03 Potential for Impact

Potential for Impact


Stories of Impact

Leaders Who Represent or Work with Emerging Generations Share Ideas About Calling, Purpose and Connection

More Than Words 



According to many Christians in this study, caring for the poor and vulnerable is a defining characteristic of being a Christ-follower (43%). If this is a primary sign that someone is a Christian, what kind of impression are faithful 18–35-year-olds leaving around the world?

Overall, a slight majority of respondents feels the Church is definitely (16%) or probably (42%) making a difference on issues of poverty and justice. Christians and those who identify with no faith, however, differ considerably on how successful the work of the Church has been. Nearly three-quarters of Christians think the Church is making a difference (73% “definitely” + “probably”), compared to only a third of those who claim no faith (32% “definitely” + “probably”). Members of other faiths are essentially split down the middle (55% “definitely” + “probably”). This difference in opinion could be taken as a direct reflection of the Church’s actions (or inaction) or evidence of varying interpretations or benchmarks of what it means to work for justice.

In their personal lives, at least, Christian young adults say their beliefs inspire them toward action. More than half (56%) say they are concerned about the welfare of others because of their beliefs. They are also almost twice as likely as those with no faith to be inspired to give of their time to help others in need (56% to 32%). Similarly, Christian young adults are more likely than those with no faith to report that their beliefs compel them to give of their own resources (46% to 26%) and stand up against corruption (47% to 37%). Though these values set Christian 18–35-year-olds apart from those who don’t belong to a religion, they are similar to the responses of members of other faith groups when asked how their priorities are affected by their belief system.

While it’s clear that religious young adults believe it is important to give their time and resources to help others, there is a stark difference when comparing the actual behaviors of those who practice their faith—that is, religious respondents who say their faith is important and regularly attend worship services—and those who are non-practicing. For instance, practicing Christians are twice as likely as non-practicing Christians to say they volunteer at least once a month (39% to 16%). When it comes to donations, they are more inclined to give money to a local charity at least one a month (23% vs. 13%), and three times more likely to report giving money specifically to a Christian charity at the same frequency (27% vs. 9%). Half of practicing Christians (50%) also give to their place of worship each month (vs. 14%), which may also be seen as an opportunity to support mission or justice initiatives.


When the scope of activity is widened—from the past month to the past three years—many of these differences remain, underscoring the consistency of young practicing Christians. Over this span of time, some practicing Christians have taken additional steps such as sponsoring a child (17%) or living or traveling internationally to volunteer (11%). Though practicing Christians are eager to report generally having raised awareness for meaningful causes (28%), non-practicing Christians, or even members of no faith, are more likely to have taken specific action by signing petitions (38% and 45%, respectively, compared to 27% for practicing Christians), which could be a reflection of either their preferred methods of activism or the scale of the problems they prioritize.

How does faith factor into the causes 18–35-year-olds care about? Young adults who aren’t religiousare far more likely to identify global climate change as the greatest problem facing the world’s future (46%), but the closer respondents are to religion, the less likely they are to share this environmental concern (27% of practicing Christians, 26% of those practicing other faiths). Instead, corruption—perhaps because it is perceived as a moral problem—tops the list of pressing global problems identified by practicing members of Christianity (54%) as well as other faiths (55%, compared to 37% of no faith). Beyond that, practicing Christians are like their peers in ranking extreme poverty (35%) and racism (33%) among key threats to the world’s future.

Though the methods and motivations may vary, the data show a pervasive sense of humanitarian responsibility across many segments in this study, and the Church can foster these passions. After all, one in four young adults says caring for the poor is one of their goals for the next 10 years, and opportunities to fight injustice is among the top things religious respondents say they want more of in their worship community. Even so, Christians who engage meaningfully with their faith and church tend to report that their church has already helped them understand the needs of the poor (45%) and marginalized (36%) and provided opportunities to serve those in need in their community (38%). Similarly, about a third of practicing Christians says their church has equipped them with an understanding of social justice (35%) or that they’ve found a cause or issue they’re passionate about through their church (31%).

There is a clear connection between faith practice and social action. Churches have the unique opportunity to provide room for members of this connected generation to learn more about, become engaged with and maybe even change the world.



Top Global Concerns

What do you believe is the greatest problem facing the world’s future? Respondents were asked to select, from a list of potential issues, which issues worry them most. A clear top five emerged, some global in nature: corruption, climate change, pollution, racism and extreme poverty. Below, we’ll look at the most common concerns identified by the plurality of 18–35-year-olds from each nation included in the survey.


