04 What’s Next for Evangelism?

What's Next for Evangelism?


What’s Next For Evangelism

By David Kinnaman
With contributions from Aly Hawkins, Paul Pastor and Brooke Hempell

I recently took my 14-year-old son to a speech and debate tournament. Listening to his debate coach, the procedures, policies and point system of the tournament—as time-tested and effective as they may be—struck me as anachronistic to the experiential, visual, digital, feelings-based world of Gen Z. As I drove a minivan full of teenagers homeward, I found myself wondering how a speech and debate program might be built from the ground up for today’s requirements—for effective rhetoric and persuasion in digital Babylon. What does the art of persuasion look like today? What elements of persuasive activity can be considered timeless and what might need to be reimagined, reinvented and revived?

Let these questions serve as a backdrop as we consider evangelism. In evaluating the findings from this study, here are four realities to consider—four realities that, if we want to work toward a new gospel movement in our day, we must honestly grapple with.

We Need Deeper Convictions

Human nature, both beautiful and broken. God’s nature, both loving and holy. Our need for Jesus to save each of us from sin. These things never change, and this study highlights the Christian community’s profound need to bolster our confidence that they matter as much today—in our materialistic, accelerated, frenetic, experienceand emotion-driven society—as ever. Among the convictions that require our recommitment is this: Evangelizing others is good and worthy of our time, energy and investment.

To start, we must pass on resilient faith to Christian young people (this is also a form of evangelism), planning especially for the pivot point of the high school and college-age years. The dropout problem is real, and it has a chilling effect on the overall evangelistic environment. It is impossible to exactly trace the impact of lapsed Christians on non-Christians, but sobering to consider the “de-evangelistic” clout of those who leave the faith. Our team at Barna has been documenting and trying to understand the dropout problem for more than a decade, and we become more convinced every day that faith for the next generation must be among the Church’s top priorities.

Even after they are committed to sustaining resilient faith, we must persuade (one might even say “evangelize”) younger Christians that evangelism is an essential practice of following Jesus. The data show enormous ambivalence among Millennials, in particular, about the calling to share their faith with others. On one hand, nearly all practicing Christians in this age cohort are fervent in their faith and believe knowing Jesus is vital. But on the other, nearly half view the act of evangelism—sharing about their faith in the hope that another person will come to know Christ—as morally wrong.

Cultivating deep, steady, resilient Christian conviction is difficult in a world of “you do you” and “don’t criticize anyone’s life choices” and emotivism, the feelings-first priority that our culture makes a way of life. As much as ever, evangelism isn’t just about saving the unsaved, but reminding ourselves that this stuff matters, that the Bible is trustworthy and that Jesus changes everything.

We’re Evangelizing in the Age of Algorithms

Being tethered to these convictions is critical because Christianity is competing today in the age of algorithms, where technology and entertainment create the rituals, experiences and conversions of our day—a concept we call digital Babylon. When algorithms predict who we want to know based on who we already know, there is no substitute for the gospel power of mutuality and faithfulness in relationships. The everyday work of knowing and allowing ourselves to be known by others is, in these Instagram-filtered days, countercultural. Evangelism can thrive in the Screen Age by focusing on hospitality, conversation and discernment.

In a study on habits and attitudes related to generosity, Barna found that Millennials, more than older generations, highly prize hospitality. To make space for others, to welcome them into your life, is understood by many young adults to be the very definition of generous. Increasing isolation and digital exhaustion prompt their strong cravings for analog relationships and warm human connection.

However, hospitality and conversation are not easy. As I’ve documented in Good Faith, evangelicals report high levels of discomfort and suspicion when it comes to outsiders. Here’s the unvarnished truth: If “evangelicals” want to live up to the name, that posture won’t help. Evangelism is quintessentially relational, a fundamental act of vulnerability and radical openness.

By anchoring to the unchanging truths of scripture and the reality of God, and patiently cultivating relationships of welcome and generosity, we can lean together into realities that do change. That’s the practice of cultural discernment. And make no mistake: The layers of change are exponential, orthogonal, unpredictable, complex. The world today is different from the one in which our institutional ways of doing evangelism were born. It is changed, and it continues to change.

