Reviving Evangelism

Reviving Evangelism

A Barna Report Produced in Partnership with Alpha USA


By Craig Springer, Executive Director of Alpha USA

You’ve heard the evangelism analogy before: If you go to a fantastic restaurant or watch an unforgettable movie, what’s the first thing you want to do after you savor the moment? Share it! You want to tell someone about the wagyu beef or bacon-wrapped dates or kale salad surprise (if that’s your thing). It’s natural to want others to experience what we love. Unfortunately, when it comes to evangelism in America, this instinct is fading fast. We post Instagram novellas of what we had for dinner but, in an interesting twist of our time, U.S. Christians are losing a desire to share their faith.

Why is this happening? Before we resort to Millennial shaming, angry preaching or incessant training courses, we need to understand what is going on. Is there an increase in self-centeredness, a decrease in authentic spiritual experiences, a lack of teaching on evangelism in our churches? Are our methods to train and send Christians into the world faulty or dated? Our drive to understand why is what inspired Alpha USA to commission this project.

Once we understand the why, then we can get to the what. What needs to change so we can buck the trend and meaningfully share the love and truth of Jesus in a country where he is desperately needed? Because Romans 10:14 remains as true as it has ever been: “How can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”

Without giving you a full spoiler, here is a bit of what you are in for: Some of the findings in this report will surprise you, some will downright break your heart, some are deeply insightful and some provide practical direction for how we can adjust our personal evangelism and evangelism training strategies in our churches.

At Alpha, we’ve been wrestling for decades with many of the questions embedded in this monograph. Alpha began some 30 years ago at Holy Trinity Brompton Church (HTB) in London.

At the time, it seemed clear that people were not responding to traditional methods of evangelism and that trust in the Church and in Christianity, as a whole, was diminishing—while skepticism was on the rise. Instead of Christian proclamation, HTB believed that people were hungering for open-ended conversation without any arm-twisting and confrontational correction. So, the church’s leaders tried something new. They began inviting people outside of the church to a meal, welcoming them as they were, giving a short, unassuming talk on faith and then, during group discussion, listening more than speaking. Word spread and over time hundreds and then thousands of people began showing up to explore Jesus in central London through the Alpha program.

When Alpha began, it was in an environment where the pursuit of faith, the effectiveness of the Church and trust in the Bible had slipped away in a multicultural, post-Christian city center. People were no longer listening to the Church, and Christians were sharing their faith less and less. In many ways, the trends facing Western Europe then foreshadowed the realities we now see in the United States.

As a pastor for many years, I saw the trends of declining effectiveness in evangelism play out over time. We did everything we could to change this—poured money into better weekend programs, ran thousands of people through classes on how to share their faith, preached our socks off on the importance of the call to evangelize—yet we didn’t see any major ongoing shift or sustained spiritual fruit in the face of our changing culture.

So when I discovered Alpha’s impact in the post-Christian environment of London, I got interested. We implemented Alpha over time and began to see the direction of the trends shift. More non-Christians were coming to our church and developing a relationship with Jesus. Christians were more emboldened and equipped to invite their friends to explore Jesus. A nucleus of impassioned Christ-followers were praying with intention and seeing the spiritual fruit of lives changed before their eyes. This began to change our church and buck the declining evangelism trend.

Alpha USA commissioned this study to discover what it will take to revive evangelism across the United States. We long for the day when every Christian of every generation is empowered to share Jesus, when every church is growing in its impact in their community and millions more say yes to Christ. Our dream is nothing less than the awakening of the American Church. Although the statistics of a quieted and declining Christian community are startling, the opportunity is now and the generation who can lead the charge is right here in our midst. We are, all together, part of the larger story of what God is doing to bring renewal to our communities and revitalization to his Church.

Let’s learn together what it will take to see an awakening in Christians in our day.


  • Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
  • All others are US adults who are not practicing Christians under the definition above. These fall into two main groups:
    • Lapsed Christians identify as Christian but have not attended church within the past month. Only 4 percent consider their faith very important.
    • Non-Christians identify with a faith other than Christianity (“religious non-Christians”) or with no faith at all (“atheists / agnostics / nones”).
  • Millennials were born 1984 to 1998 (ages 20 to 34).
  • Gen X were born 1965 to 1983 (ages 35 to 53).
  • Boomers were born 1946 to 1964 (ages 54 to 72).
  • Elders were born before 1946 (age 73+).

Key Findings Among Practicing Christians

Key Findings Among Non-Christians and Lapsed Christians


An early hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was delegation. He worked strategically to entrust his message of the coming of God’s kingdom to people capable of remembering and faithfully transmitting that message to others—along with express instructions to pass it on. Famously, his parting words to his disciples, known as the Great Commission, are a mandate for worldwide discipleship, a process that requires evangelistic work—gospel work.

In the first generations after Jesus gave those instructions, Christianity experienced explosive, exponential growth in spite of profound internal and external challenges. Theological debate, cultural skepticism and government-sponsored persecution complicated the carrying forward of the gospel. But within a few centuries, that good news had been preached from Britain to India, inland Africa to China, resulting in one of the most remarkable stories of global transformation in history. The spread of the gospel changed the course of history—and has in every century since. Although Christian history has been fraught with failures as well as successes of mission, one thing is certain: The original commission from Jesus has been carried forward, generation to generation, across the centuries.

With that continuing mission have always come challenges, and this generation is faced with plenty of obstacles to effective evangelism. Christianity in the United States has always been in a perpetual state of reinvention, but cultural and demographic changes over recent decades have led to a season of unprecedented challenge. The overall number of practicing Christians is falling, against a cultural backdrop that is increasingly tribal and difficult to define.

Significant societal upheavals have led us here. They include the innovative disruptions of the Internet and social media, generational shifts accompanying the coming of age of Millennials and Generation Z, and increasing political rifts between Christian conservatives and progressives. Complicating this turmoil are factors actively tearing at the social fabric: the breakdown of institutions such as the traditional family; the rapidly diversifying racial and ethnic makeup of America; the revelation of sexual aggression and abuse in once-hallowed religious, artistic, academic and political spheres; and highly public violence such as terrorist attacks and mass murders in community spaces.

What or who can be trusted anymore? It feels to many that threatening waters are rising fast and common ground is in short supply.

Historically, the Christian community has been a source of stability and encouragement in the face of uncertainty and suffering. But today’s difficulties are compounded by the fact that practicing Christians are not immune to the destabilization felt so widely. Christians in America are fewer and less unified than at any time in recent memory—and few show signs of knowing what comes next.

This trajectory cannot correct itself. Difficulties for Christians will likely increase in coming years, especially as perceptions of our reliability and reputation suffer. Besides further demographic shifts,as the last of the Elders pass and Boomers age out of dominant influence, it’s likely that public perception of Christian faith in America will continue to decline, seen by non-Christians as irrelevant, politically corrupt or morally hypocritical. Many in Gen Z, whose oldest members are on the cusp of their 20s, feel little cultural pressure to maintain a faith identity, Christian or otherwise.

If you feel these combined dynamics point to an existential crisis for the Church, you’re not wrong. But the crisis may not be the one that comes immediately to mind.

What is a Lapsed Christian?

Lapsed Christians are the largest group self-identified Christians in the US; they make up more than two-thirds of those who identify as Christian. They may hold some measure of Christian belief, but they do not prioritize faith either internally (by considering it personally important) or externally (by regular involvement in a local church).

One factor at work may be that most lapsed Christians’ family of origin did not highly value faith in their childhood home, especially compared with practicing Christians’ families.

“Faith was very important to my family’s identity when I was a child.” (% strongly agree)

Lapsed Christians 23%
Practicing Christians 70%

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:

  1. Evangelism Erosion: The forces of cultural and religious change are eroding the landscape of evangelism.
  2. Blurred Maps: Christians’ perceptions of the landscape and of themselves are often hazy or wide of the mark.
  3. 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.

Next Section


Read Section