01 Sharing Faith Then & Now

Sharing Faith Then & Now


The landscape of Christian faith in America has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. Most people have at least heard mention of the rising percentage of “nones”—those who do not identify with any religious faith—especially in the Millennial generation and younger. Religious identity is undergoing a massive, culture-wide shift.

Even more than shifting religious identity, engagement in faith practices has changed. For example, in 1993, more than two-thirds of U.S. self-identified Christians reported attending a church worship service within the past week (68%). Today, just 40 percent of Christians say they went to church last Sunday. So even among adults who still check the “Christian” box, church attendance is becoming more rare.

Ideas and practices surrounding evangelism—Christians sharing the gospel of Christ with non-Christians—have likewise changed. A growing number of Christians don’t see sharing the good news as a personal responsibility.

As the chart shows, just 10 percent of Christians in 1993 who had shared about their faith agreed with the statement “converting people to Christianity is the job of the local church”—as opposed to the job of an individual (i.e., themselves). Twenty-five years later, three in 10 Christians who have had a conversation about faith say evangelism is the local church’s responsibility (29%), a nearly threefold increase. This jump could be the result of many factors, including poor ecclesiology (believing “the local church” is somehow separate from the people who are a part of it), personal and cultural barriers to sharing faith (explored at length in the next chapter) and insufficient training. In fact, with regard to training, the percentage of Christians who say their church does a good job in this area has declined significantly since 1993: Three-quarters said so then (77%), compared to fewer than six in 10 now (57%).

Yet the most dramatic divergence over time is on the statement, “Every Christian has a responsibility to share their faith.” In 1993, nine out of 10 Christians who had shared their faith agreed (89%). Today, just two-thirds say so (64%)—a 25-point drop.

Millennial (65%) and Gen X (67%) Christians are most likely to agree that sharing one’s faith is every Christ-follower’s responsibility, compared to Boomers (60%) and Elders (55%). Likewise, younger Christians are more likely to agree they have a personal responsibility to share their faith. Some may find these data points hard to believe at first glance, since young adults dropping out of church and even faith is a well-documented trend. But Barna’s findings on generational faith-sharing have been consistent over the past several years: In 2013, in fact, analysts published an online article that asserts, “For Millennials, the practice of evangelism is notably on the rise.”1

It is both true that many Christian young adults drop out of church involvement and true that those who remain tend to be especially passionate about and tenacious in their faith. The percentage of Millennial Christians is lower than among other generations—yet they are passionate and committed.

Conversation Starters

Barna’s 1993 research on evangelism was, in many respects, quite specific. Researchers asked people whether, in the past year, they had explained “your religious beliefs to someone who you felt had different beliefs, in the hope that they might accept Jesus as their savior.” If they answered yes, the survey continued—so only those who had directly engaged in Christian evangelism were interviewed.

At the outset of the new research on which this report is based, Barna and Lutheran Hour Ministries wanted to widen the lens in order to get a broader, fuller picture of spiritual conversations overall. Researchers asked U.S. adults how often they have had “a conversation about your faith (or lack of faith) with anyone in the past year.” These conversations may not necessarily have involved an intention to persuade someone to convert. Nearly half of all Americans say they have had from zero to two such conversations in the past year (45%); one-third says between three and nine (33%); and 23 percent say they have been part of 10 or more faith conversations in the past 12 months.

Let’s zero in on self-identified Christians. At the polar extremes, one in 11 reports zero spiritual conversations in the past year, while one in 10 says they have had 50 or more (that’s nearly one per week).

In order to understand what, if anything, distinguishes Christians who talk often about faith from those who don’t, researchers created two categories: eager conversationalists (who have had 10 or more spiritual conversations in the past year) and reluctant conversationalists (nine or fewer spiritual conversations). One-quarter of Christians is eager (27%) while the other three out of four are reluctant (74%).

It’s true that Christians are not the only people in America talking about faith—but interest overall appears to be low. One in five adherents to a religion other than Christianity says they have had 10 or more spiritual conversations in the past year (21%), and one in 10 atheists, agnostics or “nones”—the religiously unaffiliated (10%)—says the same. All together, about one in eight non-Christians appears eager to talk about their faith or lack thereof (12%).

What & When They Share

From 1993 to today, the content and approaches of faith conversations have also changed. Given the popularity of evangelism “programs” or “strategies” in decades past, analysts were somewhat surprised that Christians today who have talked about their faith are more likely than those in 1993 to say they use the same basic approach and content each time they engage in a conversation about faith (44% vs. 33%).

The most common approaches, a majority says, are asking questions about the other person’s beliefs and experiences (70%) and sharing their faith in the way they live rather than by speaking about it (65%). These were common among Christians in 1993 as well, as the chart shows, but a majority of Christians 25 years ago also reported emphasizing the beneficial aspects of accepting Jesus (78%)—a strategy that today is less common (50%). Also less popular now compared to then is quoting passages from the Bible (59% in 1993 vs. 37% today) and challenging the other person to defend their beliefs (43% vs. 24%).