That there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9) and that God is doing a new thing (Is. 43:19) are both true, at the same time. The best way to live together by the sacred rhythms of God is to acknowledge and respond to both sides of the unchanging-changing reality of God’s work in the world.

One way to understand what’s changing is to be perpetual learners. Stay interested. Stay engaged. See the whole. Cultural discernment is one of the ways we can begin to revive evangelism.

For example, what are the evangelistic implications of understanding the “disenchanted world” of today’s society, where most people live as if there is no supernatural reality or transcendent purpose for human life?* Or what about the fact that we live in a distracted age? It’s not just about people having countless and increasing options for ways to spend their time; more deeply, it’s about changes in what interests and intrigues human beings. If people are more bored than ever (in church and elsewhere), making church more entertaining will not close the attention gap. Wise cultural discernment leads us to slow down, to dig beneath the surface of trends and to connect with hearts and minds, exercising patience as we rethink what it takes to be persuasive.

Having a clear understanding of our particular cultural moment helps us to become more effective evangelists—not because we get more clever and strategic but, rather that, in telling others about Jesus, we become more reliant on the God who doesn’t change but is always up to new things. Aslan is on the move. And we get the privilege of following where he leads.

Here’s one comparison of the past with the current cultural moment. In the past:

  • Society was less respectful of the individual, even dehumanizing, treating people as expendable. The gospel response was, “Society may not value you, but God does.”
  • Personal morality was a virtue and people experienced guilt due to moral failures. The gospel response was, “Jesus covers your guilt.”
  • People’s needs were great; government provisions were minimal. The gospel response was to care for the needy through generosity and, in that way, gain a hearing for God’s good news.

In the post-Christian culture of today:

  • More than ever, society works to uphold human dignity, providing protection for individuals. (Ironically, the Christian community’s response is often to focus on whether our own rights are upheld.)
  • Citizens of the nation hold fewer moral values in common; social shame is often reserved for beliefs and behaviors that, not very long ago, were considered morally good. Some Christians’ response is to shame the shamers; others just try to keep their heads down.
  • Society values generosity and charity; governments provide a more robust safety net. Many churches still meet the needs of marginalized people, but struggle against perceptions that they have ulterior motives.

And yet . . . people’s need for Jesus hasn’t changed. Many people today are missing a sense of purpose and meaning. People are asking deep questions of identity. Who am I? What does it mean to be human? Reviving evangelism will require a gospel response to these kinds of questions.

Our message of new life in Christ must connect to the inner yearnings for abundance, forgiveness, purpose, meaning, relationship and so on. That connection is where the best questions are asked, and where the truest answers are found. If we hope to share the good news in such a way that people can actually receive it, we must have a gospel response to what’s happening now.

Here’s another way to think of it: Cultural discernment is a new apologetics. We learn to connect Jesus to the reality of life today. This is not only being “trend wise,” but also being soft and sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who forms our efforts to know the times and gives us ears to hear what the Lord is saying.

Becoming radically relational, culturally discerning learners will equip us to swim against the all-pervasive algorithmic current.


* Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, for example, has provided helpful grounding for Barna’s research, allowing us to explore concepts like the new moral code and the centrality of self. James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular is a great primer on Taylor. Other helpful books include Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble and Strange Days by Mark Sayers.

We Must Get Better at Conversation

No longer can we assume there are just a few loose informational threads to tie up before people trust Jesus. Many Americans— especially young adults and teens—do not have a basic grasp on biblical themes, share a Christian worldview or retain even a rudimentary mental sketch of the gospel. On top of that, in these “post-truth” and “fake news” times, they don’t know who to trust.

As the data show, some of us tend to underestimate the part that evidence plays in the minds of non-Christians who might consider following Christ. The word itself may conjure up images of textbook apologetics resources, but before we make assumptions about what all non-Christians need to know, let’s engage individual people. Rather than preparing hyperlinked answers to “frequently asked questions,” let’s find out what kind of evidence the person in front of us would find compelling. What does he or she mean by “evidence”? Have they gone looking for it and come up empty? What assumptions are behind their desire for it? What need would “evidence” satisfy in their spiritual lives?

