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.)
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%).
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.