Evangelism Today

Today we will put our discussion of evangelism, which began with a study of the Woes of the Pharisee—in particular, the Woe they suffered from their evangelism. First, we turn to some recent statistics to provide some context and background that helps us locate evangelism in our modern world. Here are findings from a Barna study, with URLs given for the source material:

Almost all practicing Christians believe that part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus (ranging from 95% to 97% among all generational groups), and that the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus (94% to 97%). Millennials in particular feel equipped to share their faith with others. For instance, almost three-quarters say they know how to respond when someone raises questions about faith (73%), and that they are gifted at sharing their faith with other people (73%). This is higher than any other generational group: Gen X (66%), Boomers (59%) and Elders (56%).
Despite this, many Millennials are unsure about the actual practice of evangelism. Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith. Throughout 2019, readers and leaders continued to engage with this staggering statistic from our Reviving Evangelism report, produced in partnership with Alpha USA.

Should evangelism today be done differently because of the age in which we live? Should we base it on statistics on how people feel — should we apply Barna and Pew to how we operate? Which data are most important?

Almost all practicing Christians believe that part of their faith means being a witness about Jesus (ranging from 95% to 97% among all generational groups), and that the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to know Jesus (94% to 97%). Millennials in particular feel equipped to share their faith with others. For instance, almost three-quarters say they know how to respond when someone raises questions about faith (73%), and that they are gifted at sharing their faith with other people (73%). This is higher than any other generational group: Gen X (66%), Boomers (59%) and Elders (56%).
Despite this, many Millennials are unsure about the actual practice of evangelism. Almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith. This is compared to a little over one-quarter of Gen X (27%), and one in five Boomers (19%) and Elders (20%). (Though Gen Z teens were not included in this study, their thoroughly post-Christian posture will likely amplify this stance toward evangelism.) (https://www.barna.com/research/millennials-oppose-evangelism/)

Nearly all non-Christians (those who identify with a faith other than Christianity or no faith at all) and lapsed Christians (those who identify as Christian but have not attended church within the past month) have a friend or family member who practices and prioritizes Christianity—but these believers may not be their ideal conversation partners when it comes to faith. For instance, more than six in 10 non-Christians and lapsed Christians (62%) say they would be open to talking about faith matters with someone who listens without judgment—the top quality they value—but only one-third (34%) sees this trait in the Christians they know personally. Similarly, their hopes of talking with Christians who do not force conclusions (50% vs. 26%), demonstrate interest in other people’s stories (29% vs. 17%) and are good at asking questions (27% vs. 16%) appear to go unfulfilled.

The following is from the Barna study https://www.barna.com/research/sharing-faith-increasingly-optional-christians/

A growing number of Christians don’t see sharing the good news as a personal responsibility. Just 10 percent of Christians in 1993 who had shared about their faith agreed with the statement “converting people to Christianity is the job of the local church”—as opposed to the job of an individual (i.e., themselves). Twenty-five years later, three in 10 Christians who have had a conversation about faith say evangelism is the local church’s responsibility (29%), a nearly threefold increase. This jump could be the result of many factors, including poor ecclesiology (believing “the local church” is somehow separate from the people who are a part of it) or personal and cultural barriers to sharing faith. Yet the most dramatic divergence over time is on the statement, “Every Christian has a responsibility to share their faith.” In 1993, nine out of 10 Christians who had shared their faith agreed (89%). Today, just two-thirds say so (64%)—a 25-point drop.

From 1993 to today, the content and approaches of faith conversations have also changed. Given the  popularity of evangelism “programs” or “strategies” in decades past, researchers were surprised that Christians today who have talked about their faith are more likely than those in 1993 to say they use the same basic entryways and content each time they engage in a conversation about faith (44% vs. 33%). The most common approaches, a majority says, are asking questions about the other person’s beliefs and experiences (70%) and sharing their faith in the way they live rather than by speaking about it (65%). These were common among Christians in 1993 as well, as the chart shows, but a majority of Christians 25 years ago also reported emphasizing the beneficial aspects of accepting Jesus (78%)—a strategy that today is less common (50%). Also less popular now is quoting passages from the Bible (59% in 1993 vs. 37% today) and challenging the other person to defend their beliefs (43% vs. 24%).

