Ask the Right Question
Our calling as Christians is not demographic dominance. It’s not even about cultural survival, or about securing the faith of the next generation (as important as that is). The Church’s mission is to spread the message of saving, sacrificial love and ultimate hope that Jesus commissioned his followers to proclaim. It’s not about numeric growth; that’s just a byproduct. It’s about the good news.
Losing cultural ground? We can cope with that.
Losing the gospel? That’s a different story.
Are we faithfully sharing the good news? The answer to that—not a mere count of conversions— is a true indication of the Church’s flourishing. Cultural decline and fragmentation cannot threaten the existence or integrity of the Church as a gospel community, but the failure to share our faith certainly can. We must ask ourselves how we are faring in our role as heirs of Jesus’ call to the apostles.
On this count, Barna’s recent research, commissioned by Alpha USA, suggests reason for concern. The study was designed to assess both active Christians’ and non-Christians’ perceptions and experiences related to faith-sharing and spiritual seeking.* Researchers interviewed two groups of people: practicing Christians (in Barna’s definition, those who say their faith is very important in their life and have attended church within the past month) and all other US adults (which includes both non-Christians and people who identify as Christian but don’t prioritize or practice the faith, who we call “lapsed Christians”).
From the findings emerge three key realities:
- Evangelism Erosion: The forces of cultural and religious change are eroding the landscape of evangelism.
- Blurred Maps: Christians’ perceptions of the landscape and of themselves are often hazy or wide of the mark.
- Fertile Soil: Real opportunities remain for evangelism, but effective faith-sharing today looks different from the past.
As we will see, Christians do not have a united front in support of evangelism. Additionally, many lag behind their non-Christian peers in the kinds of diverse relationships that are desirable for cultivating a healthy evangelistic culture and opportunities to share Christ. What’s more, their relational and conversational skills are sometimes lacking.
Failure to proclaim the gospel demands that Christians ask hard questions of ourselves before turning our eyes outward. It would be easy to assign responsibility for declining numbers to cultural factors. But the easy explanation doesn’t fit the data. We who are entrusted with the message of Jesus are ultimately responsible for faithfully communicating it. What is it about our community or our presentation that is disconnected from the needs of our neighbors? We must do our best to ensure they can hear the good news shared with them in a way both faithful to the call of Jesus and framed for cultural intelligibility, so that they can give the message of hope and life a fair hearing.
This begins with us. Some of the most troubling numbers emerging from the data are not about “them” at all. A majority of practicing Christians does not consistently support evangelism, and 47 percent of Millennial Christians believe it is flat-out wrong to evangelize. This invites us to ask difficult questions, including what has gone so wrong with our gospel presentation that a majority of Christians hesitates to wholeheartedly support it.
Compounding this are factors that depress Christians’ ability to reach out to others skillfully—most conspicuously, that Christians are the faith group least likely to have friends who are different from them.
Additionally, Christian perceptions of what motivates non-Christians to consider or move toward faith are different from the actual felt experiences of non-Christians. The low level of spiritual hunger reported by most non-Christians is one example, along with their desire for more compelling evidence for the faith and negative impressions of Christianity’s reputation. Overall, Christians perceive non-Christians to be considerably more interested in spiritual things in general, and Christianity in particular, than they actually are.
Christians must realize we are not doing evangelism on a clean slate. Cultural perceptions and Christianity’s poor reputation are actively de-converting people raised in church and hardening non-Christians against evangelistic efforts.
Understand Ourselves & Others
In order to be engaged and effective in our call to share the good news, we must understand and respond to these changing realities. But in perhaps the most eye-opening results from Barna’s research, Christians are often poorly equipped in the relational skills needed to navigate a new era of sharing the gospel. Their self-understanding, and their perceptions of non-Christians, vary widely from the perspectives of those outside the faith. Additionally, the overall relational capital and skill set of Christians are often inadequate to maintain a trusted place in public dialog and to earn a fair hearing from those who might consider faith in Jesus Christ.
There is a unique opportunity for the US Church to return to its core identity during this time of transition. Against the backdrop of changing generations we see signs for optimism. While faith in America will never look the same as for our grandparents, it can be strong, authentic and resilient for whatever the future has in store. After all, you don’t pass the same message along for 20 centuries unless there’s something in it that can transcend cultural shifts.
Above all, we ought to keep hold of hope. History has seen the Church flourish time and again in discouraging evangelistic environments. Today is a wake-up call that can inspire us to grow, to reconnect with the call to be and make disciples, and to press forward into deeper and more radically countercultural faith. Rather than discouragement, this research can profoundly encourage us—if we are willing to embrace it realistically and respond humbly.
Seen rightly, our unprecedented challenges can become untapped opportunities. But only if we begin to understand them.