Evangelism is bad, according to a new Barna survey

By Valerie Halim

Early in the year, the Christian world was shaken by a survey done by Barna Group which claimed that about 47 percent of Christian millennials (people born in 1980-1998) think that evangelism (sharing their faith) is bad.

The participants surveyed by Barna Group were practicing Christians who “agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.” 

In their survey, they found that millennials are two to four times more likely to say “it is wrong to share about their personal belief to people of another faith and expect them to believe in their faith” than previous generations.

Ironically, the same study also found that most (about 95 percent) Christian millennials think that part of their faith is to be a witness about Jesus and that the best thing that could ever happen to someone is when they get to know Jesus. The study also found that millennial Christians have the highest confidence rate (73 percent) when it comes to their ability to share their faith compared to previous generations (56 to 66 percent).

The ambivalent results of this study was said to reflect the current situation where millennial Christians are spending more time with people outside of their faith (the average millennial has four times more friends and family members of different faiths than previous generations), which makes millennials more aware of the cultural temperature surrounding conversations about faith compared to generations before them.

Image courtesy of Barna.org

Millennials want people to know Jesus

In an interview conducted by the Gospel Coalition, Rick Richardson– director of the Billy Graham Center Research Institute– agreed with the study and said that the results of the study done by Barna Group were very similar to theirs.

However, Richardson thought that the conclusion that millennial Christians think evangelism is bad was slightly misleading as it did not align with Barna’s overall findings and results from other recent surveys. 

Similar studies have also shown that Barna’s final conclusion was not at all accurate. For example, a study in 2018 by the Ligonier Ministries found that there is a growing number– a 4 percent increase since 2016–of millennials who are having evangelical beliefs (having great concerns for the gospel). Additionally, executive director of Lifeway Research Scott McConnell also commented that millennials are not backing away from evangelism. 

In a 2015 survey by Wheaton Evangelism Initiative, Wheaton College professor and director of Evangelism Initiative Robert Bishop expressed his students’ concerns about evangelizing with the feeling of inadequacy (48%) as the leading factor. Moreover, comments about the fear of being judged or losing a friend occasionally appeared.

‘Reaching the hearts of people’

Through an email interview, Emily Ding–a millennial and a junior at Wheaton College (Illinois) –voiced out similar concerns and fears when it comes to evangelizing.  

“I am wary of coming across as being too pushy, or know-it-all, or holier-than-thou in conversations,” she said.

Ding also admitted that although she thought that evangelizing was very important, it has fallen off her list of priorities because she has been living in Christian environments and social circles for almost her entire life. 

When asked if she had ever evangelized before, she said that she had never converted anyone before, but she has been encouraging friends of different faiths to share their beliefs with her and have deep, interfaith conversations.

She also prays that her friends of other faiths could find a satisfactory answer in their search for truth and also regularly keeps in touch with people who have been exposed to Christianity before or are unsure with what they believe in. 

“Ultimately, we alone cannot fully persuade or convict our audience, but rather, it’s God who convicts the hearts of people,” Ding closed.

Looking into these surveys and interviews, it seems apparent that millennial Christians want people of other faiths to know Jesus but are often hesitant when asked to evangelize.

The X Factor

In a 2018 interview with Cru Storyline, Cru staff member Josh Chen, a millennial and one who works with and studies millennials, also talked about how millennials see the world differently than other generations and how this might keep them from sharing their faith.

“They don’t like division over political and spiritual issues,” he said.

Similarly, Barna Group president David Kinnaman said that a huge factor that contributes to this hesitation was today’s world view of relativity.

“Cultivating deep, steady, resilient Christian conviction,” Kinnaman says, “is difficult in a world of ‘you do you’ and ‘don’t criticize anyone’s life choices’ and emotivism, the feelings-first priority that our culture makes a way of life. 

In agreement with Kinnaman, Richardson added that the biggest challenge for millennials is to say that what they believe is true is what someone has to also believe as absolute truth. 

Reflecting the Barna Group Study and the interview with Emily Ding, millennials are willing to share about their faith, but do not necessarily want to ‘hook’ people of other faiths into believing in what they believe in.

The decline of interest in conventional evangelism

When asked for her opinion on the evangelism trend among Christian millennials, Ding suggested that evangelism among millennials might not even be declining but is possibly shifting forms. With millennials hesitating to evangelize conventionally, other forms of evangelism are considered more fitting and comfortable for them

As reported by Christianity Today earlier this year, Hannah Gronowski, the founder, and director of Generation Distinct stated that more millennials are saying that people will come to know Jesus naturally through their good and selfless deeds. Gronowski further explained that this style of evangelism is getting more popular among younger generations as the traditional idea of evangelism–passing out evangelism tracts and talking about heaven/hell–is considered old school and outdated. 

In an interview with Cru Storyline, Josh Chen talked about how sharing the gospel should be approached differently. Rather than forcing millennials to talk about absolute truth, he suggested that they can show how the truth applies to their personal experiences.

“What I’m urging is that we respond to the human in front of us, rather than simply subscribing to one evangelistic approach,” Chen said.