America’s Unaligned Missions
Research results provide insights on the state of U.S. church missions in general. It also reveals some striking assumptions and biases that demonstrate how misaligned the church is with current realities of 21st century missions.

Survey Reveals America’s Misaligned Missions

In 2018, the Barna Group teamed up with The Seed Company, a Bible translation organization, to conduct research on the state of missions among American pastors and churchgoers. The survey focused on the U.S. Church’s understanding of the Great Commission. Under that rubric the survey sought pastors’ and believers’ views on missions, social justice, and presenting God’s Word in all languages. 

Research results provide insights on the state of U.S. church missions in general. It also reveals some striking assumptions and biases that demonstrate how misaligned the church is with current realities of 21st century missions.

A Question of Terminology

When survey respondents were asked if they had heard of the Great Commission and what it means, only 17% said yes, whereas 28% had at least heard the phrase and 51% had not. The phrase is not in the Bible, but it became a rallying phrase among evangelicals over the last century to preach the Gospel and make disciples everywhere, and then the end comes (Mt. 24:14). Based on survey results, it appears the term, and maybe even the method of doing missions, has not been highlighted in church services for some time. 

Other terms barely mentioned in the survey are church planting and discipleship training. The only place these two activities are highlighted is in a survey question about what aspect of missions excites churchgoers the most. Discipleship and evangelism took last place (17%) in a list of seven activities. 

Even so, when pastors were asked about what is most important in effectively transforming lives for the sake of the Gospel, 88—96% of respondents (depending on the question) believe the following is very important to extremely important: 

  • Helping people grow to know, love, and apply the Bible
  • Helping people develop good spiritual habits
  • Creating real opportunities for people to worship and experience Jesus
  • Reading the Bible for continued discipleship

These activities sound a lot like church planting and discipleship training because the list describes the outcomes of such activities. Could it be that, like the phrase Great Commission, these two terms are also no longer understood in Christian jargon, if they ever were? 

When people do hear about these two terms, some assume colonialism laced with cultural insensitivity. The report states 41% of US adults perceive mission as a way to spread Western beliefs to other parts of the world. Indeed, 52% of millennial churchgoers believe this too. 

What is Mission?

The term mission becomes more narrowly defined when pastors and churchgoers are asked what that means. Here and elsewhere in the study it becomes clear that no matter what respondents say in describing the goals and outcomes of mission (as in the list above), they largely view missions as evangelism, proclamation, and holistic transformation; 76% of pastors and 68% of churchgoers. The longer a pastor has served in ministry, the more they believe mission is primarily about evangelism and conversion (80%). Shorter tenure reduces that view to 59%.

The Growth in Social Justice as Missions

As of late, there is increasing focus on social justice as missions among U.S. churches. It is not a new concept. In the late 19th century and into the 20th century, there was more of a balance between gospel work while addressing social issues. At this time, evangelicals were in positions of civic leadership. Their theology saw no problem with solving social issues and pressures of their time, but they still emphasized conversion for lasting change. Eventually a division formed when more emphasis was placed on personal salvation with less interest in improving conditions in this life. 

Based on the Barna study, it appears this former balance between salvation and addressing social issues is returning, but perhaps with more of a tilt toward social justice with less emphasis on salvation. Sixty eight percent of pastors see mission and social justice as different but integral to each other, and forty six percent of churchgoers share that view. Among the most important goals of social justice as mission listed in the report are: 

  • Promoting tolerance, freedom, and equality for all people
  • Everyone working for the common good
  • Glorifying God through acts of justice, empowerment and love
  • Advocating on behalf of those who are less fortunate

Has Missions Really Changed Much? 

It appears pastors and churchgoers are split on what they think modern missions means most, but there is a clear swing to social justice as an important focus.

25% of pastors think Social justice and evangelism have equal importance

22% think there is less focus on social justice and more on evangelism

47% think mission is less focused on evangelism with more emphasis on social justice

People’s view of missions seems to be changing, but their understanding of mission work in general has not. Seventy-one percent of churchgoers think missions has changed somewhat. That means, a large majority still think of U.S. missions as sending missionaries to other countries to do evangelism. In fact, 88% of churchgoers think this kind of mission work has made a positive impact in the world. This may explain why they are happy to keep sending missionaries to foreign lands. People overwhelmingly see missions as a good force in the world, but do they actually know what that force is producing, and at what cost? 