In addition, most conversations today (61%), as in 1993 (75%), happen unexpectedly. Yet compared to 25 years ago, Christians today are more likely to say they are proactive about looking for or trying to create faith-sharing opportunities with non-Christians (19% vs. 11% in 1993).

Christians today, more than 25 years ago, perceive social barriers to sharing their faith. They are more likely to agree that faith-sharing is only effective when they already have a relationship with the other person (47% vs. 37% in 1993) and to admit they would avoid a spiritual conversation if they knew their non-Christian friend would reject them (44% vs. 33%). They are also more likely than Christians in 1993 to say they are unsure whether “most non-Christians have no interest in hearing about Jesus” (28% vs. 5%).

Researchers asked if there are conditions that make a conversation about religion unacceptable. Non-Christians tend to have more of a “buyer beware” stance when it comes to religious conversations. They are also more likely to say talking about one’s religious beliefs is “always unacceptable” (7%) than practicing Christians (3%) or non-practicing Christians (1%). On the flip side, practicing Christians are twice as likely as non-Christians to say there is never a time when sharing religious beliefs should be off the table—that is, spiritual conversations are always acceptable (26% vs 12%) non-Christians.

When it comes to specific conditions that make talking about religion unacceptable, non-Christians are again the most cautious. Six out of 10 say a person must not share if their religious beliefs are “disrespectful or judgmental” (61%). Beliefs perceived as disrespectful or judgmental are the top reason sharing views on religion would be uncalled for: about half of all adults agree (48%). This is the case for all faith categories, including Christians, but they are less likely than non-Christians to say so. Practicing Christians seem to be more concerned than other groups about what’s going on inside the person who is sharing; 41 percent say talking about faith in anger makes sharing unacceptable. Other common barriers are when “someone has asked you not to” and “if the timing is inconsiderate.”

“As spiritual leaders and practitioners, whose job it is to think and talk about matters of faith, it’s easy to imagine everyone is regularly doing the same,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group. “After all, aren’t these the big questions of life? Don’t these topics matter more than anything else? The truth is, most Christians are busy with other things: the day-to-day of normal life—jobs, kids, budgets, sports, weather and what’s premiering on Netflix this week. None of this is bad, but the unfortunate reality is that most adults don’t seem to connect their everyday experiences with their faith. Or, at least, they aren’t talking about it if they do.

“So what’s happening here? Why are Christians so reluctant to talk about their faith? The overarching cultural trends of secularism, relativism, pluralism and the digital age are contributing to a society that is less interested in religion and that has marginalized the place of spirituality in everyday life,” continues Stone. “As a result, Christians in America today have to live in the tension between Jesus’ commands to tell others the good news and growing cultural taboos against proselytizing—a core part of Christianity from its origins and, many practicing Christians believe, is essential for the salvation of their listeners.

“Followers of Christ have something essential and meaningful to share with their families, neighbors, friends and those they come into contact with,” concludes Stone. “As pastors and leaders, we must invest the resources of our churches toward coming alongside fellow believers and empowering them with confidence to talk about their faith despite the obvious barriers. We ought to help Christians begin to make the connections between their everyday, ordinary life—their sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life—and the faith that sustains them.”

Another survey, this time by the International Bible Society, also sheds fascinating light. It indicated that…

…83% of all Christians make their commitment to Jesus between the ages of 4 and 14, that is, when they are children or early youth. The Barna Research Group surveys demonstrate that American children ages 5 to 13 have a 32% probability of accepting Christ, but youth or teens aged 14 to 18 have only a 4% probability of doing so. Adults age 19 and over have just a 6% probability of becoming Christians.

This data illustrates the importance of influencing children to consider making a decision to follow Christ.

Because the 4-14 age period slice of the pie is so large, many have started referring to the “4-14 Window.” Many people serving as career cross-cultural missionaries have testified that they first felt God calling them to missionary service during that 4-14 age period. (http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/ages.htm)

Finally, a recent study using data from Google showed that every day 5 million people search for some sort of spirituality online. It suggested that churches need to be looking at “digital evangelism” to be more effective in the digital ages. Should evangelism be done differently in the digital age? Why, and if so, how? Or should evangelism continue its business as usual, as it has always been done? What are the core principles of faith-sharing?