Lifting Children out of Poverty

A Q&A with Daniel Muvengi

Welcoming the Stranger

A Q&A with Krish Kandiah

Fighting Injustice

A Q&A with Chine Mcdonald and Wesley Teixeira

Christians Seek Vocational Guidance



Few topics have inspired as much handwringing in recent years as the entrance and establishment of Millennials in the workplace. Members of the generation seem perplexed themselves: An international 2019 study from Deloitte found that seven in 10 Millennials don’t feel they have all of the skills needed to navigate the future of the job market.26

In many ways, career has, thus far into adulthood, been central to 18–35-year-olds’ experiences, identity and well-being (see page 37). The majority of respondents in this study (which, bear in mind, is a more educated, resourced sample than would be truly globally representative) is working in some capacity, and for the most part, indicates they are progressing on their personal path of education or career. Whatever their economic uncertainties, many still express hopes of starting businesses, following dreams and living (and purchasing) with financial security in the next decade. But what about something more profound than earning a paycheck or navigating career decisions: a sense of vocation? How is this generation thinking about making an impact? And are churches and spiritual leaders pointing them toward meaningful answers to these questions?

At least among Christian respondents—particularly practicing Christians, those who value their faith and regularly attend church—there is a desire to use their skills for a distinct purpose. Eight in 10 young adults who are practicing Christians (81%) say they strongly agree that they want to honor God with their gifts and talents, compared to just over one-quarter of respondents who are not active Christians (26%).

Church leaders should be heartened that some of their most committed young attendees feel this responsibility or calling—and should be reminded to address this subject directly, practically and consistently. If ministers do, it seems to be effective. If ministers don’t, their congregants wish they would; many practicing Christians in this study say they participate in a community of worship in order to learn how to connect their faith to their everyday reality. About half of 18–35-year-old practicing Christians attend services for teachings that are relevant to their lives (49%) and for wisdom to apply scriptures to their lives (46%). Specific to work and career, seven in 10 (69%) say their faith community has helped them understand their purpose in life, and half say their church has taught them how the Bible applies to their professional field (51%) or how to live out their faith in the workplace (51%).

Beyond general teaching and sermons, which are common to any ministry and appear to be effective when touching on vocation, some churches may want to increase support of this generation with more intentional, structured opportunities to grow in their skills or callings. Training that is specifically for vocation or leadership isn’t particularly high on the list of reasons Christians already participate in a church; it is, however, among the top things Christians in this age group say is missing from their church experience. This is true regardless of a respondent’s current employment status or level of education. Vocational training may not rank highly as a present motivation for engagement not because 18–35-year-olds don’t want it but because it’s rarely offered. Similarly, the proportion of practicing Christians who participates in a church to meet with a mentor is equal to the proportion who says mentorship is absent from their church life (12% each). Even so, one-third of practicing Christian respondents has made a church friend who has helped guide their professional development, suggesting attendees may still naturally find what isn’t formally provided or afforded in their community of worship.

For 18–35-year-olds, Christian and non-Christian alike, the future of work and the workplace is fraught. This connected generation’s ambitions are perhaps only matched by their anxieties: economic woes, threats to work-life balance, pressure from elders, skepticism of employers, fears of waning passion (the latter of which, Barna and other researchers find, is a primary professional motivation for Millennials).27 Yet faith-filled members of this generation are committed to using their talents to honor God. In large numbers, practicing Christians are relying on their church communities for help in making connections between their religion and their resume, and are attending church to see how the Bible speaks to their purpose and gifts. Yes, next career steps raise worries and questions in Millennials, but Christian communities have a chance to help their members navigate this tricky journey with faith and hope intact.

Faith & Work

A Q&A with Ruth Yamika Afolabi


The Primary Obstacle of Leadership

What are the biggest challenges to leadership in society today? Most of the 18–35-year-olds Barna surveyed around the world—on average, half (50%)—believe that “everyone is too busy and distracted.” In 16 of the 25 nations included in the study, this is the top response selected. Outliers to this trend tend to be more concerned about elder leaders not passing the baton to future generations or about the pressures of vying to succeed in today’s economy. Nations where the plurality has other societal obstacles in mind include those where most believe “Older adults are not letting young leaders lead” (Nigeria 70%, Kenya 63%, South Africa 59%, Ghana 58%) and those where more are concerned that “Everyone has to compete now in a global marketplace” (Malaysia 53%, Taiwan 52%, Mexico 50%, Indonesia 45%, Spain 41%).



Developing Connected Leaders



Sharing a meal together recently, an older successful leader told me, “I would not want to be a young leader starting out today. Everything’s just so much more complex, with technology and social media. You have to do all your failing and learning in public.” His sentiment echoes our findings: The connected generation faces some unique headwinds on their road to becoming effective leaders.

