Millennials, evangelism and the importance of defining termsWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
A Barna report examining how Christians feel about sharing their faith has yielded some unexpected – and confusing – results. The report surveyed practicing Christians (people who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church in the past month) from four generational cohorts: millennials, gen-Xers, boomers and elders.
All four groups were near unanimous (94 to 97 per cent) that being a witness about Jesus was part of their faith and that knowing him was the best thing that could ever happen to someone. Moreover, almost three-quarters of millennials (73 per cent) felt they were gifted at sharing their faith with others, well above any of the other age groups. But at the same time, nearly half of millennials (47 per cent) also felt it was wrong to share their personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they’d one day share the same faith.
This strange discrepancy has drawn a variety of responses, along with attempts to explain it. But there may be more to the story than the numbers suggest, and reason not only for concern but also for hope.
In trying to unravel these findings, the impact of the current cultural ethos cannot be overstated. Along with smartphones and social media, the latest generation or two has grown up with the idea that all truth is relative. There’s only “your truth” and “my truth,” but never “the truth.” All beliefs are equally valid, even if they’re mutually contradictory. That’s because a person’s feelings are the ultimate standard for defining what’s real, what’s true and what’s right for them.
Consequently, to challenge someone else’s beliefs is seen as the height of intolerance, and a personal attack on their very identity. This, too, was reflected in the Barna survey, in which 40 per cent of millennials (twice as many as gen-Xers and four times as many as boomers or elders) felt that if someone disagrees with you, it means that they’re judging you.
All the blame can’t be heaped on the surrounding culture, however. Sadly the church has done its share in contributing to this confusion of belief. In an effort to remain relevant and avoid appearing narrow or judgmental, many churches have steered clear of the harder truths of Scripture. It’s fashionable to speak of brokenness but not sin, of God’s love but not his wrath, of Jesus’ gracious welcome but not his command to repent. The most unpleasant biblical reality, the existence of hell, is rarely if ever mentioned in some Christian circles, even though Jesus spoke of it at length and in sobering detail.
The result is often a kind of practical universalism, in which the Great Commission is blunted if not entirely ignored. Sure, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life – for those who choose to believe in him as such. For everyone else, an inclusive God will no doubt welcome them regardless of what they believe, as long as they’re decent and sincere people.
None of this is explicitly taught, of course. It’s more of a subtext in certain strains of contemporary Christianity, one that meshes neatly with popular cultural beliefs. And its message has been taken to heart, not just by millennials but by older churchgoers as well.
Still the question remains: how to account for those perplexing numbers? How can practicing Christians, millennial or otherwise, recognize the importance of sharing their faith, claim to be gifted at it, but also believe it’s wrong to do so?
It may prove helpful to define some terms, starting with “committed Christian.” Barna’s definition is quite broad and could well include individuals who are committed to the Christian faith in theory, but don’t fully grasp its practical outworking in their own lives.
It’s also important how the survey questions are framed, and how they’re likely to be understood by their target audience.
For many millennial believers, “sharing their faith” doesn’t mean sharing the facts of the Gospel or calling for a decision based on those facts. It merely means sharing the fact that they have faith and what that means to them personally.
In the same way, “being a witness about Jesus” doesn’t mean giving people information about Jesus. Instead, it’s living as a follower of Jesus in hopes that people will be attracted to him via their lives and example.
Even the phrase “someone of a different faith” might be taken to mean a believer from a different denomination rather than a non-Christian. In that case, the question implies an attempt to persuade someone to leave their church and join yours – not the noblest of Christian practices, by any definition.
Reasons for concern – and hope
Despite all of these provisos, the results of the Barna report are still a cause for concern. The Gospel is a message with specific content about a person, Jesus Christ – about who he is and what he has done. It’s true whether anyone believes it or not, and it demands a response from everyone who hears it.
According to Rick Richardson, director of the Billy Graham Center Research Institute, the biggest challenge for millennials sharing their faith is taking the conversation from “this is true for me” to “this is also true for you.” And according to Rachel Gilson, herself a millennial who works for Cru at Boston University, it’s going from “Jesus is making my life better” to “you have to decide whether you’re for or against him.”
Yet for all that, there’s also good reason for hope beyond – and even within – the Barna findings. After all, millennials did agree with their elders in overwhelming numbers that being a witness about Jesus was part of their faith and that knowing him was the best thing that could happen to a person. And although they led the way in claiming it was wrong to share their personal beliefs in order to convert someone, significant percentages of the older groups said the same thing. Clearly that bit of cultural malaise isn’t limited to the younger generation.
And it’s not just about lifestyle evangelism among millennials. A different survey from LifeWay Research showed that 58 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds – more than any other age group – agreed that it was important for them personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus as their Saviour. When narrowed to young evangelicals, the number rose to 89 per cent. According to Brian Lewis of Campus Outreach, more students are coming to Christ than at any time in recent years, and they’re being led to the Lord by millennial staff.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra at the Gospel Coalition argues that the Barna study, together with other research, paints a more nuanced picture of millennial Christians. They’ve grown up in a far more diverse culture than their parents or grandparents, and are more adept at navigating it. They have more non-Christian friends and relatives than their elders ever had, and so sharing their faith is more personal for them. They want to avoid the aggressive and at times culturally insensitive evangelism of earlier generations. And they’re wary of pat conversion stories (“I was a bad person, I prayed a prayer, and now everything’s great”) and want authenticity about the stresses and struggles of everyday life.
Millennials are also the first generation to grow up in a post-Christian environment that is openly hostile to their faith, whether on campus, in the workplace or on social media. But as Kate Shellnutt writes at Christianity Today, this decline in cultural Christianity has served to clarify their faith and strengthen their resolve. “The rise of the religiously unaffiliated ‘nones,’ now roughly a quarter of the population, has taken away the expectation for younger generations to identify as Christian just for the sake of it,” she explains. “Without the pull of ‘cultural Christianity,’ leaders see the millennials who do stay involved in their churches as particularly committed and faithful.”
Like their parents and grandparents before them, millennials face opportunities and challenges that are uniquely their own. As Gilson points out, in every generation, “we have some things where we’re really intuitively in line with God, because he made us in his image. And every culture has things that are out of step with God, because we’re fallen.”
But she also adds, “The Gospel is the same Gospel. You have all these walls that come down instantly once the Spirit moves. . . . To quote [pastor and TGC editor] Sam Allberry, ‘It is laughably easy for God to save anyone.’”
Millennial Christians serve the same God as their spiritual forbears. They follow the same Jesus who promised to build his church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That remains the greatest reason for hope, in this and every generation.
Sources and further reading
Kate Shellnutt, “Half of millennial Christians say it’s wrong to evangelize,” Christianity Today, February 06, 2019.
Trevin Wax, “Millennials, evangelism, and whatever happened to hell?” The Gospel Coalition, February 14, 2019.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “What millennials really think about evangelism,” The Gospel Coalition, February 28, 2019.
“Almost half of practicing Christian millennials say evangelism is wrong,” Barna, February 5, 2019.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox