How are U.S. Christians currently thinking about “making disciples of all nations?”
Much of international missions work adapted or was even put on hold last year due to the pandemic. Yet, even well before then, the overall perception of how to practice missions and global evangelism has been shifting, especially among younger generations. There are plenty of reasons for leaders to be curious about how Christians’ thoughts on the topic of missions are evolving.
Barna has partnered with Mission India to explore ideas about effective and sustainable global missions, beginning with Barna’s Activating Missions CoLab. As a starting point, here’s what Barna’s previous studies have revealed about the U.S. Church’s relationship to sharing faith, locally and globally.
Half of Churchgoers Do Not Know the Great Commission
Data from Barna’s Translating the Great Commission report, created in partnership with Seed Company, show that, as of 2018, only 17 percent of churchgoers had heard of “the Great Commission” and knew what the term meant. The remainder of churchgoers largely had never heard of it (51%), with a quarter (25%) saying that they had heard of it but couldn’t recall the exact meaning.
2018 research also shows that age makes a significant difference in whether churchgoers recognize the Great Commission. More than one-quarter of Elders (29%) and Boomers (26%) said they knew the term, compared to 17 percent of Gen X and one in 10 Millennials (10%). Although not even half of any age group knew the Great Commission well, the youngest adult generation was least likely to recognize it.
Gen Z Feels Equipped for Faith Conversations, but Not Necessarily for Evangelism
Barna has reported on how younger generations—Millennials and Gen Z—think about and practice evangelism differently than older Christians, with significant percentages of practicing Christian Millennials specifically being opposed to evangelism. Even so, when young people do desire to share their faith with others, the local church seems to be a partner in this endeavor.
Recent data published in Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation, a journal created in partnership with Alpha USA, show that Christian Gen Z teens 13–18-years-old are relatively open to having faith conversations with non-Christians. When it comes to whether or not their faith community had prepped them for spiritual discussions, the majority (47%) notes that their church has “definitely” done a good job equipping them to have these types of faith conversations.
Despite most saying their church has done a good job equipping them to talk about faith (47% definitely, 39% probably), a large percentage of Christian teens (68%) still shares that they have never had training specifically for evangelism, with another 13 percent saying they are "not sure." This is true even among those who are actively having faith conversations with non-Christians. Overall, roughly one in five Christian teens (19%) has had this sort of training, with that number rising just slightly to 23 percent among teens who have had a faith conversation with a non-Christian within the past year.
19% of Global Churchgoers Ages 18–35 Say Others’ Examples Inspire Them to Be a Missionary
With evangelism perceptions and preference shifting among younger generations, church leaders might be wondering how this impacts future missions work and support. Are churches creating space for young believers to learn about global ministry, address their doubts or questions about international missions and meet missionaries?
Research from The Connected Generation, an international Barna study conducted in partnership with World Vision, takes a closer look at how being part of a local church or faith community has inspired young adults ages 18–35 to practice aid, compassion and outreach—including missions work.
The data show that churchgoing young adults around the world are often drawn to pursue new ways of living out their faith and interacting with peers in a broader religious community. These 18–35-year-olds note being inspired to consider living generously (41%), be a leader (26%) and become a missionary (19%) all from watching the examples of others at their church.
Christians’ perceptions of missions are indeed changing, especially as younger generations ponder what global missions and evangelism efforts look like on their terms. These data should act as a reminder to church leaders to consider how they define and sustain a healthy, effective missions culture through their church and across generations.
Further resources on missions:
- Register for Barna’s Activating Missions CoLab, a six-week cohort designed to help prepare your church for an impactful missions future, sponsored by Mission India.
- Read Translating the Great Commission, available for purchase in the Barna store.
- Check out Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation to discover how Gen Z teens think about and practice evangelism in 2021.
- Learn more about how the Church is developing the most globally connected generation into future world and Church leaders in The Connected Generation.
About the Research
Translating the Great Commission data: This study involved qualitative and quantitative research with pastors, churchgoers and U.S. adults. In initial research, an open-ended online survey was conducted in July 2017 to explore perceptions of missions and Bible translation. The 84 participants included 25 pastors, 31 practicing Christians (of any age) and 28 churchgoing Millennials. Subsequently, Barna surveyed the same types of respondents in a comprehensive online survey made up of primarily closed-end quantitative questions. These interviews were conducted in October 2017 with a nationally representative sample of 1,010 U.S. adults, as well as 619 U.S. Protestant senior pastors (senior, lead or executive roles) and 1,004 U.S. adult churchgoers (who have attended a regular church service within the past six months). An oversample of young adults contributed to a total of 692 Millennial churchgoing respondents.
Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation—U.S. data: Research for this study, conducted in partnership with Alpha USA, is based on an online survey of 1,324 13–18-year-olds currently residing in the U.S., between March 5 and April 16, 2021. A random sampling methodology was observed for parent recruitment. Quotas and minimal weighting were used to ensure data are representative of known Census ethnicity, gender, age and region. Error rate is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.
The Connected Generation data: This study is based on online, representative public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group. A total of 15,369 respondents ages 18 to 35 across 25 countries were surveyed between December 4, 2018 and February 15, 2019. See full details of sample distribution based on continent and country at theconnectedgeneration.com. Unless otherwise noted, all data referenced in The Connected Generation were collected by Barna, among a nationally representative sample of the population identified. For this study, Barna relied on online collection methods, including mobile phone users. The study used online national consumer panels that are representative by age, gender, region and ethnicity. Respondents were fully verified by the representative sample sources. Additionally, quality control measures checked that respondents were completing the survey at an appropriate pace and paying attention to the questions asked. The survey was offered in nine different languages, (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Romanian, Korean, Indonesian and Taiwanese), translated by a trusted translation service and verified by local partners in every country for context-specific nuance. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base, the CIA World Fact Book and available census data from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, the UK, Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Philippines and Singapore, quotas were designed to ensure the final group of adults interviewed in the study reflected each country’s distribution of adults nationwide based on age, gender, ethnicity and region. Online surveys necessitate literacy and an internet connection, which means the sample reflects adults who have those capabilities and does not reflect those who are unable to read or lack connectivity to respond to online surveys. Thus, in spite of a robust methodology, this sample is not meant to be representative of entire national populations, regions, continents or the world. The countries selected for this study were based on countries and regions where Barna and World Vision receive frequent requests for research-based insights. These and other concerns or limitations were respectfully considered while interpreting the data.
Churchgoers are defined for these samples as those who have attended church within the past six months.
Barna 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, 2021