Part of it is the underlying sense of anxiety that permeates many societies today. For good reason, the connected generation perceives deep, wide, systemic problems facing the world’s future. Many of us share their concerns, but most young adults express an added layer of angst: Four out of five affirm—and nearly half strongly affirm—that “society is facing a crisis of leadership because there are not enough good leaders right now” (82%). This is one of the most widely endorsed statements in the entire global survey, which suggests its significance to this generation. In addition, one-third believes that “what it takes to be an effective leader seems to be changing.” Asked about the biggest challenges to good leadership, they express a range of perceptions—from issues of technology, social media and competitive market dynamics, to generational tension in the workplace and the psychology of leading and following:

  • Everyone is too busy and distracted (50%).
  • Everyone has to compete in a global marketplace (43%). Society is becoming so fragmented (41%).
  • Older adults are not letting younger leaders actually lead (38%; leaders outside the home are most likely to agree, 43%).
  • Younger adults do not want to put in the time to become great leaders (35%; leaders outside the home are most likely to agree, 43%).
  • People follow the news headlines instead of leaders (32%).
  • No one wants to be a follower anymore (26%).

When we take time to listen—an essential practice for connecting with 18–35-year-olds—we hear a sense of unease about the future and uncertainty about the kind of leaders that could make a difference: We’ve got big problems to solve . . . who can we trust to lead us?


Spheres of Leadership

Barna asked young adults in what areas of their life they exercise some level of leadership. Nearly half say they are a leader in their family, and one-third feels like a leader in their workplace or elsewhere, such as a church or government. We group the latter into a category called “leaders outside the home,” who are half of all respondents (51%); one in five is a “family-only leader” (19%), meaning they select family as their only sphere of leadership.

Three in 10 young adults do not now (8%) or have never (22%) considered themselves to be a leader; we call them “non-leaders,” since that’s what they call themselves. Given that male leadership has been the rule of thumb for most of human history, more young women (35%) than young men (26%) are non-leaders. (Relatedly, 57 percent of family-only leaders are women, and women are more likely than men to see gender inequality as a challenge to leadership, 35% vs. 24%.) Since many cultures look first to older members of the community for leadership, those under the age of 25 are more apt than those on the older end of the age range to say they are not leadership material (35% vs. 28%). Unmarried adults, rural residents, those who are less educated and people who report economic insecurity are more likely to reject the “leader” label, compared to married, highly educated, financially stable entrepreneurs who live in the city.

There’s a high concentration of young adults in secular climates who do not consider themselves to be leaders (39% vs. 23% Christian climates, 36% multi-faith climates). Every European country in the study has a higher percentage of self-identified non-leaders than the global average. Concurrently, 41 percent of agnostics, atheists and “nones” deny they are a leader in any sphere.

A Context of Reinvention & Mistrust

Interconnectedness, powered by technology, is transforming how leaders mobilize followers toward a shared goal and how followers perceive their place in the world. It’s disruptive—but for many, it’s also exciting. If you hang out with young adults in tech hubs like San Francisco, Amsterdam, Nairobi or Singapore, among others cities, it’s hard not to catch their enthusiasm to remake the world through connectivity. It’s an era of radical reinvention and (mostly) sweeping transparency, and the usual boundaries and borders seem to be shrinking, encroaching on the status quo—with mixed results.

We live in a time of disintermediation, a hundred-dollar word that simply describes how the essential connections we’ve come to rely on to mediate our relationships with other people, organizations, institutions, governments and systems are changing, being redefined or breaking altogether. Amazon, one of the world’s largest companies, is a good example of the unbundling, the disintermediation, of the value chain between products and people. Something similar is happening in all sorts of places and industries: in education, in media, in the marketplace, in religion. The connected generation benefits from un- and re-bundling, but often also suffers increased anxiety, mistrust and social dislocation as the institutions that mediate meaning undergo realignment.

Barna data has shown again and again that U.S. Millennials are less likely than older Americans to trust government, social, religious and academic institutions. Now we see a similar tendency in the global findings from 15,000+ surveys. The connected generation is smart, informed, skeptical—and many think they know better. (Sadly, they are sometimes right.)

Their skepticism often extends to faith and religion, too. While many in the connected generation express warmth toward the pastor, priest or faith leader whom they know personally, they are much less likely to extend that warmth to the Church as an institution. Part of this is human nature; affinity correlates with relational proximity. But it’s also true that two out of three young adults agree that “there is corruption in the church.” Young Christians face high levels of peer skepticism toward the Church—especially but not exclusively in post-Christian climates. Older Christian leaders, at least many with whom I interact in the U.S., don’t seem to appreciate just how toxic these perceptions are and how difficult they make it to lead mistrustful teens and adults toward faith.

