03 Spiritual Conversations From Both Sides

Spiritual Conversations From Both Sides


“The happy life is social rather than solitary and conversationally deep rather than superficial,” according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers found that people who engage in more substantive conversations report higher measures of satisfaction and well-being than those who engage more frequently in small talk.5

For his most recent book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, Barna worked with religion columnist Jonathan Merritt to interview U.S. adults for whom spiritual conversations are rare or nonexistent to find out why they don’t talk more often about faith. Nearly three in 10 say the reason is that “religious conversations always seem to create tension or arguments” (28%).6 (For more on people’s reasons for not engaging in spiritual conversations, see pp. 53–55.)

This finding helps to explain why most people would choose to have a spiritual conversation with someone close to them: It just feels less risky to have a substantive, meaningful exchange on a tricky topic with someone you already know—and who already knows you.

Regardless of how they prioritize faith, most U.S. adults, Christian or not, prefer to talk about spiritual matters with close friends or family members rather than strangers or mere acquaintances. With the option to pick up to three people from a list of possibilities, a majority of practicing Christians (61%), non-practicing Christians (55%) and non-Christians (55%) choose “a friend” as the person they most want to talk with about faith.

Opting for “no one” on the list are one in five non-Christians (19%) and 7 percent of non-practicing Christians. One-third or more of those who practice Christianity, on the other hand, say they like talking with their children (35%) or their spouse (44%) about faith, and one-quarter likes to talk with a pastor (26%) or their mother (23%).

Life stage has at least some impact here. For instance, Gen X and Boomers are much more likely than younger adults to choose their spouse (38% vs. 28% Millennials) or children (35% vs. 16%) in large part because they are much more likely to be married and to have kids. More young adults, on the other hand, choose “significant other” (23% vs. 11% older adults) because they are more inclined to be dating or cohabitating.

Fewer father on the list, though Christians are twice as likely as non-Christians to do so (10% vs. 5%). Millennials, as the youngest adult generation, are therefore likelier than older adults to talk with either parent about faith—and more pick mom (35%) than choose dad (19%). At the same time, women across the board are more likely than men to choose “my children” (37% vs. 24%)—evidence that parent-child faith conversations are more often actually mother-child faith conversations. It also points to a reason adults are less apt to want to talk with their dad about faith: because fathers are less likely than mothers to have engaged with them on spiritual matters when they were young.

These data reaffirm the need for churches to reach out specifically to men (who are less likely than women to attend church) and equip them with tools for talking about spiritual matters. As Barna found in new research among Gen Z, fathers play a key role in passing resilient faith on to their children; teens with parents who are engaged in Christian faith and practice are far more likely than other Christian young people to stay engaged in faith and practice.

Eager conversationalists are an exception—they are comparatively enthusiastic about talking faith with their kids (42%), even more than practicing Christians (35%) and much more than reluctant conversationalists (30%).

Conversations that Change Lives

The goal of a spiritual conversation is not merely to pass on information or opinion but, hopefully, to transform lives. Is that what’s happening? Are people having spiritual conversations that lead to lasting change? Many people are!

Given that the majority of Americans are having so few spiritual conversations, it may come as a surprise that a full one-third of all U.S. adults says they personally have made a “big change” in their life because of a conversation about faith (35%). Not surprisingly, Christians (41%) are more likely than non-Christians (17%) to say they have had a life-changing conversation.

As you might expect, these conversations are not coming out of the blue but are happening most often with people they know. Nine out of 10 of those who had a life-changing conversation say they had it with someone they know well (31%) or very well (57%). Again, this points to the profound influence we all have on those who are closest to us. There is much to be gained from pushing past our comfort zones with friends and family and bringing up the bigger issues of faith, God and the transcendent.

Of course, spiritual conversations are not always immediately fruitful. People often need to be exposed to ideas more than once before they begin to take root. Seven out of 10 people say their life change was actually a result of multiple conversations, either with just one person (42%) or with more than one person (27%).

