Barriers to the Great Commission

We are fast approaching the year 2033. With it comes the 2,000th anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus, and with that comes a host of events and initiatives. Some are being planned solely to celebrate and commemorate this turning point in human history, while others are focused on mobilising the global Church to try to reach the whole world in the ten years between now and then. It was in the days following his resurrection that the risen Christ commanded his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20). He taught them that “it is written [in the Old Testament] …that repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46-47). In the intervening centuries, the progress of Jesus’ disciples toward fulfilling this has been, well, somewhat mixed.
Around 1 in 3 people alive today would identify themselves as Christian. Another 40% are not Christian but they have at least heard and understood the message enough to have had the opportunity to respond. That leaves 28% who do not have meaningful access to the Good News1. In one sense this is progress – 50 years ago, a little over half of all people alive had been evangelised, but today we are approaching three-quarters. However, population growth in these last five decades means that the number of unevangelised people is now 600 million more than in 1970. This number increases by over 60,000 every single day!
Taken another way, the Joshua Project estimates that there remain 7,388 unreached people groups2. These ethno-linguistically distinct groups are much closer to how ancient Hebrews and those in the 1st century AD would understand the concept of nations (or ethne in New Testament Greek). Seeing a viable, self-propagating, indigenous Church established in 7,388 distinct groups, each with its own ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and geographic context, is indeed a truly momentous task.
When you take Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:26-27, John 20:21-22, and Acts 1:7-8 together, you have a solid framework, solely from the words of Jesus, for understanding the Great Commission. Of course, the rest of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation also sheds light on God’s intentions for humanity and indeed for all of creation.
However you define the scope of the Great Commission, it is evident that there is a very long way to go before Jesus’ final commands to his disciples are anywhere remotely close to being fulfilled. This itself is the first and most obvious hurdle to its fulfillment – the sheer scale of the task. I do not foresee that efforts to ‘reach every person with the gospel by the year 2033’3 will be successful, even though I commend the vision and intend to do my part!
This article and those that follow will address – from an admittedly Western perspective – the greatest barriers between where we are now and a scenario where every person and every people group has been reached by the news that Jesus has conquered death and hell, that he sits at the right hand of the Father, and invites all of us to receive adoption as co-heirs of the cosmos along with him. There are both internal and external barriers to achieving this. In this article we will begin to explore internal matters.
“Judgement begins in the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17)
Ignorance of and Apathy to Mission in the Church
“The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.”4
Emil Brunner’s words are as true today as they were 92 years ago when he wrote them. There are no words more fitting to include in an article examining the barriers to the Great Commission, especially for an organisation going by the name Flame International. Brunner’s next words read, “Where there is no mission, there is no Church”, followed by, “He who does not propagate this fire shows that he is not burning”.
A 2018 Barna poll5 discovered that 51% of church-going Christians in the USA have never even heard of the Great Commission, and a further 25% have heard of it but could not recall the exact meaning. It is a reasonable assertion that the greatest barrier to the Great Commission is the fact that most Christians do not even know what it is!
The sad reality is that only a small minority of Christians are active participants in the work of mission. Around 1 in 7,000 Christians serve abroad in mission6. Of course, most of them have supporters who are therefore involved financially, logistically/organisationally, and in prayer. All of this is commendable. But even among this tiny minority actively serving as missionaries, the large majority serve among Christians with only a very small proportion working directly among the unevangelised. Most churches have little to no engagement in cross-cultural mission and are primarily interested in furthering what goes on within their walls rather than sending workers out to the harvest. C.T. Studd’s motto from a century ago remains with us: “Some wish to live within the sound of church and chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell!”
If God intended the Church to be the main vehicle by which the world hears the good news, it does not appear currently fit for purpose. A recent post at the ‘World Mission Commission’ blog of the Assemblies of God asserts that the “greatest army against world evangelisation” is, in fact, the Church!7
Moral Compromise and Weakened Testimony

It was not long ago, at least in most Western nations, that committed Christians would have been regarded as morally upright. God-botherers, yes, and perhaps somewhat stuffy and dull, but at least well-meaning and reliable to help those in need and do the right thing. Today, many would regard Christians not just as intellectually stunted, and not just as spiritually deluded, but as a morally deleterious force in society. Some of this might be attributed to the increasing drift of the post-Christian West away from its Christian roots. But perhaps it might be the litany of scandals, abuses, and crimes coming from within the Church on a seemingly weekly basis. Ecclesiastical crime (a.k.a. embezzlement from churches and ministries) amounts to more than all money donated to foreign missions8. The destructive and polarising politicisation of many churches seems, for the most part, to yield a Christian public testimony whose message and tone are a far cry from that of Jesus.
The bottom line is that until Christians live and speak more like Jesus, our call for unbelievers to follow Jesus is likely to fall on deaf ears. The emphasis on holiness and sanctification, meekness, and humility – both personal and corporate – must be restored to the life of the Church if we hope for our message to have moral authority and a winsome character.
Loss of Confidence and Increasing Fear

