BY KURT S. BUCHHOLZ
President & CEO of Lutheran Hour Ministries
In the Western world our congregations are shrinking. It’s a reality that’s hard to deny when we sit in the pews on Sunday morning. Month by month, the list of fellow believers who have gone on to heaven continues to exceed the list of new believers baptized. When you look around on a given Sunday and see fewer and fewer people, it can be easy to panic.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that churchgoing families are having fewer children than previous generations—but that’s not the only reason for the decline, and it’s not the one that keeps me up at night. The more alarming problem is this: Fewer adults are being brought into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. As the president of Lutheran Hour Ministries, a ministry that exists to empower and embolden lay people for outreach, I feel particular anxiety over that point. If adults aren’t being brought into the Church, it stands to reason that our regular methods of evangelism simply aren’t working like they once did. If something has changed in our culture, shouldn’t our outreach strategies change, too? If Lutheran Hour Ministries exists to embolden God’s people to share his love, what do we need to do differently?
These are big questions that require big answers. In 1993, we partnered with Barna to research reasons people did and did not engage in intentional outreach. That data is an excellent resource—but a lot has changed in our culture since that initial study, especially in the area of technology. Digital avenues have opened up to reach and engage more people than ever before, and at a fraction of the cost. But how can the Church best use these new platforms to reach the lost? In order to answer this question, we realized it was time for more research. We needed honest answers about why people in our digital age are or are not sharing their faith, and to understand how we can help them share their faith more fruitfully in our new digital landscape.
In David Kinnaman and his Barna colleagues, we again found the right partner for finding up-to-date, real-world, research-based answers to our questions. Many of the findings from this first year of research confirm hypotheses we had formed based on trends we had nervously observed—but the findings also give us a lot to get excited about. Here are a few examples:
Many of today’s younger Christians feel a strong personal responsibility to share their faith.
Christians are having more and more faith conversations through social media and other digital avenues.
An increasing number of Christians say they are most comfortable sharing their faith within the warmth of friendship using genuine conversation and dialogue.
Most encouraging, people who share their faith these days typically feel joy and are energized to share even more. Outreach begets outreach, even in our changing times.
Taken in the aggregate, the potential these findings reveal is good news for the cause of the gospel in our day.
Last year I traveled to one of Lutheran Hour Ministries’ overseas ministry centers and witnessed the baptism of 36 people, both adults and children. These baptisms took place under a mango tree in a Kenyan village, the spot where the local church holds its worship services. As the congregation danced and sang in celebration, I realized that these 36 new Christians weren’t introduced to Christ by a grandiose structure or alone hard-working pastor. No, it was lay members of their community, reaching out to their neighbors in love, who shared the gospel with them.
The research you’re about to read demonstrates that in North America, we’ve got a bit of an uphill battle to get to that point—but also that it is possible. If we can learn how to plant the gospel seed effectively in our new digital world, we may not be so far from celebrating our own influx of new Christian brothers and sisters on a Sunday morning.
At Lutheran Hour Ministries, we are committed to doing just that. I invite you to read on and join us on this mission.
BY ROXANNE STONE
Editor in Chief of Barna Group
When was the last time you had a conversation about God?
Because you are reading this book, I’m going to guess it was fairly recently. Maybe even today. If so, you are among a very small percentage of Americans. Fewer than one in 10 talks about God, faith, religion or spirituality even once a week (8%)—and only an additional 15 percent do so once a month. In fact, the average adult says they only have about one spiritual conversation a year.
Okay, you say, that’s low . . . but that’s among all Americans. What about among Christians? Surely the people of God are talking about faith regularly?
The answer, unfortunately, and surprisingly, is not really. Three-quarters of self-identified U.S. Christians are what we call reluctant conversationalists (more on this group throughout the book): They are having fewer than 10 spiritual conversations a year. In other words, for most Christians in the U.S., topics of faith come up less than once a month.
As spiritual leaders and practitioners, whose job it is to think and talk
about matters of faith, it’s easy to imagine everyone is regularly doing the same. After all, aren’t these the big questions of life? Don’t these topics matter more than anything else?
The truth is, most Christians are busy with other things: the day-to-day of normal life—jobs, kids, budgets, sports, weather and what’s premiering on Netflix this week. None of this is bad, but the unfortunate reality is that most adults don’t seem to connect their everyday experiences with their faith. Or, at least, they aren’t talking about it if they do.
This stands in direct contrast to the vision Paul offers Christians in his epistle to the Romans:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” (Romans 12:1–2, MSG)
So what’s happening here? Why are Christians so reluctant to talk about their faith?
Based on Barna’s extensive research on faith and religion over the past three-plus decades, we can identify some overarching cultural trends that are undoubtedly contributing to a society that is less interested in religion and that has marginalized the place of spirituality in everyday life.
It may come as no surprise that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible reading have been dropping for decades. Consequently, the role of religion in public life has been slowly diminishing, and Christianity no longer functions with the cultural authority it held in times past. These are unique days for the Church in North America as it learns what it means to flourish in a new post-Christian era.