How were those conversations conducted? In a variety of ways—but, again, in-person interactions top the list. Phone calls rank second place for all generations, but they are particularly common among Gen X. Millennials and Gen X are more likely than Boomers to use texting, instant messaging, video calling and emailing. These choices of media reflect the types of communication they are using more generally: Older generations are making more phone calls, younger generations are texting and tend to be more comfortable overall with digital communication. The larger point here is that these conversations can happen anywhere, on whatever form of communication one regularly uses. However, in-person conversations remain the most fruitful. Perhaps digital communications can serve as follow-up methods, after an in-person interaction, to help aid in the “multiple conversations” most people need in order to enact life change.

When it comes to the biggest life change of all, more than one-third of self-identified Christians says someone has come to believe in Jesus as Savior after they shared about their faith in him. As one might predict, eager

conversationalists, who shared their faith 10 or more times last year, are much more liable than those who share less often to say they have led someone to the Lord (47% vs. 34% reluctant). Perhaps less predictable is the fact that younger Christians are more likely than Boomers to say a conversation partner has committed their life to Christ after their talk about faith. Surprising as that may be, this finding squares with what younger and middle-aged Christians say about their responsibility to evangelize, which we touched on in chapter 1: Younger believers are more likely than their older sisters and brothers to agree that they personally have a responsibility to share their faith.

The Back & Forth of Sharing Faith

Barna asked U.S. adults who have had a spiritual conversation with someone who does not share their faith to recall details about that exchange. Researchers wanted to find out what, if anything, good conversations share in common. What is a good spiritual conversation? And who decides?

People can only fairly represent their own side of the conversation, but their individual experiences can nonetheless reveal differences between how various groups of people tend to approach and perceive the actual process of faith-sharing. For example, since most people express a preference for talking with a friend or family member about spiritual matters, we would expect that most would know the person with whom they had their latest spiritual conversation—and, in fact, eight out of 10 U.S. adults report knowing their conversation partner well (36%) or very well (42%).

There are differences, however, between Christians who share often, Christians who share infrequently and non-Christians—and between Christians of different generations. For example, compared to younger adults, more Boomers did not know their last spiritual conversation partner (24% vs. 16%). There’s a reality here that’s important to point out: Simply put, younger Christians are more likely to know (and be friends with) non-Christians. Whereas Boomer Christians are more likely to go outside their close friend group to find non-Christians, Millennial Christians are often surrounded by nonbelievers—because fewer Millennials overall identify as Christian.

Likewise, eager conversationalists are more likely not to have known the last person with whom they shared faith (22%) compared to 15 percent of reluctant conversationalists. On the other hand, eager conversationalists are also more willing and, well, eager to share their Christian faith with strangers or distant acquaintances. This may partly explain why eager conversationalists seem alert to cultural differences between their conversation partner and themselves—along with Millennials, who are a more diverse generation than older adults. These two groups of Christians are most likely to feel culturally different from their conversation partner, while Boomers are least likely (11% vs. 35% Millennials, 28% eager conversationalists). For Millennials this is partly a consequence of the more diverse cultural makeup of their generation. For eager conversationalists, this may reflect a priority on reaching across cultural divides to share the gospel.

Most Christians have faith discussions with people similar to them in age and cultural perspective—for example, fewer than half of Millennials say they talked with someone 10 or more years older (33%) or younger (15%). As we would expect, when it comes to those who did talk with someone from a different generation, younger adults are more likely to report a faith conversation with an older adult, and vice versa. (And, since non-Christians tend to skew younger, they talk more often with adults significantly older than younger—because there are just more older adults in the pool of potential conversationalists.)

Eager conversationalists are the exception to the “similar-to-me” rule: Six out of 10 report their conversation partner was either 10 years older (28%) or younger (31%) than themselves.

Q&A with Jefferson Bethke

New York Times bestselling author of Jesus > Religion

Jefferson Bethke is the New York Times bestselling author of Jesus > Religion and It’s Not What You Think, and coauthor with his wife, Alyssa, of Love That Lasts. Together they make YouTube videos and host a podcast about relationships and faith. They live in Maui with their daughter, Kinsley, and son, Kannon.

Much of this points to a general lack of conversation and relationship between generations. In another Barna study, nearly seven in 10 among each generation said their close friends are mostly similar to them in life stage. The Church is one of few remaining modern institutions with the capacity and opportunity to create enriching relationships between members of different generations.

