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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.