02 Blurred Maps

Blurred Maps


While there remain significant gospel-sharing opportunities—which we will explore in chapter 3—Christians need to begin thinking about evangelism with a posture of introspection. The research shows a dissonance between Christians’ perceptions of effective evangelism and the experience of those who do not practice Christianity. Further, there seem to be gaps in key Christian relational skills and habits that are necessary for evangelism.

The distance between Christians’ perceptions of themselves and the reality of how they are perceived by others, is nothing short of a wake-up call. There are significant gaps between how Christians perceive their gospel effectiveness and what actually motivates nonChristians to consider faith in Christ. All told, the emerging picture is one of disconnection—though with points to encourage real hope.

The first step for Christians interested in strategic effectiveness in evangelism is getting an accurate lay of the land, even if doing so is uncomfortable. If faith-sharing habits are based solely on Christians’ misperceptions, their effectiveness will be diminished—with significant time and resources spent in unhelpful directions. With this in mind, let’s outline key areas where Christians need to sharpen their understanding of self and culture and bring into focus the motivations and attitudes of non-Christians who may be open to considering faith.

Let’s Ask the Evangelized About Evangelism

What they say about evangelistic encounters

Lapsed Christians and non-Christians have experienced many different approaches to Christian evangelism. Barna asked people who have had first-hand experience with each of the methods below to tell researchers whether they came away from the encounter encouraged or discouraged to explore Christianity further.

Let's Ask the Evangelized About Evangelism


What they say about Christians and conversations

Nearly all non-Christians and lapsed Christians have a friend or family member who practices and prioritizes Christianity—but these believers are not always ideal conversation partners when it comes to faith. Here are the qualities people say they value in a person with whom they would talk about spiritual matters, alongside descriptions they would apply to their Christian friends and family.

Let's Ask the Evangelized About Evangelism

Christians Feel Ready . . . but Not All Are Willing

Only one in 10 practicing Christians feels they don’t know how to respond when someone raises a question about faith (10%). Two-thirds feel “gifted” in sharing their faith with others (63%). As these data indicate, most Christians feel at least somewhat equipped to engage in evangelism.

But, to state the obvious, evangelism has no future if followers of Jesus are not willing to share their faith with others. No matter what external factors influence non-Christian attitudes toward Christianity, practicing Christians must believe their faith is worth sharing.

And so researchers were surprised to find that, while more than nine out of 10 practicing Christians agree that part of their faith means being a witness for Jesus (96%), and eight out of 10 strongly agree that “the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to come to know Jesus” (79%), one-quarter also believes 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” (27%). Among Millennials, the percentage is nearly half (47%).

There is a clear generational trend here. But older generations ought to pause before assigning blame to Millennials who are hesitant to evangelize. Younger believers are working to adapt and integrate their faith with a rapidly changing culture. What’s needed is cross-generational conversation around an issue that concerns all Christians: the stewardship of Jesus’s commission.

Some Millennials are unsure about evangelism, or even think of it as morally wrong. (Gen Z teens are not a large enough cohort for separate analysis in this study, but their thoroughly post-Christian posture will likely amplify this stance toward evangelism.) Younger Christians are more personally aware of the cultural temperature around spiritual conversations. Among practicing Christians, Millennials report an average (median) of four close friends or family members who practice a faith other than Christianity; most of their Boomer parents and grandparents, by comparison, have just one. Sharing the gospel today is made harder than at any time in recent memory by an overall cultural resistance to conversations that high-light people’s differences.

Young Christians’ hesitance is understandable. Society today casts a negative light on proselytization that many older Christians do not fully appreciate. As Barna found in research published in Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, three out of five Christian Millennials believe that people today are more likely than in the past to take offense if they share their faith (65%)—that’s far higher than among Boomer Christians (28%).(7) Youth are faced with a very different culture than their parents or grandparents. But as Millennial and Gen Z Christians age into leadership, they will have to answer some important questions.

How hard is too hard to bear witness to what Jesus has done?

How active are they willing to be in service of sharing the gospel?

Will they be willing to find ways to evangelize beyond “living out” their faith?

