01 Evangelism Erosion

Evangelism Erosion


The proportion of Christians in America is declining, a clear trend that is likely to continue—especially because Gen Z (who are not reflected in this study as a separate group) self-identifies as atheist at twice the rate of US adults overall (13% vs. 7%).(1) Barna tracking data since 1996 shows a sharp rise in those identifying as atheist, agnostic or “none” / no faith, alongside a nearly matching decline in “born again” Christians.

Forecasting in detail the impact of coming generations—who are all culturally “post-Christendom” and mostly “post-Christian” in their worldview—is impossible. But it’s safe to say the assumption that most people have been raised with similar faith practices or even a common religious language is already outdated.

What’s at stake if Christian evangelism is changing? Perhaps more than first meets the eye. Besides the obvious—that a decline in new believers will contribute to an overall decline in Christianity—there will likely be wider social effects.

To get a glimpse of the shape those effects may take, Christians’ evangelistic habits can act as a canary in the social coal mine. In examining how Christians share faith, we also gain insight into the strength of our social fabric, our cultural habits surrounding religious dialog and our receding abilities to maintain diverse relationships. As we will see, Christian faith-sharing relates to all of these. If evangelism—a social action that depends on unlike people considering the merits of shared belief and practice—is eroding, we must examine its wider context to understand and respond.

“Erosion” is an apt metaphor for the changes affecting evangelism in America. Rather than sharp breaks or explosive damage, waves of changes—some large, some small—are gradually wearing away faithsharing habits, values and skills.

Three trends emerging from the data demonstrate this erosion:

  • America is “de-churching” and increasingly isolated.
  • Most people do not feel a “God-shaped hole.”
  • Cultural fragmentation complicates evangelism.

Let’s examine each one.

People Are De-Churching & Getting Lonelier

Along with declining Christian identity, churchgoing is in decline. In 2003, three-quarters of US selfidentified Christians reported attending church at least once in the previous six months (77%). Today, just 60 percent of Christians say they attended a worship service during the past six months. So even among the diminishing number of US adults who check the “Christian” box, church involvement is becoming less common.

How Often US Adults Attend Religious Services

Besides the accompanying shift in spiritual alignment, church involvement is not being replaced in terms of social capital. Most Elders were raised in a world where it was assumed one attended a house of worship, where one found a network of believers who offered social support, friendship and many other benefits. As church involvement has dropped off, however, few alternatives have arisen to take its place. Only about one-quarter of US adults who are not practicing Christians report belonging to a spiritual community (23%). The communal aspect of church is simply not being replaced—at least not with relationships that are overtly spiritual.

I belong to a spiritual community where I can explore questions of meaning or faith

The number of people who tell Barna they feel lonely or isolated has increased in the past decade from 10 to 20 percent. The increase in loneliness reported by Americans is likely due at least in part to their disengagement from communities of faith. The void has been only partially filled by the rise of virtual networks. People online can learn about faith, dialog with others, give to causes they believe in and even experience some measure of shared worship. But while real connection can and does occur in such digital spaces, the community aspects of a local church are not sufficiently replicated online.

For example, in new research among 18- to 29-year-olds with a Christian background, Barna found that young adults who are most committed to practicing their faith today also tend to be more relationally well-rounded. Eight out of 10 report having a close, intimate friend (83%) and three-quarters say they have someone, other than a family member, to whom they can turn for advice (77%). On the other hand, ex-Christians or “prodigals” (as they are called in that study), are less likely to have a close friend (53%) or to have someone they can turn to for advice (49%).(3)

The de-churching of America is not the only factor making people lonelier than ever—but it’s certainly a factor.

From Cross to CrossFit?

A recent Harvard study researched the similarities between churches and a number of non-religious organizations, including CrossFit gyms. “Religion is changing,” said Casper ter Kuile, author of the study How We Gather. He and his coauthor, Angie Thurston, traced a series of 10 organizations from an initial pool of 100, and rated them according to six qualities historically associated with faith gatherings: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose-finding, creativity and accountability.(2)

Their research reveals that some people, Millennials especially, are looking to CrossFit and similar groups to play the role traditionally reserved for religious community. They expect this trend to grow as more people shift to life away from church but recognize their need for the input and outlet of a local community.

