03 Fertile Soil

Fertile Soil


In the natural world, change—however drastic—is accompanied by opportunity. Even the devastation of a wildfire or volcanic eruption creates the conditions for ecosystems to rebound and flourish. Ecologists tell us of certain trees in the Western United States whose seeds can only germinate in the conditions following a forest fire, or of the soil “reset” that accompanies a landslide or heavy flooding. In nature, change—even change that is threatening or catastrophic for an existing system—is a powerful cultivator of life.

In this sense, for all the seeming loss of ground in evangelistic culture and practice, the Reviving Evangelism data indicate significant hope for the Christian community’s stewardship of the gospel message.

But flourishing in change requires adaptation. If American Christians can respond with agility to today’s challenges while retaining their core distinctiveness and message, the gospel will take root, no matter the culture’s trajectory. But if hard realities are ignored, it’s difficult to imagine evangelistic success in a culture no longer inclined to see faith as compelling or relevant.

In this chapter, we examine standout examples of that hope, and begin to consider how Christians can respond to an invitation to flourish and share faith in a new environment.

Non-Christians Like Christians More Than Christianity

Christianity’s reputation has taken some damaging hits in recent years. Across the board, nonChristians think more highly of the Christians they personally know than of “Christianity” as a whole. Even atheists and agnostics, who tend to be most skeptical of (or even hostile toward) Christianity, have a higher opinion of individual Christians than of the faith overall.

Non-Christians Like Christians More Than They Like Christianity


Young Non-Christians Talk About Spiritual Matters a Lot More Than Older Adults

Millennials report many more faith conversations and evangelistic encounters than older nonChristians. This is partly due to greater religious diversity among their family and friends—but that’s not the whole story. For at least some young adults, there appears to be greater curiosity about spirituality and, specifically, deeper interest in Christianity.

Demographics Aren’t Destiny, but Sometimes They Help

Demographic factors are many, but analysts note four of particular weight in this study: current faith, an urban setting, income level and generation. Because these factors change slowly (or not at all) for most individuals and communities, they represent a unique strategic opportunity for gospel-sharing also to evolve slowly.

Religious Non-Christians

The greatest sense of being on a spiritual quest is found among currentlypracticing religious non-Christians—a group consisting primarily of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists—and those who were raised in those faiths but are not currently religious. Two-thirds of respondents connected to a religion other than Christianity indicate some level of spiritual hunger (68%). That’s less than the three-quarters of practicing Christians who say so (77%), but significantly more than the three in 10 lapsed Christians and religiously unaffiliated non-Christians (29%) who say they are on such a quest.

This signal of openness is an opportunity. Getting to know neighbors or co-workers who come from non-Christian religious backgrounds introduces Christians to people different from them but who share a higher-than-average interest in spirituality. As we’ve seen, Millennials are more likely to already have such friendships, compared with older Christians—so Gen X, Boomer and Elder believers may need to step out of their everyday zone of comfort to establish new relationships.

Christian leaders, such as local pastors, might consider building positive relationships with leaders of other religious communities and even joining forces with them to serve shared neighborhoods. Spiritual hunger is contagious, so cultivating an ethos of spiritual questing across faith communities could have a snowball effect to produce opportunities for gospel engagement.

Spiritual Mindsets of Religious Non-Christians

Urban Dwellers

As noted earlier, adults in urban environments tend to exhibit higher levels of spiritual hunger and general openness to evangelistic methods, compared to people in the suburbs, small towns or rural settings. Whatever the reasons for this “urban openness,” it constitutes an opportunity for Christians in high-density and high-diversity communities to consider how to respond with gospel intention. Does your church community reflect the diversity of age, ethnicity and gender in your neighborhood? If not, why not? What can you do differently to connect with people who surround you on a daily basis?

Christians who are not urban dwellers must do some soul-searching, as well. What about city living can kindle spiritual interest? What might be done in your suburb or small town to create similar dynamics?

The data indicate, generally speaking, higher spiritual hunger among ethnic minorities than among white adults. There is some crossover here between ethnicity and urban living—though, obviously, many people of color live in suburbs and rural areas, and many white people live in cities. But it is worth considering how greater ethnic diversity might raise the spiritual temperature of a given community.

People with Low Income

Adults who report an annual household income of less than $50K seem to be more aware of their spiritual hunger than those who earn more, regardless of ethnicity. Certainly they are more likely to agree that they have “unanswered spiritual questions” and that “something feels missing from my life”.

Spiritual mindsets of Low-Income Non-Christians & Lapsed Christians

Christianity’s message of hope has always uniquely impacted the poor, and the high level of spiritual openness among lower-income Americans constitutes a real invitation. Amid cultural prejudice against and frequent marginalization of the poor and disadvantaged, Christianity stresses the inestimable value and shared humanity of all persons, and beckons them all to a kingdom where the last will be first—a kingdom that poor people often seem to yearn for more deeply than their richer neighbors.

