Gospel tracts, sidewalk evangelism, street preachers with bullhorns—all of these things seem like evangelistic efforts of yesteryear. But if this seems true, where does that leave the state of evangelism today? Is faith-sharing a fading practice, or does it simply look different today? In all their innovative efforts to engage culture, have Christians left this ancient practice so integral to their faith behind? Barna Group has charted evangelistic practices and attitudes for more than two decades, and the latest study sheds light on the gaps between evangelism in theory and practice, the social groups who are sharing their faith the most, and the surprising ways economics color one’s outreach efforts.
Evangelism in Theory and In Practice
When asked if they have a personal responsibility to share their faith with others, 73% of born again Christians said yes. When this conviction is put into practice, however, the numbers shift downward. Only half (52%) of born again Christians say they actually did share the Gospel at least once this past year to someone with different beliefs, in the hope that they might accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.
As with most convictions, there usually lies a dividing line between theory and practice. When it comes to evangelism, that dividing line looks different among various demographics.
Barna defines evangelicals according to adherence to nine theological perspectives (defined in the details below), including one’s personal responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others. So in this study, of course, evangelicals (100%) claim this responsibility by definition. Nearly seven out of 10 have acted on this conviction within the last year, meaning evangelicals have the highest rate of evangelism among the various religious segments that Barna examined.
What stands out among the data, however, is that evangelicals also have among the highest rates of failure in follow-through from conviction to action when it comes to sharing their faith. Nearly one-third (31%) believe they should evangelize, but have not done so—at least within the past year.
Catholics (34%), on the opposite end of the spectrum, are the least likely across Christian faith traditions to affirm their personal responsibility to share their faith. Yet, this minority is also the most consistent in linking their belief and behavior. Roughly one-third of all Catholics (34%) believe they should evangelize, while one-third of born again Catholics actually do.
The Most Evangelistic Generation
They’ve been called “the social justice generation,” and for good reason—Millennials are actively taking up the cause of the poor, the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Yet the most common critique leveled at this surge in social compassion is that it comes at a great expense. Sure, skeptics argue, they might feed the hungry and free the captives in this life, but what about the next? According to this view, Millennials are elevating physical needs over spiritual needs and forgoing evangelism altogether.
Yet the latest Barna research reveals this is not the case.
In fact, in answer to the question of evangelism on the rise or in decline, Millennials are a rare case indeed. While the evangelistic practices of all other generations have either declined or remained static in the past few years, Millennials are the only generation among whom evangelism is significantly on the rise. Their faith-sharing practices have escalated from 56% in 2010 to 65% in 2013.
Not only that, but born again Millennials share their faith more than any other generation today. Nearly two-thirds (65%) have presented the Gospel to another within the past year, in contrast to the national average of about half (52%) of born again Christians.
Since tracking began in 1996, the data show born again Busters, who are currently in their thirties and forties (63%), were evangelizing at an all-time high in 1998. However, evangelism practice among Busters is down to 48% today. Among the Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964), nearly two-thirds of born again Boomers (65%) shared their faith in 2007, but today, this has dropped to less than half (49%). The outreach efforts of born again Elders (ages 68 and older), on the other hand, have remained fairly steady over the past several decades. Today, Elders (53%) share their faith just about as much as the average born again Christian (52%).
The Economics of Evangelism
The practice of evangelism also fluctuates depending on another surprising factor: household income.
For the purposes of this study, Barna categorized income groups into roughly equal thirds by total population: low income ($39,000 or less annually per household), middle income ($40,000 to $60,000 annually per household) and upper income (anything above $60,000 annually per household).
The data show that low-income individuals are the most likely out of any income bracket to actively share their faith. Nearly six out of 10 (57%) adults from low-income households have evangelized within the past 12 months. What’s more, evangelism among low-income individuals has gradually increased in the wake of the Recession. In 2008, for example, only 49% of low-income adults shared their faith, a rate that has slowly increased (with minor fluctuations) until today.
In contrast, then, one might assume adults from upper income households evangelize the least. However, the research shows that while upper income individuals are less likely to feel responsible to share faith compared to other income groups—only 16% of all upper income adults claim this responsibility—more than half (52%) of born again upper income adults actually do, putting them right on par with the national average.
The least likely to share their faith, perhaps unpredictably, are actually those in the middle-income bracket. This is particularly paradoxical since born again, middle-income adults are the most likely out of all income groups to affirm their personal responsibility to evangelize—76% do so. Yet only 37% of those adults have shared their faith this past year. Furthermore, born again, middle-income adults are evangelizing less and less. For example, from 2010 to today alone, their outreach efforts dropped from 51% to 37%.
What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, says the data demonstrates a reversal of conventional wisdom on Millennials and evangelism.
“Where does the myth about Millennials opting for social justice in lieu of evangelism come from? And what is it about Millennials—who are so often reputed for walking away from the faith—that is motivating them to share their faith more so than previous generations?
“One way to understand this trend is that there are proportionally fewer born again and evangelical Christians among Millennials than is true among older generations,” Kinnaman says. “So part of the explanation may be that those who remain committed to these theological perspectives are all the more motivated to make a ‘case’ for their faith among their peers. In other words, in the middle of a generation defined by their religious indifference, these Millennial evangelists stand in stark contrast. This trend of younger evangelists should be a source of encouragement to faith leaders.
“Still, it should be troubling to Christian leaders,” Kinnaman continues, “that evangelism is on the decline among key demographics, especially among Busters and Boomers who make up nearly two out of three active Christians today. Also, additional insight is needed to understand why middle-income Christians have stepped on the brakes in recent years when it comes to evangelism. The bottom line is that millions of Americans remain committed to the idea and practice of evangelism. However, Christians need to be aware of a growing apathy toward evangelism among the most unlikely of groups: middle-age and middle-income Christians. These are the very people who are often reaching a place of religious maturity, which traditionally includes a commitment to faith-sharing conversations. Among these groups, has the Christian community lost a sense of urgency for those outside the faith?”
About the Research
The study on which this report is based was conducted by telephone and online surveys with 2,083 adults who were randomly chosen from the United States. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +1.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
The online study was conducted from January 17-23, 2013, in which 1,078 adults 18 or older were interviewed using an online probability-based panel. The sampling error is plus or minus 2.8% at the 95% confidence level. The telephone survey was conducted from January 16 to January 22, 2013 with 1,005 adults 18 or older in the continental U.S. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.
“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria described above plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended, or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
Mainline Protestant denominations include American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church.
Non-mainline Protestant denominations are Protestant churches other than those included in the mainline category described above.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research 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.
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© Barna Group, 2013