Therefore, on the one hand, respondents seem to still view missions as sending missionaries to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel. On the other hand, they think a more balanced approach with social justice is needed. 

Another set of questions confirmed earlier views on missions but with a new twist.  Pastors ranked tasks according to their importance in missions. Results show that missions as evangelism, training, sending, and translating the Bible, presumably carried out by Western missionaries. 

36% said sharing the Gospel, e.g., evangelism

30% said training local leaders to teach the Bible

20% said supporting missionaries (this assumes sending)

21% said translating the Bible into different languages

6% said informing the Christian community about Bible translation needs

The study concludes with an assessment of people’s attitudes toward the Bible and the idea of translating it into various languages. Ninety two percent of people surveyed still hold a high view of the Bible as God’s Word. Almost 50% of churchgoers think Bible translation is essential when framed as part of completing the Great Commission. When asked if the lack of a Bible in one’s own language is a barrier to becoming a Christian, 40% of churchgoers and 56% of pastors agreed. 

So at least half of churchgoers think Bible translation is an important part of missions and essential to becoming believers. But most churchgoers think there are only 50 to 500 languages in the world. In reality, there are over 7,000 languages, and only 600 languages have full Bibles. About 3,700 languages have no published Scriptures. Therefore, knowing the scope of the unfinished work of Bible translation should increase the sense of urgency to see more languages receive Bibles. 

Aligning with the Times

The Barna report seems to indicate that U.S. churches (churchgoers and pastors) by and large still think of missions as an important endeavor, and they assume missions today is mostly unchanged, at least in their lifetime. To them, mission means sending missionaries to other countries to spread the Gospel through evangelization and proclamation. Yet a shift toward incorporating social justice causes into missions at some level was expressed by approximately 72% of the respondents. That does indicate new expectations in missions.  

Survey results point to a general misalignment of U.S. churches with missions in the 21st century. Survey respondents did not mention the current extensive mission focus of establishing churches where there are none. Training people to become church leaders and church planters is barely mentioned. Yet these two activities are the major focus of many Western and non-Western mission agencies. Organizations like GACX (Global Alliance for Church Multiplication) is a coalition of 91 churches and mission agencies dedicated to multiplying disciples, leaders, and churches. Nationally led organizations are seeing people saved, discipled, and churches planted at a high rate in countries with the lowest number of Christians. This is without help from foreign missionaries in terms of local involvement. 

But there is a larger understanding gap about missions today among U.S. churches, and that has to do with the globalized period of missions. Over 200 years of Western church missionary sending has resulted in making Christianity the largest religion in the world, with 2.3 billion people who claim to be Christian. The result of that impressive effort has produced a significant church presence in the world. As of 2010, Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceania are where 61% of Christians are located. North America has about 24%. This means there are many capable local believers to expand the work of the Great Commission in their own countries. It’s a tremendous resource and responsibility. 

In many cases, nationally led organizations are applying a holistic strategy by also addressing physical and social needs of the people they serve. In fact, new churches are commonly established out of the work of literacy and skills training. People gain a new identity in Christ along with skills to pull themselves out of poverty. Knowing this should please many pastors and churchgoers in the US—if they knew about it. 

How to Correct the Misalignment Problem

One large church in Orange County CA spent time learning about how the Great Commission was being advanced largely through non-Western church mission workers in their own country. When they discovered how sending Americans to those countries would not produce nearly the same results that local workers could produce, they shifted the bulk of their mission giving to national partners in Asia and Africa. 

A church in Oregon invited a global mission strategist to help them evaluate the impact of their mission giving, which was going mostly to sending and supporting missionaries overseas. When they learned that most of the places where their missionaries worked had large Christian populations, they decided to focus on regions where there were few believers and churches. They decided to focus on Sudan and began moving the bulk of their missions giving to support pastor training and church planting in that country. 

In both cases, reports came back to the churches telling stories about how lives were being transformed by the Gospel, and how churches were beginning to take root and exercise greater influence. This sort of news was rewarding to the churchgoers and pastor because it was tangible evidence of their effective involvement in fulfilling the Great Commission. And it was better use of church mission funds. 

If pastors and churchgoers were more aware of how missions is now a globalized force involving tens of thousands of nationals doing missions in their own countries with greater effect, their understanding of missions in the 21st century would transform their minds, and this should lead to action making them more relevant in missions today. 

About the Author

Gilles Gravelle is the Executive Director of Moving Missions

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