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barna, the bible, misplaced angst and missional mojo

Barna Research recently lit up the night sky with a distress flare. The group claimed that 51% of U.S. churchgoers are clueless about the Great Commission.[1] Just over half of those surveyed had apparently never heard of the Great Commission, which the report (Translating The Great Commission) admits is an extrabiblical term.

“It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.”[2]

What are we to make of the report? How should we respond?

The findings speak more to Biblical illiteracy or a lack of scriptural awareness and engagement rather than the challenge of missional disengagement. The sky is not falling, and the mission of God has not stalled because a significant slice of US church attenders can’t locate Matthew’s memorable conclusion.

Biblical literacy is a contemporary North American issue that needs to be addressed. Preachers, teachers, and small group leaders have long discovered that you simply can’t assume that those you are cracking open a Bible with have a rudimentary knowledge of scripture. Not just weird stories about weird people like Ehud the left-handed Benjamite in Judges. We simply can’t assume that people are clued in on God’s big redemptive metanarrative. We can’t take it as given that those we serve are familiar with the life, times, teaching and ministry of Jesus. Craig Loscalzo writes, “The great narratives of Judeo-Christian beliefs, the pivotal stories of the Bible’s characters, the epoch of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, either are not known or do not carry the meaning-making significance they did to previous generations.”[3]

We are called to be people of the Book, who love scripture, read scripture, and ruminate on scripture. Disciples are formed and transformed by the Word of God. Discipleship involves soaking in scripture, attentiveness to and obedience to God’s Word. The rhythm and routine of encountering God in His Word, is part of the warp and woof of discipleship. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” (John 8:31)

We are called to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. This involves the life-giving discipline of absorbing scripture. John Ortberg claimed, “I have never known someone leading a spiritually transformed life who had not been deeply saturated in Scripture.”

The Barna report is reductionist in its missiology and offers a misguided assumption that somehow a knowledge of the Matthean “Great Commission” will create missional impetus. Or conversely, that being oblivious to the final paragraph in Matthew short-circuits mission. Biblical knowledge does not translate tidily into fruitful missional engagement. Exhorting the flock to obey the “Great Commission” might give them an initial kick in the butt to stumble out of the missional starting blocks. It won’t result in long-term participation in the mission of God in a broken world. Matthew 28:18-20 contains a command, but we cannot mobilize the people of God by the power of obligation.

David Bosch offers a helpful corrective to the Barna Report: “…the way the “Great Commission” has traditionally been utilized in providing a biblical basis for mission has to be challenged or at least modified. It is inadmissible to lift these words out of Matthew’s gospel, as it were, allow them a life of their own, and understand them without any reference to the context in which they first appeared. Where this happened the “Great Commission” is easily degraded to a mere slogan…Mathew 28:18-20 has to be interpreted against the background of Matthew’s gospel as a whole and unless we keep this in mind, we shall fail to understand it. No exegesis of the “Great Commission” divorced from its moorings in this gospel can be valid.”[4]

Bosch goes on to state, "Our first gospel is essentially a missionary text.” [5] The whole book concerns itself with discipleship and mission not just the last three verses.

The primitive Jesus movement never cited the Matthean Great Commission as its motive. Missiologist Harry S. Boer claimed that the “Great Commission “(so-called) was not part of the collective consciousness of the Early Church. In other words, their pursuit of Jesus’ mission was not motivated by the command to disciple the nations at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The fuel for making Jesus known in word and action as agents of his kingdom came from a different source.

We need to be alert to three missional realities.

Firstly, each of the Four Gospels has a Commission, but it is not an afterthought or an addendum. Each gospel has a post-Resurrection Commission with a distinct emphasis. See Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-20; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:19-23. The New Testament is a missionary handbook. In both the Old and the New Testament, we discover our God is a missionary God; He is the sending God who is on the move in the world he created. He consistently invites us to join him in his mission. The call to follow Jesus is a call to join him in his mission.

Secondly, the famous words Jesus spoke did not land in a vacuum. When the disciples heard the death-defying indestructible Jesus speak, they were not blindsided.

“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.”

Jesus had been equipping and mentoring his disciples on mission for three years. This raises the question for church planters and congregational leaders: Who are you equipping and how are you resourcing the people Jesus has entrusted to you, for life on mission? Are you equipping people to share their faith, tell their Jesus story and communicate the gospel with winsomeness and boldness? Are you equipping, encouraging, and resourcing the people in your orbit to be disruptive agents of the kingdom in a broken world?

Anthony Delaney leads the Ivy Network in Manchester, England. He became a Christian when he was a policeman. The church Anthony was a part of offered a course on how to share your faith. As a new believer, upended by the grace of God, he thought this was a grand idea. He attended the course. He was also mentored for a year by a highly effective personal evangelist, Pastor Tony Price. Anthony as a copper led fellow officers and criminals to Jesus., As a pastor he has led people to Christ. Anthony is a church and network leader who can “do the work of an evangelist.” Why? He was equipped, trained, encouraged, and mentored in sharing the good news about Jesus. Anthony spoke at the Advance Evangelism Summit: Summer Refresh, I hosted in July 2021. [6]He stated that a survey of 1000 churches revealed that in the last 10 years only 36 of those churches trained people in evangelism.

Less. Than. Four Percent.

If we want to see gospel fluent missionaries enter the Canadian mission fields and share the hope of Jesus in their spheres of influence, we must equip them.

Thirdly, either explicitly or implicitly each Gospel writer assumes that Jesus’ followers would not set one foot out of the missional starting blocks without experiencing a definitive Holy Spirit empowerment. Holy Spirit empowerment is implied by Matthew where the resurrected Jesus declares he has “all power and authority” and promises his abiding Presence. This is explicit in the contested conclusion of Mark’s Gospel with signs, wonders, exorcisms, tongue speaking, supernatural protection from venom, and healing.

This is explicit in John where Jesus breathes on the fearful disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’ Johannine commissioning of the disciples is followed by an impartation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus actions echo God breathing life into the inanimate lump of Play Dough in Genesis 2:7. Jesus actions recall Ezekiel 37 where the life-giving breath of God comes upon a pile of calcified bones and these dry bones become a mighty army. We need the breath of God!

"Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love the way you love, and do what you would do."

We are lifeless and useless without the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. The Early Church was propelled on mission and compelled by love as a result of experiencing Holy Spirit outpouring and empowerment.[7]

Luke-Acts’ emphasis on the need for “power from on high” is unambiguous. Dr. Luke has a peculiar and persistent emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke makes much of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, being clothed with power from on high, and recounts the Holy Spirit descending on or “coming upon people.” Luke tells us that Jesus did not embark on mission until the Holy Spirit descended upon him. He later offers a summary of Jesus ‘ministry:

“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”[8] If Jesus the eternal uncreated Son of God become fully human needed the anointing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, how much more do we?

Invite and encourage people to become Biblically fluent. Provide training and mentoring support so that those who respond to Jesus’ summons and invitation, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” , are equipped to do so. And… let’s pursue fresh infusions of Holy Spirit life and power and new Holy Spirit encounters.

[1] [2] Ibid [3] Craig Loscalzo,” Apologizing For God: Apologetic Preaching toa Postmodern World,” Review and Expositor 93, no.3,414. [4] David J Bosch, Transforming Mission, Orbis Books, Maryknoll N.J., 1196, 57. [5] Ibid., 57. [6] [7] 2 Corinthians 5:14; Romans 5:5 [8] Acts 10:38

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