This is a brief summary of the connected generation’s context for leadership. It’s a chaotic, reactive, disruptive, anxiety-inducing, rules-are-changing environment characterized by rampant mistrust and deep skepticism. And here we stand, waiting for them to take up the reins and lead.

My older friend was onto something: Would you want to lead?


Two Big Challenges to Developing Young Leaders

Good leaders are needed in every culture, and I believe cultivating and then releasing the next generation of resilient Christian leaders is urgent everywhere. Some leadership qualities and principles are timeless and rise above cultural or generational differences: honesty, integrity, conviction and courage, to name a few. But other ideas about what makes a good leader are contextual and therefore not always applicable everywhere to everyone. Problems with and barriers to leadership often differ, as well. “Leadership” is a concept highly shaped by culture and, increasingly, by generation. For instance, some societies (and generations) value leaders who exhibit individual merit, personal ambition and orientation toward the future; others esteem leaders who prioritize continuity with the past and handing traditions and ways of life down from elder to younger members.

This relates to our first challenge to developing young leaders today: Generations perceive and practice leadership differently. Remember, many in the connected generation agree that “what it takes to be an effective leader seems to be changing.” Almost every week, I hear from younger leaders and from older, established leaders who are flummoxed by the “the other side” of the generational continuum. Each wants to find a way to work together more effectively but both are thwarted by their differences. A pastor in London said that one of his most urgent issues is figuring how to help young leaders stop being so entitled. And recently a young leader told me she’s so exasperated by the authoritarian approach of her supervisor that she’s all but ready to leave the organization.

One issue may be language. I’ve noticed, anecdotally, that many young leaders seem reluctant to actually call themselves “leaders.” They want to collaborate. They want “us” to work together, not necessarily with someone out in front. I hear them talk about doing, creating, starting, building, influencing—but less so about leading. Insofar as their reluctance to lead is a result of an eagerness to cooperate, to experiment, to enjoy the collaborative process and to share credit, great! That’s leadership—even if you don’t call it that. But where their hesitation is rooted in fear, we must call young leaders to be courageous, to take risks. Whether they’re feeling overexposed by social media, paralyzed by choice, constrained by those in power or bifurcated when it comes to their inner self and outer persona, young leaders’ potential justifications for hanging back are many and, very often, understandable.

Yet God’s calling on leaders from among each generation remains.

If you are trying to develop young leaders, listen. What words do they use when they talk about accomplishing great things? When they dream aloud about participating in God’s mission? When they brainstorm about starting something new or rewarding?

Speaking of starting new things: Many of them want to. The connected generation doesn’t want to be mere consumers; they want to be contributors. Remember the resilient disciples we met on page 95? They, as well as leaders outside the home, are more likely than average to describe themselves as entrepreneurs—a reminder to us that preparing connected Christian leaders must involve vocationally discipling young people across a range of callings, including entrepreneurship.

A second challenge is that we lack effective pipelines, processes and models to form young leaders. Based on U.S. data collected over three decades, we know that institutions in general and churches in particular are performing below “replacement levels” when it comes to identifying and preparing new leaders. As an example, the median age of Protestant senior pastors in the U.S. today is 54, compared to 44 in the early ‘90s—the whole set of church leaders is aging. Furthermore, only one in seven rates him- or herself as “excellent” when it comes to mentoring younger leaders (14%).29 For a variety of reasons, older pastors are staying in the pulpit longer—which, of course, has some upsides (maturity being chief among them). But if we’re not making room for younger leaders today, they won’t be around tomorrow. And a related insight: If we’re not giving young people opportunities to make us look bad (while praying they make us look good!), we’re not giving them actual opportunities to lead. We’re patronizing them. Far too often, this generation is more willing to be challenged than the Church is ready to challenge them.

I am so concerned about a looming shortage of Christian leaders for pastoral and other vocations that Barna is making this a major area of inquiry over the coming decade. We want to know, for the sake of the Church’s future: What environments and practices nurture potential and activate leaders?

One of the clear imperatives of our research with Millennials and Gen Z is the need for more holistic forms of leadership development. We must invest in the connected generation, not to bring about what we think the world needs, but so they are prepared for what God is calling them to courageously undertake in this time of reinvention and hope, skepticism and transparency.

Each new generation of young leaders is the new wineskin of God’s purposes.