Leaders who want to equip Christians today to share Jesus with non-believers face an unusual challenge: to first “evangelize” Christians on the importance—and morality—of evangelism.

Generational Differences on Faith-Sharing

Stewarding Jesus’ Great Commission

To launch an intergenerational conversation in your faith community, start with the following questions:

  • How will we ensure that we are faithful links in the chain of gospel belief that stretches all the way back to the disciples?
  • How can we be strategic, faithful, culturally savvy and effective
  • If we are resistant to evangelism, why?
  • And is there action we can take to change that?
  • What does a responsible contemporary evangelistic model look like?

Christians Feel Ready . . . but Not All Are Able

Once they are willing, some Christians may struggle to make relational connections or gain the conversational skills that effective evangelism requires. Barna found in its comprehensive study among Gen Z that engaged Christian teens are the group most likely to say they are comfortable talking about their faith and least likely to interact with people who do not share their faith.(8) And in research for Kinnaman’s Good Faith, the Barna team discovered that evangelicals are less comfortable than other groups in conversation with people they consider significantly different from themselves, such as Muslims or members of the LGBT community.(9)

In the Reviving Evangelism study, analysts uncovered significant disparities both between practicing Christians’ and others’ ideas about the qualities desirable in a faith conversation partner and between others’ perceptions of the Christians they know compared to those desirable qualities. For example, a majority of practicing Christians believes someone gifted at sharing their faith possesses a number of qualities, including confidence in sharing their own perspective (58%) and an obvious, visible faith of their own (57%). Yet a majority of non-Christians and lapsed Christians values just two qualities in a conversation partner: listening without judgment (62%) and not forcing a conclusion (50%).

Comparing non-Christians’ and lapsed Christians’ responses to two different questions reveals the second stark disparity: the qualities of “someone I would talk to about faith” versus the qualities of “Christians I know”. Compared to the majority who says they prefer a conversation partner who listens without judgment and does not force a conclusion, far smaller proportions say those are qualities possessed by Christians they know (34% and 26%, respectively).

These data paint a striking picture of disconnection between Christian ideals of what it means to share faith effectively and the experience of non-Christians—and between non-Christians’ perceptions of Christians and Christians’ of themselves.

However willing they may be, Christians’ ability to witness for Christ may be impeded by the simple fact that they don’t have meaningful relational connections with non-Christians, or the conversational skills necessary to talk meaningfully about faith.

Qualities of a Good Person to Talk with About Faith

Good News For New Generations

Q&A with Josh Chen

Josh Chen serves as a missions director for Cru because he is passionate about helping young people experience the goodness of the gospel. He leads a team in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Wendy.

Christians Aren’t Clear on What “Works”

Many practicing Christians overestimate the importance of their personal virtues when it comes to non-Christians’ receptivity to the gospel message. And they tend to downplay the significance of factors that are largely beyond their individual control, such as Christianity’s overall reputation and reasonable evidence for faith in Christ.

Practicing Christians’ ideas about what is most important to people considering Christianity do not always match up with reality. Non-Christians are most concerned with the evidence for Christianity and the overall reputation of the faith, while practicing Christians think a firsthand spiritual experience is the most salient factor. (What practicing Christians perceive about non-Christians is actually closer to lapsed Christians’ priorities.)

Factors That Could Increase Interest to Christianity

A plurality of non-Christians wishes for credible, reasonable explanations of the Christian faith, to see elements of proof for its claims (44%). This does not necessarily mean Christians should invest heavily in traditional apologetics, however. As demonstrated by nonChristians’ distaste for street preaching and tracts, depersonalized outreach that feels intrusive or manipulative is likely to lower openness to the gospel rather than encourage its further consideration. (See the Q&A with Michelle Jones for additional insights on evidence and authenticity.)

The tarnished reputation of Christianity is likewise a barrier for about one-third of non-Christians (34%) and one in five lapsed Christians (21%). Those who want to give others an opportunity to connect with Jesus struggle uphill against the weight of a Christianity perceived as beholden to political power, hypocritical on issues of sexual integrity and as a system that protects troubling public figures. Practicing Christians need to grapple with how the overall reputation of the faith may impact their personal witness.