Know Your Audience

In approaching evangelism with those outside the Christian church, audience matters. Lapsed Christians, religious non-Christians and atheists / agnostics / nones express varying degrees of spiritual interest – and name very different obstacles keeping them from being more interested in learning about Christianity. These opinions offer clues for how to approach faith conversations, depending on who you are talking to.

Know Your AudienceI'd Be More Interested in Learning About Christianity If...

Sharing Faith Forms Faith

Q&A with Michelle Jones

Michelle D. Jones is a pastor and writer serving at Imago Dei Community Church in Portland, Oregon, and a sought-after conference speaker, workshop facilitator and preacher who serves diverse audiences in the US and abroad. She is also an award-winning sitcom writer and producer. Her credits include In The House, Parent ‘Hood and In Living Color, for which she earned an Emmy nomination and an NAACP Image Award. Michelle has a passion for women, singles, creative communities, mentorship and sound gospel teaching. Read more of her work at LifeElastic.wordpress.com

Spiritual Hunger Is Limited… or Called by Another Name

There are stark contrasts between practicing Christians and other adults’ perceptions related to their spirituality. For instance, when asked if they consider themselves to be “on a quest for spiritual truth,” three-quarters of practicing Christians say yes (76%). In contrast, roughly equal proportions of lapsed Christians (77%) and the religiously unaffiliated (sometimes called “nones,” 72%) say they are not. Meanwhile, about half of non-Christians who belong to another religion think of themselves as on a spiritual quest (46%).

Questions in a similar vein further highlight differences between Christian and non-Christian perceptions related to spirituality. Only one in nine adults who aren’t practicing Christians strongly agrees that “my religious faith is very important in my life today” (11%). Only seven percent strongly agree they are seeking something spiritually better (25% somewhat vs. 30% somewhat and 35% strongly agree among practicing Christians). When asked if they agree with the statement “I am seeking something spiritually better,” Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim respondents tend to agree (56%); atheists, agnostics and nones, on the other hand, disagree (70%). Similarly, when asked if they feel “a general sense of emptiness,” two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated disagree (67%).

A sense of spiritual need—sometimes called the “God-shaped hole”—is simply not a conscious part of most non-Christians’ experience.

Several other findings serve to reinforce this picture of overall spiritual indifference. Atheists and agnostics (as one might expect) are least interested in exploring spiritual matters; six in 10 report they “don’t have any questions about faith” (58%), compared to just one in five religious non-Christians (19%).

Two-thirds of all US adults who do not practice Christianity say spirituality plays little or no role in their everyday lives.

How US Adults (Who Are Not Practicing Christians) Prioritize Spirituality

Men are more likely to say there’s no role for spirituality in their lives (33% vs. 22% women), and women more likely to rank it as important (36% vs. 27% men).

Similar to how they rate the role of spirituality in their lives, most Americans do not report having high levels of “unanswered spiritual questions.” Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are more likely than other non-Christians to agree they have such questions (55%), and to agree that “something feels missing from my life” (53%).

Barna analysts suspect a cultural trend of secularizing the sacred is partly to blame for overall spiritual apathy. Longings and practices that have historically been spiritual are increasingly discussed in terms that are not spiritual. For many people, for example, “meditation” has become “mindfulness”—placing what was once a spiritual practice into the category of mental awareness. To borrow a consumer term, a church is no longer the only storefront on the block selling purpose, relational connection and a sense of belonging. Instead, human impulses to connect and give are diverted into new channels. Money once given to tithe or a deacon’s fund might now be donated to a secular nonprofit or GoFundMe for a sick friend. Social functions once promoted in church bulletins are organized on social media, include a wide invite list and gather in decentralized locations rather than the congregation’s “fellowship hall” of 30 years ago. What was once searching for God is now “looking for meaning and purpose.” Simplicity and a desire to make a difference are divested of spiritual connection and re-envisioned as ways to benefit self and promote general wellbeing.