Here’s an example. “Were Adam and Eve real people?” is an interesting question that is worthy of a good answer. But is there a more profound and consequential question that lies behind my friend asking it? Rather than assuming all they are looking for is “evidence,” I could try to find out if there is a deeper question the person wants to ask—maybe about the Creator’s intentions for humanity or his purpose for their own life. These are gospel questions, and asking them leads to the true Answer.

If we took time to listen, to get clear on the unanswered spiritual questions that our neighbors, friends, colleagues and fellow speech and debate parents are carrying around—how would our evangelism efforts change? At the very least, we’d become better listeners and more convinced that talking about Jesus is worthy of inclusion in our everyday conversations with others.

Christianity Is True and Good

More than ever, we’re convinced that people don’t just need to be convinced that Christianity is true, but also that it’s good—good for their own lives in the real world; good for their neighbors; good for society. Faith-sharing takes place within a specific social and spiritual ecosystem. Like it or not, Christianity’s overall reputation in our wider culture intersects with our local and personal efforts to live and share the gospel. This was as true in the first century as it is today. The disruptive ethic of the Jesus community—proclaiming “Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not),” teaching slave owners to treat their slaves as brothers, and so on—gave Christianity a reputation that was the backdrop of all their evangelistic encounters.

Especially in a 24-hour media context where the words and actions of well-known Christians are seen and heard at all hours of the day, it is naïve to think evangelism happens in a vacuum. In this sense, Christians are not the ones doing the witnessing; everyone else is. And many today don’t like what they see.

It’s genuinely great that most lapsed Christians and non-Christians like and respect the Christians they personally know. But it doesn’t change the fact that many don’t feel the same way about “Christianity” as a part of their everyday reality—and we need to be culturally savvy enough to recognize and admit it. Everything Christians do is evangelism or de-vangelism.

Somehow we must live in the tension between reconciling ourselves with our poor reputation and trying to change it. On one hand, there’s not a lot any one of us can do to change an entire culture’s perceptions; yet the Great Commission remains. We don’t get a pass on proclaiming Jesus just because some brothers and sisters make it trickier for the rest of us. It is what it is.

On the other hand, we must set and keep high standards for our families, our churches and ourselves. Integrity is nonnegotiable. The way we repair our collective reputation is by being and doing good, faithfully and over the long term. We know Christianity is true; we must show that it is good. To be clear, we don’t earn God’s favor or our salvation through good works—grace abounds. Yet our faith in Jesus means we also believe God created us to do good works, bringing glory to God in the process (see Eph. 2:8–10).

Many Christians already take this effort to heart. Against the grain of popular sentiment, our team keeps uncovering evidence that many Christ-followers are a force for good in the world. In just the past year, we’ve found signs in the realms of work, relationships and caring for marginalized and underserved people. For example, three-quarters of practicing Christians strongly agree that “I want to use my gifts and talents for the of good others”; nine out of 10 say it’s important to them that their work “contributes to the greater good of society / the world.”(11) In a study of poverty activists, we found that self-identified Christians are more likely to report donating money to charity, to feel personally responsible to end poverty and to make significant consumer lifestyle changes to fight poverty.(12) Among those who regularly attend church, the percentages are even higher.

And in new research among 18- to 29-year-olds, we discovered that highly engaged Christians consistently report greater relational connectedness and satisfaction than non-Christians, and express greater interest in talking with and getting to know people who are different from them.(13) When screens and social media so often isolate young people, this finding also demonstrates that Christianity is good.

Finally, Christians can be people of both truth and goodness by practicing extraordinary prayer. We can revive evangelism only to the extent that we locate ourselves in God’s plans and God’s reality, through a discipline of prayer.

Take time to pray.

Pray for nonbelievers.

Intercede for the next generation of Christians.

Ask God to show you his heart for the world and for those who do not yet know him. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, keep living Christ’s kingdom where you are (even at a speech and debate tournament)—and inviting others to join you.

Previous Section

Fertile Soil

Read Section
Next Section

Appendix A - Notes

Read Section