Supporting evidence for faith is important to some lapsed Christians, but they differ from non-Christians in a few notable ways that may indicate the impact of past church experiences on their present lack of spiritual investment. For many, a revelatory spiritual experience would spark greater interest in faith (likely indicating a lack of such an experience in the past), alongside more unity and humility on the part of Christians (suggesting these qualities have not defined their past experience).

What about some of the common faith-sharing approaches taken by Christians? Which, if any, are people most open to? It depends.

One of the largest factors at play appears to be one’s spiritual inclination. Non-Christians and lapsed Christians who say spirituality plays a significant role in their life, and those who say they have unanswered spiritual questions, tend to be more open to a variety of settings to explore questions of faith—while those who say otherwise are less open. For example, three in 10 of all non-Christians and lapsed Christians say they prefer a “casual, one-on-one conversation” (30%). But the percentage is higher among those for whom spirituality is significant (40%) than among those for whom it is not (27%). Similarly, people who agree strongly that they have unanswered spiritual questions are more likely to say they prefer one-on-one conversation (45%) than those who don’t have such questions (20%).

How People Would LIke to Explore Faith

Overall, settings that prioritize relational interactions tend to be more attractive than approaches that don’t, even among those who are inclined to spirituality. Being approached by a street evangelist or with a tract, for example, are unpopular even with people who are already open to exploring faith—and among those who are not, such approaches may do more harm than good. Two-thirds of non-Christians who say spirituality plays “no role” in their lives select “none of the above” (64%).

Only about half say they have had at least one conversation with a Christian about faith or their beliefs during the past year (52%), but the vast majority have had at least one at some point in the past. Unsurprisingly, past negative interactions with a Christian significantly depress openness to exploring questions of faith. Sixty-two percent of those who report having had negative interactions say no options interest them, compared to 40 percent of those with mixed interactions and 30 percent of those with positive interactions.

While further study is needed to make clear links between more difficult or challenging life circumstances and openness to exploring faith questions, there does seem to be a correlation between aspects of privilege experienced by non-Christians (such as majority ethnicity and higher income) and being less open to exploring faith. In general,  people of color and adults with lower income tend to be more open than white and high-income Americans. It is worth remembering that the early explosive evangelistic success of Christianity was among the most socially marginalized—to the point that early pagans dismissed it as a fad appealing to those not welcome in polite society. It may be that the good news of Christ, today as in ancient times, sounds best to those who recognize they are most in need of it.

The Holy Spirit can, of course, use any means to draw people to Jesus. Few of us, regardless of social status, can predict what will inspire transformation in our lives. Stories abound of people who have heard and believed in the message of Jesus through the most unlikely of encounters. True as that is, it appears non-Christians look most favorably on approaches that spark sincere, friendly engagement.

That is good news, because many Christians have similar preferences (see below). Most favor small settings to share their faith— one on one or in small groups. There are, of course, a handful Christians who evangelize from a stadium stage, but that doesn’t reflect most people’s reality: fulfilling the mission of Christ in small, relational ways.

There are real opportunities for Christians who want to share the good news of Jesus. Let’s look at a few of them.

How Christians Are Most Comfortable Sharing Faith

Challenges & Opportunities for Sharing Faith Today

Q&A with Mary Healy

Dr. Mary Healy, Professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, is a bestselling author and international speaker. She is a general editor of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture and author of two of its volumes, The Gospel of Mark and Hebrews. Her other books include The Spiritual Gifts Handbook and Healing: Bringing the Gift of God’s Mercy to the World. She was appointed by Pope Francis as one of the first three women ever to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Evangelism Fallout?

In addition to how they would like to explore questions of faith, researchers also asked non-Christians and lapsed Christians about how they have experienced evangelism. Their experiences with tracts and being approached by someone on the street suggest one reason some reject depersonalized methods of sharing faith: because they have experienced those methods and didn’t like it.

How People Have Experienced Evangelism

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