Spiritual Mindsets of Urban Non-Christians & Lapsed Christians

But sharing good news with the poor is not only good for the poor. As Barna found in research among UK and US adults, published in Christians Who Make a Difference, caring for people in poverty strongly correlates to deeper discipleship engagement. Churchgoers who prioritize care for and action on behalf of poor people also love Jesus, trust the scriptures, seek to honor God with their lives and want to share their faith with others.

Young Adults

Asked to rate their agreement with the statements “I experience a general sense of emptiness” and “I often feel rejected,” younger Americans are more apt than older adults to agree. There are little or no drastic differences between Millennial and older nonChristians when it comes to spiritual hunger and experiences— but on the question of feelings of emptiness and rejection, many young people, in contrast to older adults, clearly sense something is wrong. It is more common for them to admit experiencing some kind of relational struggle or inward discontent.

While it may seem heartless to welcome their inner emptiness, it’s unavoidably true that really, deeply feeling one’s spiritual need can open a door to meaningful conversation and an encounter with Jesus. Hurting, restless people find healing and rest in him—and it helps if they’re looking. Many young adults, simply by virtue of being young, are more likely than older people to be in a “searching season” of life—for identity, for better answers—and therefore more open to change or transformation.

Feelings of Emptiness and Rejection, by Generation

Urban & Open

City-dwelling non-Christians tend to be more spiritually open compared to those in the suburbs or rural communities, and practicing Christians in the city tend to be more comfortable talking about their faith compared to their sisters and brothers elsewhere. It may be that the dense urban fabric of cities fosters the relational skills necessary for engaging with people different from oneself.

How can Christian leaders in the city use this existing dynamic to encourage urban Christians to reach out in their everyday lives? And how can suburban and rural leaders help to weave a denser social fabric that builds relational skills and habits of engagement in Christians eager to share their faith?

On Relating Well

Q&A with Rufus Smith

Rev. Rufus Smith IV is senior pastor of Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a large multiethnic congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, and founder of the Memphis Christian Pastors’ Network, a clergyonly network to bridge the “trust gap” between ethnically and denominationally diverse pastors. Rev. Smith has been married to Jacqueline for 34 years, and together they have three adult children.

Good Conversation Makes People Hungry for More

Researchers asked people how many conversations about faith they have had in the past year, and discovered something interesting: A higher number of faith conversations correlates with a greater level of openness to exploring faith. Those who report having no conversations about spiritual matters are far more likely to say they would choose none of the possible avenues for faith exploration, while people who have had even a single conversation are more likely to choose another option.

How People Would Like to Explore Faith by Number of Faith Conversations in the Past Year


It could be that bringing a spiritual element into secularized spaces is refreshing, giving people language to better name a struggle or experience. To use the example of meditation-turned-mindfulness, a non-Christian who senses there is something more happening when they quiet themselves may be surprised to learn there is a rich Christian tradition of meditation that names their experience in a richer and more holistic way than mere “mindfulness.” They may leave the conversation with a new level of curiosity, respect and openness—and feeling validated in their spiritual experience by a Christian.

On that point, it’s vital for Christians to remember there are two sides to every conversation. Listening to and expressing empathy for non-Christians’ experiences will help to ensure spiritual conversation has a lasting and positive impact.

Spiritual Hunger is Contagious

Spiritual hunger is not static— and Christians can help it grow. The data indicates that spiritual hunger varies among non-Christians in part depending on the Christians they know. When non-Christians have experienced vibrancy, personal care, intelligence, reasonableness and a gentle, non-judgmental approach from Christians, their spiritual curiosity overall and their interest in Christianity specifically are elevated.

This implies that spiritual hunger has a social element. We all play a part in encouraging or depressing the spiritual hunger of our neighbors.

Putting the "Good" Back in Good News

Q&A with Kevin Palau

Kevin Palau is the son of international evangelist Luis Palau. He joined the Luis Palau Association (LPA) in 1985 and began directing day-today ministry operations in the late 1990s. Under his leadership, LPA has produced some of the largest Christian events ever staged, created a worldwide network of hundreds of partner evangelists and developed new models for citywide outreach that integrate major community service initiatives with open-air evangelistic gatherings. He lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Michelle, and their three children.

Headwinds: Challenges For Evangelism

Barna highly values “seeing the whole” picture. A variety of factors has changed the landscape of evangelism, making it more complicated to share faith in Jesus with others. Here are some of the trends that constrain faith-sharing. (On the next page, you’ll find unexpected shifts that empower the possibility of effective evangelism.)

Secular Rising

The increasing secular environment includes more religiously unaffiliated adults, especially among Millennials and Gen Z. Relatedly, we see a “secularizing the sacred” trend, which means religious language and meaning are being yanked from their sacred roots and grafted onto secular pursuits.