The Role Churches Play

So how are churches contributing to the development of leaders? For one thing, there are millions in the connected generation who consider themselves to be leaders in their church or faith community. It’s a relatively small slice of the total population, but one in 11 says they are a leader in their community of faith (9%). Among resilient disciples, the ratio is two in five (39%). More young adults in majority Christian climates (13%), especially in the global South (23% Africa, 10% Latin America / South America), report serving as leaders in their church.


Leaders & Connectivity

A young adult’s perception of themselves as a leader outside the home is correlated with stronger connectivity than those who don’t think of themselves that way. Whichever way causation runs—do leaders maintain stronger connections, or do connected people feel more confident in their leadership?—supporting the global, relational, forward-looking and outward-oriented connectivity of the connected generation will strengthen emerging leaders, as well.

We asked churchgoing young adults about three different domains of leadership development: (1) opportunities to contribute, (2) models of faithfulness (how they’ve been inspired by their church relationships) and (3) seeing needs and serving others. The table shows a mix of positive results and room for growth. Churches are most effective at giving young adults chances to “feel like part of a team,” to be inspired to “live generously based on the example of others in my church” and to “better understand the needs of the poor.” Those who are self-described leaders are more likely to take advantage of the opportunities offered by their church; resilient disciples are even more likely, which reflects the central role churches play in their personal development.

The connected generation is looking for the Church to provide real, tangible, meaningful opportunities for development. They want the church to be a laboratory of leadership, not just a place for spirituality. They want their faith to intersect the realities of life and, as budding Christian leaders, they want to address real life issues.


A Vision for Connected Leaders

What kind of leaders, entrepreneurs, activists and influencers are we hoping to be—and hoping young Christians will become? Here are four aspirations, whether we are part of the connected generation or simply cheering them on.30

We aspire to be and to form leaders who are:

Connected to God. Our identity is grounded in Jesus and we bring a God-centered presence to a self-centered age.

Connected to ourselves. We are humble, sacrificial people of peace. We reject wrong ideas about leadership and influence that say our worth is what we create and our influence equals the size of our platform. We are conscious of the relentless pull toward anxiety and freneticism and make deliberate choices to live in sync with an unruffled, unharried, Godward rhythm.

Connected to others. We are emotionally connected to others in our communities and in our households. We have a healthy connection to those we lead, which is neither cold and detached nor codependently enmeshed.

Connected to the world. We are informed about the major problems facing societies, personally impacted by the needs of others, and seeking opportunities to serve as agents of godly change. We are courageous and empowered to seek God-honoring solutions.

Even as the world spins toward an uncertain future, these kinds of people can make a difference—as God intends all leaders to do.

Understanding Reluctant Leaders

The viewpoints of 18–35-year-olds who don’t (yet) consider themselves to be leaders reveal room for growth and opportunities to champion the potential of the connected generation.


How They See Themselves

Non-leaders lack confidence in themselves or their opportunities and struggle to feel support from others.


How They See Leadership

Non-leaders appear less invested—and feel less included—in conversations about the state of leadership today.


Issues such as gender inequality are of greater concern to this group, perhaps because non-leaders are more likely to be female (57%, compared to 43% of leaders outside the home).

Connect the Dots:
Potential for Impact



See the whole.

  • Four out of five practicing Christians say they want to honor God in the work they do, but very few are involved in their church specifically for career development. Vocational discipleship is a massive need for young adults and an enormous opportunity for churches to make resilient disciples.
  • The connected generation has global concerns—corruption, climate change, extreme poverty—and eight in 10 agree there is a lack of effective leadership. Many want to be part of solutions but aren’t sure how.
  • There is a strong entrepreneurial streak in the next generation that should inspire older leaders to invest not only capital but also time, attention, prayer and emotional resources.

Take time to pray.

  • For this generation to answer God’s call to honor him in all they do; for God to call and equip young leaders to meet the world’s toughest challenges.
  • For healing of rifts between generations: revealing to older believers how God is working among young disciples in your community and showing young believers how to trust the help and influence of older mentors.
  • For your community to prepare and launch young leaders in every sphere of life, but especially in the Church; for you to make time to know, equip and activate tomorrow’s leaders.

Create what’s next.

  • Listen. Young adults may still be developing a vocabulary of leadership and are learning to articulate their priorities and perspectives. A receptive audience might contribute to clarity. If you’re in this generation, articulate what you think is important. If you’re working with this generation, be open to their influence.
  • Think. What is your theology of work and vocation? How can you and your community vocationally disciple the connected generation?
  • Act. Begin mentoring and investing in the next generation. Leaders raise up leaders.
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