Dec 13, 2023

3 Things to Consider During Spiritual Conversations with Non-Christians

Spiritual openness is widespread right now. Barna data show that 77 percent of U.S. adults believe in God or a higher power, 74 percent would like to grow spiritually and 44 percent are more open to God today than they were before the pandemic.

As the holidays approach and opportunities for sharing faith abound, today’s article offers some helpful insights from Barna’s Spiritually Open series—created in partnership with Gloo—to bolster Christians’ spiritual conversations.

Spiritually Open Series

Cultivating Curiosity & Conversation About Jesus

1. Remember that Spiritual Openness Often Represents Common Ground
Past Barna data shows that, among U.S. adults, there’s a certain level of openness to central aspects of Christianity, even among many of those who don’t consider themselves Christians. How can this be?

Part of the reason may be that the U.S. is culturally Christian. Exposure to Christianity is high, even if affiliation has declined; in fact, 72 percent of people in the U.S. say they were raised Christian.

Another 39 percent of spiritually open non-Christians still profess having a commitment to Jesus that is important to them today. Even if they haven’t identified as Christian, 61 percent in this spiritually open group have attended a Christian church or parish at some point.

What does this mean for Christians who are communicating or building relationships across lines of faith?

First, they should not assume they will be met with combative or even contradictory opinions. For instance, alongside a general warmth toward God and Jesus, spiritually open non-Christians have a perhaps unexpected reverence for scripture. They tend to agree the Christian Bible is both divinely inspired and completely accurate.

Additionally, Christians should expect that non-Christians take matters of faith seriously and personally. While some of their views may seem blurry or befuddling to someone currently practicing Christianity, these beliefs are revealing of non-Christians’ varied backstories—many of which were connected to the Church at some point.

Sermons, conversations and resources that intend to connect with a spiritually open non-Christian may be more fruitful when they search curiously for common ground, rather than to root out ignorance or indifference.

2. There Is a Give-and-Take Required for Good Faith Conversations to Occur
What do Christians need to learn from churches in order to share their faith?

Past experiences help shed light on some possible answers. People of no faith shared with Barna about previous spiritual conversations with Christians, and we compared their accounts of those conversations by whether it left them with a positive or negative impression.

Through this lens, we learn that positive spiritual conversations are more likely when Christians prioritize listening, not just speaking.

People of no faith feel more positive about spiritual conversations with Christians when the Christian shares their spiritual backstory and asks about their conversation partner’s own spiritual backstory. As you can see, the former is still more common than the latter, but both are important in having better cross-faith interactions.

Time and again, this study has shown that Christians need to understand and embrace the give-and-take required for good conversations about faith.

3. “Actions Speak Louder than Words” Rings Especially True When Sharing Faith
According to Barna’s Spiritually Open data, the public tend to have a positive opinion of Jesus and his teachings. The traits people associate with Jesus often align with the things they say they hope to find in their spirituality.

Yet, if non-Christians are looking for things that Jesus provides, have a positive opinion of Jesus and are hearing about Jesus from Christians … then why don’t more people identify as Christians? Our research suggests that the most likely reason for this disconnect is the hypocrisy non-Christians witness among Christians.

Put another way, the missing ingredient in many approaches to sharing faith may actually have nothing to do with what Christians are saying, but how Christians are living. Sadly, people of no faith or of other faiths say that the hypocrisy of religious people is the number one reason they doubt their faith. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that 22 percent of Christians say the same.

Elsewhere, we see a deficit of trust and respect in Christianity. For instance, politics is a sticking point for non-Christians who have moved away from Christianity; more than half (51%) say they’d like to distance themselves from the politics of the Church. Of those open non-Christians who were raised Christian or had a Christian experience in their past, 40 percent say they have a hard time trusting religious institutions. Non-Christians also note that the Christians they know lack a “mature faith.”

Is all this communication and conversation about Jesus … just talk? Or are there leaders and members of the Church who point to Jesus’ person and work through more than just words? And what can be learned from them?

 It’s clear from the data that local churches could improve in how they welcome non-Christians or how they help Christians navigate the sometimes-awkward experiences of faith discussions. Focusing on offering more options for teaching Christians and then making sure those teachings nurture considerate, invitational conversationalists could be helpful focuses in today’s spiritually open climate.

Spiritually Open Series

Cultivating Curiosity & Conversation About Jesus

Further reading and resources:

About the Research

The Spiritually Open project is based on a survey of 2,005 U.S. adults and teenagers (ages 13-17) conducted online from December 13–22, 2022 via a consumer research panel. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.0 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

This article also refers to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online October 21–31, 2022. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.1 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Quotas were set to representation by region, race / ethnicity, education, age and gender based on the U.S. Census Bureau. Minimal statistical weighting has been applied to maximize sample representation.

Additionally, a survey among 511 U.S. Protestant senior pastors was conducted online from December 13, 2021–January 3, 2023. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Proprietary Pastor Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.

Photo by Oleksandr P on Pexels.

© Barna Group, 2023.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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