughout history the church has consistently been successful in making disciples of all nations, but the behavior of self-identified Christians in modern America are not radically different than the population at large. Thus, to fulfill the Great Commission, Christians need to continue spreading the gospel but also refocus the message in Christian-majority areas to put Christian beliefs into practice.
Making Disciples of All Nations
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Mt 24:14).
As mentioned above, Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of all nations, but moreover he promises that the gospel of his kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world. Jesus’ credibility is at stake if Christianity does not eventually make it all over the globe.
From a few days after Jesus’ commission, Christians of all types and persuasions have been intent on spreading the good news about Jesus’ benevolent Lordship to as many who will listen – and this has often included far-off lands. It is easy for Christians from Europe and America to think that the spread of Christianity was primarily accomplished through Paul establishing the church in the Roman empire which basically maintained its size through the middle ages until the age of exploration when explorers and colonizers brought Christianity to Africa, India, China, America and even the most distant parts of globe. This Eurocentric history of Christianity is prominent in the Western Christian psyche. However, while indeed Paul’s missionary journeys to the Roman Empire are well known and documented, and indeed missionary movements and European empires have done great works to expose the world to Christianity, Christianity’s flourishing around the globe has been the historical rule rather than the modern exception.[4,5] For example, as historian Phillip Jenkins puts it,
At the very same time that Christians were moving west into Europe in the first two or three centuries A.D., others were travelling eastwards into Asia, and south into Africa. By the mid-sixth century, Christian monasteries were operating in China. And we are not speaking here of a few brave missionaries. As late as…1250 it makes sense to think of a Christian world [in addition to Europe] stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand[, Uzbekistan] (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden[, Somalia], almost to the Equator.
For much of the time during which Western Christians think Christianity was confined to the Mediterranean, Christian communities were prevalent throughout the Middle East and Asia. Africa also flourished as a base of Christianity in the Middle Ages independent of European influence. When a missionary from Constantinople arrived in Nubia (Northern Sudan) in 580 AD, he found many already well versed in Christian doctrine. In fact, Nubia flourished as an independent Christian state all the way until the 14th Century.
In the 13th century, the Mongol hordes destroyed many ancient centers of Christianity and slaughtered millions of people including countless Christians. However, while not Christians themselves, Mongol leaders came from a part of Central Asia in which Christianity was common. Additionally, the wife of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu was influential enough to protect Christian churches in Baghdad, all while Hulegu slaughtered up to 800,000 residents of the city. While the Mongols may well have been more savage than any other conquering civilization, as one historian puts it,
Some Christians, such as Solomon of Basra who wrote about the invasions in the 1220s, dreamed that soon [Christians] could convert a Mongol dynasty that would… establish a huge [Christian] empire stretching from Syria to the Pacific. Had this come about, the Church of the East would have dwarfed Christian Europe.
It was not to be, however. In the 13th Century with the conversion of the Mongols to Islam, Christianity in Asia changed from being a small though prevalent religion to being heavily persecuted and on the decline. Outside the Mongol empire, the Ming Dynasty’s ascension in 1368 squelched out all traces of Chinese Christianity.
But even after the bloody and violent age in which Christianity largely died out in Asia, it was never gone completely and would rise soon again. European explorers and missionaries encountered small Christian communities in Mesopotamia, India, Ethiopia and elsewhere in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christianity as a whole was not overwhelmingly based in Europe until the roughly two-hundred year period between the rise of the Mongols and the era of European empires, and even then, traces remained in pockets across the old world. Soon thereafter, though, with the empires came missionaries, and with the missionaries the seeds of the gospel brought to places that had forgotten it and to the new world as well.
Today, Christianity is still on the rise and is growing all over the world – even in the Middle East and Europe. While the popularity of people identifying as “Christian” as they would on a survey or census does not necessarily indicate true and personal belief, it does suggest that the gospel message is prevalent in the society. Christianity is the most popular religion in each country in the entire western hemisphere and in almost every country in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia. The only regions of the world that are not majority Christian are Asia (including the Middle East) and North Africa. Even within those regions, however, many countries have a sizable Christian community that is making the gospel known. Palestine and China, neither known for Christianity, both have flourishing Christian communities and are among the world’s leaders in sending international missionaries.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the advance of the gospel, however, is not the static Christian majorities but the growth of Christianity in the past century. For instance, in 1910, Africa was only 9% Christian. By 1970, however, 38.7% was Christian and today about 48% of Africans consider themselves Christian. In this century, Asia may be poised for a similar growth. Particularly exciting is China, which in 1970 was only 0.1% Christian, but today is over 8% and is projected to be over 10% Christian by 2020.
Even Europe has seen an increase in the percentage of Christians, even accounting for population growth from 75 to 79% Christian. There have been modest though significant declines in proportions of Christians in North America and Australia, though the total numbers of Christians in those regions are still rising. The Middle East and North Africa, perhaps the worst areas in the world as far as church growth are concerned, have nearly doubled the numbers of people who are Christian since 1970. Even the gospel’s most barren regions of the world have about a 4 or 5% Christian population.
Overall, there are about a billion more Christians today than there were in 1970. Even so, the proportion of self-identified Christians in the world has not changed, maintaining about a third of the world’s people from 1970 to today. Much progress has been made in reaching those that have not heard the gospel at all, however. The Wycliffe Bible Translators estimate that the 2,000 remaining languages without a Bible will, thanks to advances in modern translation techniques, have one by 2025. Organizations such as the Joshua Project identify people groups that do not have a viable Christian witness and countries across the globe send missionaries to those who have not heard. Worldwide missions are moving ever forward in fulfilling the Great Commission.