So what do most spiritual conversations have in common? Laughter, for one thing! A majority of all U.S. adults who engaged in a faith conversation says they laughed with their conversation partner (58%). Questions are also a common component: Most Christians (59%) and a plurality of non-Christians (46%; 16% don’t know) say the other person asked questions during

their conversation—and they were questions most respondents felt equipped to answer.

Further reflecting on the experience, however, some people don’t feel wholly positive. Younger Christians are more likely than older ones to report some negative experiences in their conversations. Eager conversationalists, especially, say their conversation partner stirred up conflict. (In fact all Christians are more likely to say the other person instigated conflict than to say they did so themselves, indicating they have a tendency to see the other as aggressive.)

There are probably a few things going on here. Eager conversationalists (and young Christians) are the groups most likely to have spiritual conversations in the first place. As a result, they are probably having more of a variety of conversations, both positive and negative. Eager conversationalists, in turn, seem to be less put off by the negative aspects of these conversations— or, at least, negative conversations do not appear to dampen their enthusiasm for having more of them.

Yet these negative factors do not guarantee a bad outcome. Reflecting on their most recent conversation about faith, nearly three-quarters of all U.S. adults say they are glad about having had the discussion (72%)—but those who are not glad tend to be non-Christians (14% vs. 5% self-identified Christians). A mellow conversation, in which there is little or no conflict or unpleasant feelings, is not necessarily a conversation. In fact, when analyzing what makes a person likely to be glad about having had the conversation— accounting for conflict, respect, laughing together, how well they knew the conversation partner, whether they felt unable to answer a question, age gaps, and whether the other person asked questions—researchers found that conflict does not play a significant role in how people feel after the conversation.

Accounting for all of the various factors included in this study, those most likely to be happy with their conversation are eager conversationalists who knew their conversation partner very well—highlighting both their confidence in the subject matter and comfort in the relationship.

Faith-Sharing & Feelings

“I almost never speak of my faith but when I do it feels wonderful!” wrote one Christian woman in answer to an open-ended question. Many other Christians experience similarly positive emotions, including peace (71%), joy (55%) and even exhilaration (19%). These feelings are especially concentrated among eager conversationalists, who share their faith often, but less so among those who share infrequently. Most eager conversationalists genuinely enjoy talking with others about their faith—and the fact that they are just as likely to experience negative feelings indicates that many of them are willing to push through their own discomfort in order to engage.

The experience seems to be different for non-Christians, however. A plurality reports feeling peace (40%), but the second most common emotion after a spiritual conversation is annoyance (27%). In fact, they are more likely than Christians to report feeling both annoyance and anger. This makes sense: Non-Christians do not spend comparable energy thinking about religion or

faith and are thus less likely to be comfortable or happy to delve into these topics of conversation. And, for some non-Christians—especially established atheists or agnostics—such conversations may open old wounds or stir up antagonism around a topic they have already decided on. Christians, then, must enter into such conversations with gentleness and grace. And, as frequently seen in this report, such conversations seem to be most effective when both parties know each other well.

Of course, a true spiritual conversation will not always (or even often) be fully positive. These conversations touch on some of the deepest anxieties and questions people wrestle with; they will inevitably stir up tension of some kind. One takeaway for spiritual leaders here is the need to train and empower Christians in navigating tense topics and even conflict during conversations about faith.

In the next chapter, we take a look at eager conversationalists—to find out more about what makes this group uniquely equipped and willing to engage in spiritual conversations.

Q&A with Dana Byers

Executive Pastor of Mercy Road Church

Dana Byers is a pioneer in the online church movement. She began as a Life.Church Online volunteer in 2006. The next year, Dana and her young family sold nearly everything they owned to fund living overseas to launch BlueDoor Ministries, Inc. The first online church planters in history, the Byers family’s purpose was to help pastors launch online churches outside the U.S. in a variety of languages and to expand the reach of Life.Church Online. After moving back to the States, Dana wrote “The Art of Online Ministry” and became Associate Online Campus Pastor at Life. Church. Today she is Executive Pastor of Mercy Road Church in Carmel, Indiana.

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