How people, even Christians, broach the subject of faith has changed radically in the last 25 years. As religion writer Jonathan Merritt recently concluded in a New York Times piece based on Barna data, it’s getting harder to talk about God. People are more hesitant to have spiritual conversations, and technology and digital interactions have added new layers to faith-sharing. Barna does identify some who are most eager to discuss faith, though they make up just over a quarter of Christians (27%).
Barna conducted a major study, in partnership with Lutheran Hour Ministries, to examine faith-sharing and evangelism in today’s climate, culminating in a report entitled Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age. In addition, Barna sought out the insight of other experts to shed light on the state of sacred dialogue today. Below, four authors and ministers weigh in on some of the key obstacles and opportunities of modern spiritual conversations, from avoiding disagreement online to encouraging vulnerability in the home.
“Transparency and Intimacy Beget More Transparency and Intimacy.”
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.
Barna: When we asked who people are most comfortable having spiritual conversations with, fathers came out low on most people’s lists. And when we asked fathers who they are comfortable having spiritual conversations with, we found they are not nearly as likely as mothers to say their kids. What do you think is happening here?
Bethke: This is a crisis by all accounts. The practice and art of fatherhood is being lost day by day. There are a lot of factors, but I think one of the main reasons is that dads feel incompetent in this area, and most guys—and some women too, of course, but it’s a sharper pain point for many men—can’t stand the feeling of incompetence. When we feel like a failure, shame beckons. Then we retreat inside ourselves and close off all vulnerability in a failing effort to protect ourselves from shame. This loop repeats itself over and over again.
Most dads I know are great about talking in depth when it comes to work, sports or opinions on current events, because those are areas where we are expected to be experts. But when it comes to our children’s hearts, and pursuing them on an emotional level, we think of that as the mom’s job, the pastor’s job, the teacher’s job—when, in reality, one of the primary callings of a dad isn’t to work, to provide, but to capture his child’s heart. That can only happen when we lead with vulnerability. Transparency and intimacy beget more transparency and intimacy.
Time is a huge factor. According to research I’ve seen recently, the number of hours a father spends at home keeps shrinking. Dads have fewer and fewer touch-points throughout the day to build relationship and intimacy with our kids. I’m not saying that staying home or working from home should be the goal for every dad, but I do think it’s important to get some perspective on what we gain and what we lose by being away so much. Is it possible we’re in the Matrix and don’t even realize it, serving the economy instead of our family?
“We Strengthen Faith by Sharing It with Others.”
Rev. Dr. Anthony Cook is Executive Director of United States Ministries for Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Barna: There is a clear connection between strong spiritual practices and an eagerness to engage in faith conversations. Why do you believe these two are linked? How do you see them feeding into each other?
Cook: The rhythm of engaging in both spiritual practices and spiritual conversations creates a powerful virtuous cycle. We strengthen faith by sharing it with others. Over the years, I have come to believe that evangelism is not something that should be reserved for the mature in faith. Instead, it is at the core of the maturation process itself. When Christians are intentionally involved in both spiritual practices and spiritual conversations, faith deepens and eagerness to share that faith grows.
Why does the connection work? I believe the answer is both theological and sociological. Theologically, we know that the Holy Spirit is at work in both spiritual practices and spiritual conversations. As the Holy Spirit works through God’s word, he strengthens and sanctifies us in the faith. In fact, living our daily lives immersed in the word of God is at the heart of the Christian life.
Sociologically, we have learned that when we are exposed to the salvation narrative we begin to take that narrative on as our own. Over time, it shapes our identity, values and ultimately behaviors, giving us a new way to see ourselves and the world around us. This change in identity and perspective is further strengthened and solidified as we give voice to that narrative. In the end, the more we share our faith, the more we understand who we are and the more confident and eager we become as Christians.
“These Platforms Easily Skew the Context of What Was Said.”
Rev. Micah Glenn is the executive director of Lutheran Hope Center in Ferguson, Missouri.
Barna: People tell Barna they are hesitant to share beliefs or talk about faith because they are afraid of the conflict it might stir up. What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for sharing faith in a tense political climate?
Glenn: The first challenge for sharing faith in our political environment is how generalized and polarized these discussions become. If you’re pro-life you get labeled a woman-hater. If you believe in social programming for the underserved, then you’re an America-hating communist. This naturally prevents any worthwhile dialogue from taking place.
I also think people have a great fear of being exposed on a mass level through social media. It’s difficult to have a private conversation with someone in public when an eavesdropper can screenshot or video your conversation, put it on Twitter or Facebook and a few million people can see what you said in a matter of a couple days—and these platforms easily skew the context of what was said.
But the greatest challenge I find is that people sometimes let their political party dictate where they fall on faith topics of a social nature. Even if their confession of faith contradicts their political party, they are afraid of what their political comrades will think if they disagree on certain issues.
“Create a Space That Feels Safe for People to Share Their Ideas.”
Rachel Legouté is the community manager for THRED, a project of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Barna: While digital interactions are increasing, people still prefer in-person conversations about faith or religion. Given this, what do you think draws people to a digital space to have spiritual conversations?
Legouté: People flock to social media and online forums to share their thoughts on just about everything. As people become more comfortable having conversations on digital platforms—about their kids, pets, dinner—it is natural for them to also have conversations about deeper subjects.
Spiritual conversations in a digital space are unique in that they happen at the pace of people’s lives. Digital conversations don’t typically happen in real time, meaning that people can consume a piece of content and then reflect on it and on their response, before posting a comment later. In the same way, they have time to digest comments they receive and drive the conversation forward at a pace that works with their schedule.
The low relational investment for beginner conversations can also foster a safe environment for easy sharing. For the most part, people in our spaces are complete strangers at first. They don’t have a prior relationship. Some members of the THRED community express feeling free to be totally honest with their viewpoints from the get-go because they aren’t worried about damaging an existing relationship.
While conversations that lead directly to a conversion experience are more likely to happen in person, we know that the road to faith is not always short or linear. We create a space that feels safe for people to share their ideas so that they’re willing to come back for deeper conversations. As followers spend more time in our spaces, we see them open up more and more. We get to learn more of their life stories and gain a deeper understanding of how their life experiences shape their thoughts on life and faith.
About the Research
The primary source of data in this report is a survey of 1,714 U.S. adults, comprised of an over-sample of 535 Millennials and 689 Practicing Christians, conducted online June 22–July 13, 2017. Respondents were recruited from a national consumer panel, and minimal weighting was applied to ensure representation of certain demographic factors, such as age, gender, ethnicity and region. The sample error for this data is plus or minus 2.2% at the 95% confidence level for the total sample. A subgroup of participants had either: “shared my views on faith or religion in the last 5 years” OR “someone has shared their views on faith or religion with me in the last 5 years.”
Self-identified Christians select “Christian” from a list of religious affiliations.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, have attended church within the past month and strongly agree that their faith is very important in their life today.
Eager conversationalists identify as Christian and have had 10 or more conversations about faith in the past year.
Reluctant conversationalists identify as Christian and have had between zero and nine conversations about faith in the past year.
Gen Z were born 1999 to 2015 (only 13- to 18-year-olds included).
Millennials were born 1984 to 1998.
Gen X were born 1965 to 1983.
Boomers were born 1946 to 1964.
Elders were born before 1946.
About Barna Group
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2018