When it comes to sharing his faith through the way he lives his life, one Christian expressed the idea this way in answer to an open-ended question: “I try to live my faith in my everyday dealings with people and in my conversations—not by standing on a street corner and preaching, or going door to door and bothering people.”

A woman testified to the importance of prayer to her spiritual conversations: “My faith continues to grow as I am tested and becoming more like Jesus. He gives me a love for people, and I pray for opportunity to share this good news with people I meet along the way.”

She is not alone in actively looking for opportunities to share her faith. Most conversations today (61%), as in 1993 (75%), happen unexpectedly. Yet compared to 25 years ago, Christians today are more likely to say they are proactive about looking for or trying to create faith-sharing opportunities with non-Christians (19% vs. 11% in 1993).

Eager conversationalists are, not surprisingly, more likely than reluctant conversationalists to actively seek sharing opportunities. One-quarter says they are often on the lookout for chances to talk about their faith (27%), compared to just 15 percent of those who share infrequently.

Barriers to Faith-Sharing

Christians today, more than 25 years ago, perceive social barriers to sharing their faith. They are more likely to agree that faith-sharing is only effective when they already have a relationship with the other person (47% vs. 37% in 1993), and to admit they would avoid a spiritual conversation if they knew their non-Christian friend would reject them (44% vs. 33%). They are also more likely than Christians in 1993 to say they are unsure whether “most non-Christians have no interest in hearing about Jesus” (28% vs. 5%).

Christians today are not wrong in perceiving increased social risks.

In his book Good Faith, Barna president David Kinnaman dives deep into the shifting cultural currents surrounding people of faith and perceptions of how they practice their religious convictions. Research for that book found that a startling six in 10 Americans believe that any “attempt to convert others” to one’s own faith is “extreme.” More than eight out of 10 “nones” say so! To be clear: A majority of U.S. adults, and the vast majority of non-religious adults (83%), believe that evangelism is religiously extreme.2

This is the social backdrop against which U.S. adults judge when it is acceptable to have a conversation about a particular topic. In order to understand whether it’s only religious topics on which Americans are reluctant to share their opinions, Barna also asked about a variety of other topics people engage in conversations about—ranging from the rather banal (parenting, health) to the controversial (politics, LBGTQ issues). Researchers asked if there are conditions that might make a conversation about these topics and issues unacceptable. Non-Christians tend to have more of a “buyer beware” stance when it comes to religion compared to the other topics. They are more likely to say talking about one’s religious beliefs is “always unacceptable” (7%) than to say so about health (1%) or LGBTQ issues (4%). On the flip side, practicing Christians are twice as likely as non-Christians to say there is never a time when sharing religious beliefs should be off the table— that is, spiritual conversations are always acceptable (26% vs. 12% nonChristians). On the other topics, however, practicing Christians tend to be more reticent than non-Christians: 11 percent say it is “always unacceptable” to share views on LGBTQ issues and 5 percent say so about health.

Q&A with Anthony Cook

Executive Director of United States Ministries for Lutheran Hour Ministries

Rev. Dr. Anthony Cook is Executive Director of United States Ministries for Lutheran Hour Ministries. He has served as a parish pastor and advised numerous organizations on curriculum design and development, distance learning, internet technologies and sharing the gospel through various forms of multimedia. Tony served as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, specializing in education, pastoral theology plus leadership and postmodern studies, including courses on preaching to postmoderns, post-liberal theology and emerging Christianity. He also served as Concordia Seminary’s Director of Curriculum Design and Development.

When it comes to specific conditions that make talking about delicate subjects unacceptable, non-Christians are again more cautious about religion than about the other topics. Six out of 10 say a person must not share if their religious beliefs are “disrespectful or judgmental” (61%), compared to just over half who say so about health topics (53%). Beliefs perceived as disrespectful or judgmental are the top reason sharing would be uncalled for on all three potentially hot topics: About half of all adults agree (46% health, 45% LGBTQ issues, 48% religion). This is the case for all faith categories, including Christians, but they are less likely than non-Christians to say so. (It is unclear who would have final say on whether a belief is disrespectful or judgmental, but most people agree that disrespect or judgment is a deal-breaker.)

Practicing Christians seem to be more concerned than other groups about what’s going on inside the person who is sharing; 41 percent say talking about faith in anger makes sharing unacceptable. On the other hand, one practicing Christian in qualitative research explained that, in her view, it is not acceptable to share about faith “when [the other person is] not ready to hear it; when talking about faith will only antagonize and harden someone’s thoughts against God.”

This group has to live in a tension not often felt by others: between Jesus’ commands to tell others the good news and growing cultural taboos against proselytizing. Evangelism has been a core part of Christianity from its origins and, many practicing Christians believe, is essential for the salvation of their listeners. But if your listeners just don’t want to hear? That is a difficult—but not impossible!—barrier to surmount.

Now that we have a lay of the spiritual-conversation landscape, let’s look more deeply at the media people use to talk about faith, especially online and through mobile devices—because, of the many things that have changed since 1993, how we communicate and connect with each other may be the most significant.

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