Certainly, Christians are not simply looking for the appearance of obedience or the outward signs of religion – in the gospels Jesus saved some of his choicest words for Pharisees who on the outside appeared righteous but on the inside loved neither God nor neighbor. (Mt 23:27) Nevertheless, Christ certainly does commission his followers to obey his commandments and to teach others to do the same. In 1 Cor 6, Paul characterizes the essence of Christian conversion as turning away from sin, being washed clean by Christ and becoming holy. The Christian life is to be marked by repentance away from the sins that our culture throws upon us.
To measure whether Christians behave as Jesus commands, one can use modern survey data. Such data is rare both by time period and location so I will focus on American Christianity in particular. In a nationwide survey, market researcher George Barna asked whether respondents “Gave money to a homeless person or poor person, in past year?” Only 24% of self-identified born again Christians responded in the affirmative, compared to 34% of non-Christians. When asked whether they “Donated any money to a nonprofit organization, in past month” 47% of born again Christians said yes while 48% of non-Christians did. And asked whether they were “Satisfied with your life these days” born again Christians agreed 69% to 68% of non-Christians.[22,23] With these and other similar questions, Barna concludes, “[Christians] think and behave no differently from anyone else.”
At least in America, self-identification as a Christian does not necessarily produce the change in behavior that Paul and Jesus say Christians have. However, when controlling for whether one regularly attends religious services, practicing Christians are indeed better performing at similar metrics than non-Christians. Nevertheless, self-identified but not practiced Christianity, while exposing many to the gospel of Christ, fails to transform people’s behavior and so fails to fulfill the Great Commission. When spreading the gospel, Christians must emphasize putting self-identified beliefs into practice.
Christianity cannot be content with merely exposing the world to Christianity but must develop mature disciples of Christ – disciples who believe his teachings and put them into practice. Only when Christians are on mission for both will they succeed in fulfilling the Great Commission.
1 The reason I focus on spreading the gospel to all people throughout history but only on behaviors is modern America is because the evidence available limits my investigation. I am not aware of any good way to measure behavioral differences in Christians and non-Christians across time.
2 Jesus’ disciples did not immediately start evangelizing because Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit before they went on their mission (Lk 24:29).
3 At the least, I myself held this understanding until recently, as have many of my peers.
4 It is important to note that what I mean by Christianity flourishing or blossoming is not necessarily massive popularity to the point of majority. I tend to mean having a viable Christian witness to the culture.
5 Empire building brought along many terrible things—slavery, disease and great violence to name just a few. But even out of these evils, the gospel did make its way through missionaries to people previously isolated.
6 Jenkins, Phillip. “The Forgotten Christian World.” History Today. N.p., Apr. 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
7 “The Story of Africa: Christianity.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
8 Jenkins, Phillip. “The Forgotten Christian World.”
9 Western Christianity had a shared unity and history in the Roman and Orthodox Churches. Even its Scriptures were and are distinctly Eurocentric, as seen in the Epistles of Paul to churches throughout the Roman Empire. All of them are written to churches in the countries between Turkey and Italy. Nevertheless there is no credible “Eastern Canon” that contains other scriptures.
10 Jenkins, Phillip. “The Forgotten Christian World.”
11 To my knowledge, there is no good evidence demonstrating any pre-Columbus passage of the gospel to the New World.
12 Steffan, Melissa. “The Surprising Countries Most Missionaries Are Sent From and Go To.”Christianity Today. Christianity Today, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.
13Johnson, Todd M, et al. “Christianity in Its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission.” Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: 2013. Web.
14Johnson, Todd M, et al. “Christianity in Its Global Context.” 36.
15 Northern and Particularly Western Europe is less Christian today than in 1970 but Eastern Europe, likely due to increased religious freedom due to the downfall of the Soviet Union,
has greatly increased its Christian population.
16 A few individual countries have particularly low numbers of Christians including Afghanistan, Somalia, Algeria, Niger, Turkey and Yemen— all with 0.2% or less of their populationidentifying as Christian.
17 Vu, Michelle A. “Ministries.” Christian Today. The Christian Post, 6 July 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
18 Steffan, Melissa. “The Surprising Countries.”
19 Ideally, rigorous behavioral experimentation could be done—Christians and non-Christians could be tested in how they behave to controlled situations. However, there are not many such experiments.
20 Rates were slightly different but comparable for other subsets of Christians,
21 Barna, George. The Second Coming of the Church. Nashville: Word Pub., 1998. Print. 6
22 Barna, George. The Second Coming of the Church. 121
23 This like many popular social science survey studies is not methodologically rigorous. It is likely that people may exhibit different behaviors based on other factors than simply whether or not one is a Christian. As such, to get a good reading on whether being a Christian changes one’s behavior one would want to compare Christians and non-Christians that are very similar in all regards except whether they are Christian. Certain other variables such as education and income level should be controlled. I have not found any study that includes a methodologically rigorous analysis of Christians and non-Christians behaviors.
24 Ibid. 7.
25 For a more complete look at practicing Christian behaviors, see Wright, Bradley R.E. Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites …and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.
Aaron Gyde is a senior in Cabot House concentrating in Social Studies. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Ichthus.
George Barna, history, Phillip Jenkins, religion