Barna has developed a metric to measure the changing religious landscape of the broader culture. We call this the “post-Christian metric.” To qualify as post-Christian, individuals must meet 9 or more of 16 criteria, which identify a lack of Christian identity, belief and practice. These factors include whether individuals identify as atheist, have never made a commitment to Jesus, have not attended church in the last year and have not read the Bible in the last week.
These kinds of questions—compared to checking the “Christian” box in a census or survey—get beyond how people loosely identify themselves (affiliation) to the core of what they actually believe and how they behave as a result of their beliefs (practice). Asking these questions gives us a much fuller picture of belief and unbelief in America.
Over recent years we’ve seen the percentage of Americans who qualify as post-Christian steadily rise: from 37 percent of U.S. adults in 2013 to 44 percent in 2018.
This rise in secularism, coupled with growing skepticism toward the Bible and Christianity creates a cultural climate in which talk of spiritual or religious matters becomes less pertinent and less comfortable. In such a society, public and private life are inevitably less affected by and less tinted with thoughts of God and the implications of faith.
“You do you.” It’s a common enough phrase these days, and it neatly sums up one of the more pervasive ideas of this second decade in the 21st century: Who am I to judge what you do with your life? It’s a sentiment rooted in both individuality and relativism. America has long celebrated the sovereignty of the individual when it comes to personal decisions and lifestyle. However, as belief in objective truth claims (outside of scientific evidence) have waned, the individual’s domain has expanded to include adjudication of moral truth as well. A few examples from recent Barna studies:
Only 35% of Americans agree that moral truth is absolute (44% say it’s relative; 21% admit to never having thought about it)
91% say the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself l 79% say people can believe whatever they want, as long as those
beliefs don’t affect society
57% say whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the
only truth you can know
60% believe it is “extreme” to attempt to convert others to your faith
It is harder and harder to challenge someone’s beliefs on the basis of claims about objective truth. This makes spiritual conversations more tepid— after all, everyone can just believe whatever they want and it makes no difference, right? People are instead seeking what works for their lives, with less concern for whether these beliefs and practices are rooted in a universal truth—and whether anyone else agrees with them.
Pluralism & the Fear of Offense
Unfortunately, the message of Christianity has not always been wielded with grace. Many people know Christianity more for what it’s against than what it is for. To be against something (or someone) is frowned upon in America today, whether that’s women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriage or the efficacy of another religion.
Tolerance is the word of the day—and while tolerance is certainly a beneficial virtue in a pluralistic society where we must find a way to live alongside one another, walking the fine line between tolerance and one’s convictions is a difficult challenge for many Christians.
Indeed, you will see in the pages of this book that a fear of giving offense or being rejected is one of the primary barriers for many Christians when it comes to talking about their faith. The number-one reason they don’t have more spiritual conversations is because “religious conversations always seem to create tension or arguments.”
In surveys for Barna president David Kinnaman’s book Good Faith, practicing Christians admit that when it comes to their faith in society today, they feel misunderstood (65%), persecuted (60%), marginalized (48%), silenced (46%) and afraid to speak up (47%).
When nearly half of practicing Christians feel afraid to speak up about their faith, it is no wonder fewer and fewer are doing so.
The Digital Age
There is another major factor affecting our world today and the conversations we’re having with each other: technology. The impact of the internet, and of social media, on our daily lives cannot be overstated.
Barna and our research partner, Lutheran Hour Ministries, wanted to understand how spiritual conversations have changed as society has changed. We wanted to know: How are people talking about God in this new digital age?
In 1993 Barna conducted a study on evangelism with Lutheran Hour Ministries. We decided to replicate parts of that study to measure some of the shifts that have occurred over the past 25 years. In addition, we wanted to broaden the scope of the research beyond just evangelism to any kind of conversation about God, faith, religion or spirituality.
We designed a multi-part study that included qualitative research as well as a nationally representative quantitative survey. (For a complete research methodology, see Appendix B.) Our goal for the research, and the report you’re reading now, was to get a sense of how Americans talk with each other about matters of faith, including:
Frequency: How often do people have spiritual conversations?
Personal responsibility: Do Christians believe they are called to talk about their faith?
Technology: How has social media impacted the ways Christians share their beliefs?
Experiences: What happens when people talk about God? How do they feel when they share their beliefs? How do they feel when someone else shares their beliefs with them?
Methods: In what ways do people talk about their faith?
Who is sharing: What makes someone more likely to talk about
their beliefs with others?
In these pages, we share our findings and offer insights from our researchers, as well as from outside contributors whose expertise shine different angles of light on the challenges of having spiritual conversations in the digital age. We believe Christ’s followers have something essential and meaningful to share with their families, neighbors, friends and those they come into contact with. We want to see churches come alongside believers and empower them with confidence to talk about their faith. We want to see Christians begin to make the connections between their everyday, ordinary life—their sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life—and the faith that sustains them. And we want to them to tell others the good news of Jesus.
Let the conversation begin.