In the post-modern marketplace of ideas, the notion of objective external truth is being eroded, and the claim that Jesus is the only way to the Father is increasingly scandalous. The uniqueness of Christ, and therefore the veracity of the Christian faith, is incompatible with such a philosophical framework. This, combined with the many failings in the Church, has served to undermine the confidence that believers must proclaim that Jesus is, in fact, the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
At the same time, it seems that fear is spreading in the Church in ways that cause believers to share the Good News less and less. Firstly, the fear of man means that many believers would rather remain hidden than face the ridicule and ire of a society that has a rather low view of Christians. Secondly, the Church has, in many circles, become more focused on fearmongering than proclaiming the gospel and loving the lost. Be it Islam, LGBTQ+, globalists, critical race theorists, or whatever is the current bugbear of the month, we fixate on perceived or imagined threats rather than reaching out with radical love and in the knowledge that Jesus – having overcome the world already – has equipped his disciples with his own delegated authority!
The Prosperity Gospel and an Anaemic Theology of Suffering
Apart from the fact that the prosperity gospel is straight-up theological poison, its spread has other deleterious effects. It is a snare that plunges people into ruin and destruction that leads people to pierce themselves with many pangs, and we are instructed to flee from it. (1 Timothy 6:9-11) Because of the very nature of mammon, it tends to lead people and churches toward being self-oriented rather than sacrificially generous to those less fortunate, especially to those on the other side of the world in places where poverty is much more severe, and the Gospel has not been spread.
But another outcome – and perhaps what will cause the most damage in the end – is that a fixation on prosperity yields a weak theology of suffering. When we read through the New Testament in particular, it becomes undeniably clear that those who wish to be faithful servants and witnesses to Christ must expect to face suffering and persecution. Yet, God uses this very suffering to bring about our spiritual growth and transformation! How can we possibly grow when our labour and prayers are devoted toward avoiding having to suffer at all? How can we expect to endure the trials and tribulations that inevitably accompany taking the Gospel to the unreached if we have been indoctrinated with the notion that God wants us to be wealthy, coddled, and comfortable?

Prayerlessness in the Church

For the last few hundred years, Western Christianity has been in a position of wealth, power, and freedom that would have been utterly alien to 1st century believers. It is no surprise that our prayer life is weak when our bank accounts, military armaments, diplomatic influence, medical technology, and organisational capacity are so powerful. This, combined with the creeping effect of modernity and secularisation on our worldview, results in prayer being a last resort of desperation rather than our first instinct. This holds true, even for Western missionary endeavour. In Missions and Money,9 Jonathan Bonk captures our situation:
“Western subliminal agnosticism is not deliberate, but seemingly the human default mode of material and physical security. We try hard to believe, to the extent that some devotees even attend prayer meetings! But our affluence makes God only necessary in an ontological or religious sense. Prayer, as a biblical study of the subject quickly reveals, is not the activity of people who are in reasonable control of their lives. It is the resort of the weak, overwrought, desperate people whose life circumstances call for resources beyond their own.
“A ‘good’ missionary society will take every possible step to ensure that all aspects of a missionary’s life are cared for. This is a natural, commendable, and – humanly speaking – desirable course to follow. But it apparently leaves God with very little to actually do in our lives.”
Bonk’s premise rings true not only for missionaries serving overseas, but for Christians in any context of affluence and comfort. In contrast, our Majority World counterparts (both in their local churches and in their own cross-cultural mission efforts) are often operating in circumstances that require urgency and desperation in prayer. There is a stark contrast in the tone of a prayer meeting where persecution and poverty are a baseline Christian experience and one where everyone has their lives more or less neatly put together.
Stuart Robinson is an Australian writer who for 25 years pastored a thriving Australian congregation. Previous to that, he served in the Muslim world for 14 years. He has experienced the contrast of these two worlds in their attitudes to prayer, and continues to fight the battle to inculcate the centrality of prayer back into Western Christianity:
“…the degree to which we are convinced that all real growth is ultimately a supernatural process and are prepared to act upon this belief, will be directly reflected by the priority that we give to corporate and personal prayer in the life of the church. It is only when we begin to see that nothing that matters will occur except in answer to prayer, that prayer will become more than an optional programme for the faithful few, and instead will become the driving force of our churches.
“God wants our churches, our pastors, and our leaders, to recognise that only he can do extraordinary things. When we accept that simple premise we will begin to pray. And that will change us and our churches as prayer takes its rightful place at the foundation of church growth.”
If we expect that we are going to resist the siren song of the world, overcome the flaming darts of the enemy, experience the transformation of becoming more like Jesus, suffer all indignities for the sake of His name, go ourselves and send others to the mission field, serve together with fellow believers from diverse cultures, and maintain a fruitful presence in a different land, different culture, different language, and different religious context, all without a profound commitment to prayer, then we are deluded.
Over two billion people still await the arrival of the Good News. Do we believe that Jesus is indeed the answer to the problems of this world and the only way to life in the next? If so, then at the very least, how can we not pray for the Lord of the harvest to thrust our workers into his harvest field? (Matthew 9:34) In the words of Dick Eastman, President of Every Home for Christ and global prayer leader, “The degree to which prayer is mobilised is the degree to which the world will be evangelised.”11 In our prayer or in our prayerlessness, we have a direct impact on the Great Commission.

This article is an adaptation of a presentation given at the Flame International Conference in March 2023. It is the first of three addressing the barriers to the Great Commission.

4 Brunner, E. (1931). The Word and the World. Student Volunteer Movement Press.
9 Bonk, J. J. (1991). Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. Orbis Books.
10 Robinson, S. (1994). Praying the Price. Sovereign World, Ltd.
11 Attributed to Dick Eastman in