Belief in the Self

The vast majority of adults believes you find “truth” by looking inside yourself. In other words, people are shifting from external sources of authority—such as the Bible, the truth claims of Jesus and so on—to internal sources of authority.

Stay in Your Lane

More than four out of five Americans say one shouldn’t criticize the life choices of others. So spiritual conversations—like telling someone they are in desperate, existential need of a Savior—face stiffer-than-ever social pressure not to offend.

Conversion = Extremism

In a lot of ways, attitudes toward Christianity are moving from being perceived as merely irrelevant to being viewed as extremist. For instance, three out of five adults (and 83% of non-Christians) believe trying to convert another person to their own faith is an example of religious extremism.

Bad Religion

Negative perceptions of Christianity are more entrenched in the general population— especially among non-Christians, and even more so among young non-Christians. Whether it’s science vs. faith, a badly articulated position on sexuality or fallout from sex and abuse scandals, non-Christians can take their pick of reasons to write off the faith.

Skepticism of Sincerity

In the post-truth age, people are increasingly skeptical of sincerity and of certainty. Claims of fake news, spin and gloss make it harder to communicate heart to heart. Being earnest— really, really trying to convey a message from our deepest convictions—generates suspicion and, ironically, seems to lack credibility and authenticity.

Outsourcing Evangelism

Increasing numbers of Christians believe it is the responsibility of the local church—not their own job—to do the work of faith-sharing. In other words, the heavy lifting of spiritual conversations is being outsourced.

Conversational Barriers

Evangelicals have the highest self-reported levels of conversational barriers; that is, they struggle to have natural and normal conversations with people who are very different from themselves. Christians who are committed to sharing the good news of Jesus ought to be good at these kinds of conversations.

Not-So-Great Commission?

One of Barna’s most surprising findings of recent years is the fact that 51% of Christian churchgoers say they have never heard of the concept of the Great Commission, reflecting a huge gap in awareness of one of the fundamental callings of every Christian: to make disciples.


Additional reading on these trends can be found in Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age, produced in partnership with Lutheran Hour Ministries; Translating the Great Commission, conducted in conjunction with Seed Company; and Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.

Tailwinds: Reviving Evangelism

We don’t have to like the trends, but we do have to operate faithfully within our pressurepacked environment, especially by taking advantage of good things that are happening out there. Here are trends helping Christians create what’s next when it comes to faith-sharing.

Radical Transparency

In Barna’s early years, we had to tread carefully on what we asked and how we asked it. Sexuality was off limits. Queries on religion were subject to the “halo effect,” as respondents often presented themselves as “Christian” and “religious.” No more. Those social pressures are diminishing, revealing candid talk and a radically transparent landscape.

The Search for New Models

The current climate of skepticism—even among Christians—is forcing a hard look at what it takes to be effective at sharing the good news of Jesus. False notions of evangelistic impact are coming under greater scrutiny, which seems to spur fresh consideration of new (and not so new) models of evangelism.

Cultivating a New Mentality

Bringing people to the gospel requires a new mentality on the part of evangelists: that we are guides and conduits through which a sovereign God does his work. This means we can’t assume things about what others are thinking or ram people through our well-worn frameworks.

The Digital World Opens Doors

The swift changes brought on by the screen age are changing many aspects of human experience—including how and when we talk about faith. This is opening up literal new domains of spiritual conversation.

Relearning Conversation

Speaking of . . . never has listening come at such a premium. Everybody has something to say, and the means to instantly say it to the entire world. But who is listening? Those who relearn the sacred art of give-and-take conversation will gain a hearing.

Hospitality as Generosity

It is easier than ever to connect to someone’s online profile, but that’s no match for connecting with someone. Making space for others IRL (“in real life”) is increasingly seen as radically generous and countercultural.

Belief Is Multifaceted

It seems like every week there’s a new revelation of what brain science is learning about how and why humans believe—and how and why we want to believe. Never before have we understood so much about how faith happens. Due in part to how we’re wired, sacred and spiritual experiences—not just information and explanation—are vital parts of the evangelism process.

Longing for Community

People are so isolated. Millennials often feel empty and rejected. Many seek a place to belong based on an activity (like CrossFit) or an interest (like anime). But those bonds aren’t strong enough to nurture and sustain a multifaceted human being created in God’s image.

Season of Reckoning

Long-hidden systemic sins such as racism, misogyny, sexual abuse and financial exploitation are being brought into the light, and many churches are taking meaningful (and often painful) steps to repent and to heal the wounds.

Culture at the Crossroads

In our research in Europe and elsewhere in the post-Christian West, Barna keeps finding evidence of faith that’s flourishing in unexpected places. Breakneck culture change is causing many people to reconsider life in Christ.

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