Research and the Great Commission is a phrase likely to produce yawns and blank stares. The thought of a Great Commission researcher evokes an image of a lonely soul wandering among dusty bookcases and looking for a book that will lead to the “Eureka!” moment that will solve the world’s problems. Great Commission research? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
However, such labors provide great assistance to missions activity. Wise kingdom citizens must be students of both God’s Word and God’s world. We must have time for that.
The Work of the Spirit
A few years ago, a statement circulated throughout the missiological community: “God cannot lead you with information you do not have.” Although this may rally the troops to the value of knowledge, the truth is research is not required for kingdom work.
A better expression is: “God can lead you without information, but he often leads his people through knowledge gleaned from research.”
God is sovereign. He is not limited by our ignorance.
Paul and Silas were not planning to go to Philippi—they had not researched that city—but after a vision, concluded, “God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). Later, the Spirit led Paul to Jerusalem, though he didn’t know why (Acts 20:22).
The Work of Information
To be fair, God has used knowledge to move his people to take the gospel to unreached peoples of the world. He has used reports to encourage and bless his church to greater works. After all, “The lips of knowledge are a precious jewel” (Prov. 20:15). Therefore, we must not overlook the value of missiological research and researchers.
Although there is no biblical mandate requiring the church to conduct research, many saints did so, resulting in powerful kingdom actions.
Great Commission research provides knowledge to assist the church with its mission.
Moses was told to conduct research into the Promised Land (Num. 13:1–3). The spies went into the land for forty days and returned with a thorough report (13:25–29). Joshua sent spies (Josh. 2:1). The spies’ report was unanimous, and Israel invaded (Josh. 2:24).
Through a field report, God moved Nehemiah to prayer, fasting, and repentance that resulted in the wall around Jerusalem being rebuilt and Israel returning to the land (Neh. 1:1–11; 2:11–6;17–18).
During Jesus’s call for disciples to count the cost of following him, he noted the common sense found within all people to research their present situation before taking significant action. Even a “king going out to encounter another king in war” will deliberate whether his troops are fit to meet the other army (Luke 14:28, 31).
The Stewardship of Research
For several reasons, we should maximize our capacity for Great Commission research:
- Scriptures reveal the value of knowledge gained.
- Research inspires vision.
- Mission strategies must not be based on assumptions, isolated incidents, and anecdotal evidence.
- Research has proven beneficial for gospel advancement and church health on the mission field.
- Research provides encouragement as the church learns about kingdom advancements.
- Research holds the church accountable to act on its findings to engage unreached peoples.
- Research helps generate compassion toward people.
- Research leads the church to prayer, fasting, and Spirit dependency.
- Research causes the church to define clearly its terms for missionary activity.
The Dangers of Research
Misplaced zeal for quantitative information can lead us to unwise actions done in the name of Jesus. We must heed the warning that “desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses the way” (Prov. 19:2). Passion is good, but it must be coupled with a healthy understanding of reality.
Some cautions must be kept in mind:
- Research could become a substitute for the Spirit’s leadership.
- Research could be seen as the solution to our problems.
- Knowledge could make us proud and arrogant (1 Cor. 8:1).
- Research could lead us to assume our work is finished once we discover enough facts.
Great Commission research provides knowledge to assist the church with its mission. Such understanding spotlights contemporary realities and assists us in making wise decisions.
It’s not about numbers, complex statistics, and charts. It’s about making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded. Research is a valuable tool—and God is glorified—when it is used to bring people to faith and help them grow in Christ’s likeness.
J.D. Payne is the pastor of church multiplication with The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He also is a missiologist, author of Pressure Points: Twelve Global Issues Shaping the Face of the Church, and blogs at Missiologically Thinking.