Donald: The concepts of “religious structure” and “faith-sharing” are quite different, yet we are discussing them in the same context. It is not politically correct today to criticize another’s religious structure, but it would not seem politically incorrect to share one’s faith. Evangelism is intended to swing people from their current structure to ours. Some churches—the Lutherans and the Baptists, for example—do not appear to do this. They welcome anyone into their church, but they don’t go out looking to pull people in. Evangelism is the Lord’s work. In the digital age, how do we go about sharing our faith?

Anonymous: I would like to just publish a Bible verse every day for people to read, if they wish. Maybe this is evangelism. Imagine if every believer on earth shared one verse that touched the heart, that showed the true face of the God with whom everyone would love to have a relationship, it would change the world. There is no shortage of verses.

Robin: Social media enable us to stay in touch digitally but drive us apart physically. Digital media are more impersonal. And they are more manipulable by people for nefarious purposes. In some ways, they may be a blessing; in other ways, perhaps not.

Kiran: The people surveyed who wanted faith-sharing to be non-judgmental basically want stage 4 faith. Most of us don’t understand grace, so we don’t share it. We are good at making people feel guilty by explaining God’s law to them, but we can’t share the next step because we don’t experience God’s grace ourselves. If we did, we would transcend judgmentalism.

Using online media to reach people is potentially beneficial but also potentially dangerous. It may widen the privacy breach by giving the big data holders knowledge concerning our spirituality. If a church reaches out to people in this way it could backfire. Or it might work for some age groups but not for others.

Jay: Two recent major shifts complicate the business of evangelism today. One is the growth of the global village; the other is inter-generational differences in the concept of what constitutes a personal relationship. Robin thinks the digital media are impersonal but children think they are intensely personal.

Adventist evangelism is traditionally information-based, but our perspective (like that of other churches) is based upon an inevitably narrow pre-global-village perspective on the world. It can still be extraordinarily effective but as we move from 20th century white North America to the 21st century rainbow globe the old evangelism loses its impact. The traditional doctrines we evangelize don’t fit China or Africa and can and do cause conflict. Religious doctrines are not part of any universal construct.

It seems to me our evangelism needs to change accordingly. It could do so by changing from information-based evangelism to experience-based evangelism. Then the question is: What is the experience? Again, there is an inter-generational difference in experience.

David: The Golden Rule is a universal unvarying construct. It is a constant. As one trained in social science research methods, I am leery of the findings from the quoted studies. We have no evidence of their validity and reliability and cannot know whether respondents interpreted the questions correctly. It is the same with with evangelism, which interprets the Bible for targets in the same way that social scientists interpret constructs for survey respondents. They turn the Bible from a collection of constants into a set of variables. Shakir has told us that Moslems are not allowed to interpret the Qur’an itself. It seems to me they have a good reason for doing so. What the Moslem believer hears or reads is the un-mediated word of God. How the believer interprets the Word is a matter between God and the individual believer.

Don: So there would be almost 8 billion denominations…

David: Ideally, yes! 🙂

Michael: At least, each generation or age group needs to be evangelized differently.

Robin: At family dinners over the holidays, you see the young people texting at the table. They are physically present but mentally more-or-less absent. It is offensive to people of older generations, and an addiction to the younger ones.

Kiran: The younger generation has opted for Twitch rather than Facebook, because it lets them play video games while they interact socially as they would on Facebook. A pastor had the bright idea to pair a video game with Bible study-like interaction on Twitch. It led to the conversion of the youngster who wrote the game.

Donald: Is the purpose of evangelism to fill churches or to change hearts? An empty church is a financial loss. The Golden Rule will not keep churches filled.

Jay: We have never done evangelism based on the Golden Rule, although our educational and healthcare services are an expression of love of those to whom they are offered. Non-denominational churches don’t evangelize, yet they fill up. Our denomination is about information. If we were to survey any Christian denomination or other major religion about sharing faith, they would interpret it as being about sharing facts, data. It would be rare to find a respondent who interpreted it as sharing experience.

Don: Could we evangelize by inviting people to come to a meeting where people ask each other questions?

Michael: I think it would generate some interest among people already interested in religion but not among people who are not already interested.

Donald: Most people are looking for answers, not for questions.

Don: Yet Jesus preached mainly through questions, not through answers, not through facts.

Jay: He preached also by experience—by example. You may ask open-ended questions but must back them up in some way, or people will lose interest. Jesus answered His own questions by making His own experience public. Non-denominational churches seem to preach more along this line.

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