Spiritual mindsets of US Adults

One example of the trend is Adriene Mishler, host of the YouTube channel Yoga with Adriene, which currently boasts more than 4 million subscribers. Her brand of yoga as exercise and “grounding practice” is nearly devoid of the spiritual roots of the tradition. Yogis of the past were teachers of spiritual wisdom before anything else, but Yoga with Adriene features videos like “Yoga for Weight Loss,” “Yoga for Creativity” and “Yoga for Text Neck.” It is a thoroughly secular space. “Find what feels good” is the mantra her followers “recite with almost evangelical fervor,” observes The Guardian.(4)

The availability of secular outlets for spiritual impulses is not harmful in itself, but it is symptomatic of a culture losing a shared language of spirituality—and even losing agreement that spirituality is meaningful at all.

Thus, faith-sharing today should most often start with an assumption that most people do not deeply feel their spiritual need, at least not in a way they recognize or describe in those terms.

Activities People Consider a Part of Their Spirituality

How Do People Practice Spirituality?

When asked to describe activities they consider part of practicing their faith or spirituality, non-Christians give a range of responses. Here is a sampling of their answers:

  • Cycling
  • Fishing
  • Gardening
  • Sex
  • Marijuana
  • Volleyball
  • Prayer
  • Being kind and decent
  • Being good and charitable
  • Bible reading
  • Bird watching
  • Charity
  • Walking outdoors
  • Reading and discussing spiritual books
  • Hospice volunteering

Evangelism Is More Complex

Previous generations saw enormous success with relatively monolithic evangelism strategies such as mass campaigns, widespread adoption of “lifestyle evangelism” and small “seeker-sensitive” evangelistic Bible studies. While these approaches may still be effective in some contexts, the world today is different from decades past and “results may vary.” Between the de-churching of America and the decline of spiritual hunger, there is no longer a single recipe for what predictably compels non-Christians to give the gospel their true consideration (but there are necessary ingredients, as we will see in a later chapter).

Perhaps an analogy, though a bit morbid, could be drawn with the history of warfare. In previous generations, large-scale battles with vast masses of general-duty troops were the norm. But warfare has gradually shifted and is now characterized by small conflicts often led by highly trained or specialized units responding to a particular kind of opponent.

While evangelism is obviously not combat (and Christians are, by and large, wisely moving away from the militant language popular in earlier eras of evangelism), thoughtlessly adopting used-to-beeffective tactics is similar to leading a cavalry charge against modern tanks. It will probably not be effective, and it may even cause more harm than good.

Along with effective strategies, what Christians believe about evangelism is also changing. Between 1993 and 2017, Barna saw dramatic changes in Christians’ positions on sharing their faith. Just one in 10 Christians in 1993 who had a conversation about faith believed evangelism was the job of the local church (10%). Twenty-five years later, three in 10 said so (29%). Nine out of 10 agreed in 1993 that “every Christian has a responsibility to share their faith” (89%). Only two-thirds said so in 2017 (64%).(5)

Perhaps most tellingly, the percentage who say “I would avoid discussions about my faith if my non-Christian friend would reject me” has risen from 33 to 44 percent in the past 25 years.

They are not wrong to perceive increased social risks.

In his book Good Faith, Barna president David Kinnaman examines shifting cultural currents surrounding people of faith and perceptions of how they practice their convictions. Research for that book found a startling six in 10 Americans believe that any “attempt to convert others” to one’s own faith is “extreme.” More than eight out of 10 atheists, agnostics and nones say so! To be clear: A majority of US adults, and the vast majority of non-religious adults (83%), believe that evangelism is religiously extreme.(6)

Evangelizing Christian Youth

Among US adults who do not practice Christianity today, twothirds were raised in a Christian family (63%).

About half of atheists, agnostics and nones were raised in a Christian family (55%). Nearly all lapsed Christians were raised in a Christian family (97%).

Exposure to vibrant family faith does not always translate to a child’s personal belief. Young people raised in Christian communities are in the process of considering Christianity as much as anyone—and their Christian parents, and older sisters and brothers in the faith, should consider how they can invite them to a life of following Jesus.

Hope For Awakening

Q&A with Tim Keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and chairman and cofounder of Redeemer City to City (CTC), which helps plant churches in global cities. Dr. Keller has published multiple bestselling Christian books, including The Reason for God.

Growing social isolation and diminishing spiritual interest do not make a friendly environment for sharing one’s faith. How accurately are Christians assessing the cultural situation? As the overall culture of faithsharing erodes, how are they responding? How well (or poorly) are they adapting? Are they well-poised to share their faith in keeping with the historic mission of Jesus’s followers?

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