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Decolonizing The Great Commission

Laura Marti – April 30, 2024

If you grew up in church like I did, my title could sound sacrilegious. At a recent conference that I attended on “Decolonizing The Great Commission,” speakers highlighted the urgent call to reexamine the ways in which Christianity has been complicit in systems of oppression and violence. Over the course of the two days, it challenged me to reexamine, rethink, and reframe what I had been taught about this mandate that has often been considered to be the primary mission of the church.

Where did it come from?

The concept of The Great Commission comes from the passage of the Bible where Jesus, after his resurrection, gives his final words to his disciples, and charges them to make disciples of all nations. 

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 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, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

Matthew 28:16-20, Common English Bible

It was pointed out that this name was not given or ever mentioned by Jesus, but is a subheading added by Bible editors. So where did it come from? The Great Commission title, in reference to these verses in Matthew, may have come from a Dutch missionary named Justinian von Welz (1621–88). But it was Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), the well-known missionary to China, who nearly 200 years later popularized the use of The Great Commission. Today this phrase dominates the Church as the primary focus of Christian mission, even though it obscures the true essence of Jesus’ teachings.

What did Jesus mean?

Instead of a mandate for cultural conquest, Jesus’s words here simply instructed his disciples to “Go!” – a directive rooted in humility and openness to diverse ways of knowing and being. In fact, it was mentioned that the translation of the original language is more like ‘keep going’ or ‘as you’re already going.’ Jesus is saying, as you ‘go along your way,’ with the power of my very Spirit, be heralds of this Good News.

One of the most compelling talks at the conference was given by Reverend Mia McClain, where she asked these questions:

“Have you ever had your ‘knowingness’ interrogated? Your ways of knowing? Have you had your ‘knowingness’ invalidated and looked down upon? Has anyone ever insinuated that the way you know your God, name your God, ideate your God is improper without ‘proper citation?’ Because you don’t perform your knowing of God in the way they perform theirs? Because it wasn’t their way of knowing God, it wasn’t with their sources, it didn’t have enough of their epistemology and their white European theology?”

Whew! 

Reverend Mia McClain, Senior Pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

She continued:

“Jesus doesn’t say to invalidate anyone else’s ‘knowingness’ as you are going along your way. His teachings were not about controlling those they came in contact with. At the core of the colonial project that is Christian missionary work is a deep distrust and disregard for ways of knowing the divine that are outside of the dominant culture’s understanding. The Great Commission was an assault on others’ ways of knowing, such as Indigenous Peoples and enslaved Africans. It had been corrupted and became dangerous.”

The point was that over time, The Great Commission was co-opted by colonial mindsets, leading to violence, racism, and the suppression of indigenous knowledge and spirituality. The term “cultural violence” was introduced at the conference, which was new to me. Rather than respecting the inherent dignity and wisdom of all peoples, colonial Christianity sought to impose its own cultural norms and religious beliefs, often through force and coercion. Violence was considered justified in order to impose those seemingly correct beliefs.

Challenges to rethink and reframe

Decolonizing Christian mission requires a radical shift in our perspective – one that prioritizes humility, respect, and solidarity with marginalized and indigenous communities. Instead of viewing mission as a tool for conversion and control, Christians are called to engage in mutual learning and dialogue, recognizing the divine presence in every human soul. Our prayers should be what must I do, not how many souls can I save today.

Decolonization necessitates a critical examination of Christianity’s role in colonial violence and exploitation. From the Crusades to the era of European expansion and slavery, Christianity has been complicit in the subjugation and erasure of indigenous cultures and peoples. By acknowledging this history of violence and repenting for past injustices, Christians can begin to work towards racial healing and true justice.

Decolonization challenges Christians to confront the pervasive ideology of supremacy that underpins colonialism. This ideology perpetuates the myth that there is only one correct way of thinking, living, and worshiping – a mindset that undermines the diversity and richness of God’s creation.

Alliance of Baptists

What are we being called to?

We’re still replicating colonized practices in our communities today, as the teaching in our churches can often take on a colonial mindset that leads to violence, antisemitism, racism and so many other things. God is calling us out of our colonial mindset.

What if the call here, the real Great Commission, is for the inclusion of all peoples of the world into the growing community of Jesus’s disciples? The colonized practice of The Great Commission became a tool for exclusion and harm; rather, we need a reminder that God’s love will always compel us toward inclusion, kindness, and respect. 

As we embark on the journey of decolonizing Christian mission, let us remember to embrace the inherent dignity and worth of all peoples. We aren’t the only ones who ‘know.’ May we have the courage to shake off the shackles of colonialism and embody the transformative love and justice of Christ in our communities and beyond. Let’s put into practice these words of Jesus, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four adult children, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.

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