Discussing Missions with the Next Generation—What Terms Are Preferred or Objectionable?


Articles in Faith & Christianity in Millennials & Generations • August 12, 2020

The data in this article is from The Future of Missions, a new Barna report. Purchase your copy today!

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The study of teens and young adult Christians has been an important area of research for Barna over the last few years. Perspectives of young believers change across the decades, challenging pastors to stay informed when it comes to reaching younger generations. In light of this, today’s article takes a look at data from The Future of Missions, highlighting the way different age groups talk about missions and why teens and young adults lean away from certain terminology when discussing global ministry.

Data show that Millennials and Gen Z teens are more cautious about the words they use to describe the goals and reasons behind sharing their faith with others, something older generations are less apt to do. So what words should church leaders and parents use when discussing missions with younger believers?

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Young Adults and Teens Prefer Saying “Sharing Faith” Over “Evangelism”
Religious language changes over time. Once-common words and phrases fall out of fashion and use for various reasons, often because younger generations feel their parents’ and grandparents’ preferred words don’t adequately describe their experience.

For years the Barna team has tracked attitudes toward religious language, especially words and phrases associated with Christianity. Findings published in Reviving Evangelism and Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age indicate that younger generations of believers are more cautious than older Christians about how and when they use words like “evangelism” and “conversion.”

The Future of Missions data bolsters this evidence and, further, suggests that younger Christians’ caution may be trickling upward. Researchers asked the three survey groups to choose their top two preferences from a list of terms related to missions. Across the board, “sharing faith” comes out on top, while preference for a more straightforwardly religious option like “evangelism” falls parallel to age.

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A Plurality of Engaged Christians Struggles with the Term “Convert”
Engaged Christians are not alone in their discomfort. In Barna’s missionary interviews, a desire to tread lightly when it comes to language came up a number of times. A Europe-based artist, for example, said, “In America I call myself a missionary, but not here. Here I’m an artist and a social worker. I do community development work. My story includes my faith, but I don’t lead with that.”

It’s not a matter of embarrassment or shame. In some places in the world, calling oneself a missionary isn’t merely socially awkward; it’s a closed door. According to a seminary professor who trains aspiring missionaries, “There are places where you cannot get an entry visa to be a missionary. If you put ‘missionary’ on your visa request, it’s denied. End of story.”

Even in the U.S. where that’s decidedly not the case, younger generations’ dislike for what cynics sometimes call “Christianese” is obvious when they’re asked what options they do not prefer when it comes to missions-related vocabulary. While a plurality of engaged Christians 35 and older (44%) says “none of these” options is troubling, “convert” tops the objectionable list for both young adults (35%) and teens (38%). Three in 10 (31% young adults, 30% teens) also reject “winning souls.”

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Listening intentionally to young Christians who object to at least one missions term uncovers important nuance: Their objections don’t inevitably lead to disengagement from missions altogether. In fact, young adults who may squirm at the use of “convert” or “winning souls,” for instance, are more likely than others to personally know a missionary (83% vs. 77%) and to have been on an international missions trip (41 vs. 29%). They are just as likely as others to say giving to and praying for missionaries is in their future. At the same time, however, they are more likely to be supportive skeptics (30% vs. 18%) and to be troubled when it comes to the ethics of past missions efforts (39% agree vs. 25%). You can learn more in the report about these individuals Barna is calling “supportive skeptics.”

Where does that leave Millennials and Gen Z? They are often ready to engage practically with missions, but sometimes hesitant to emotionally engage. And where does that leave parents and church leaders who want to connect with and disciple young believers?

When it comes to preparing young adults and teens for missional work, whether global or in their hometown, it’s important to stay informed. Trends shift over the decades, and Barna has continued to track the perspectives of faith, ministry and mission that are continuing to change as Millennials and Gen Z take their place alongside other generations in leading the Church.

In the last year alone, Barna has published numerous reports offering data on Millennials and Gen Z, including Gen Z, The Connected Generation, Faith for Exiles, Guiding Children and The Future of Missions. While these studies are available for purchase in our store, they’re also now available on Barna Access Plus—our new premium subscription service—conveniently housed in the Next Generation channel, a list specifically curated to help church leaders gain insights on how best to connect with and disciple younger generations.

To learn more about trends among the Next Generation, register for Barna Access Plus and gain access to this new study, along with our entire library of reports, sermon slides and more.

Comment on this article and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research
The findings from this study emerged from 3,606 online interviews with U.S. self-identified Christians, including 1,500 adults 35 and older (all engaged Protestants, see definitions below), 1,000 younger adults 18 to 34 (856 engaged Protestants), 602 teenagers 13 to 17 (380 engaged Protestants) and 504 engaged Protestant parents of children 13 to 25. Barna also interviewed 633 U.S. Protestant pastors of missions focused churches. Older adults, younger adults and teen interviews were conducted December 11, 2018 to January 8, 2019. Engaged Christian parents were interviewed September 11–27, 2019, and pastors were interviewed January 8–20, 2019.

Margins of error are as follows, all at the 95% confidence level:

  • Adults 35 and older: ±2.3 percentage points
  • Younger adults 18 to 24: ±3.2 percentage points
  • Teens 13 to 17: ±4.9 percentage points
  • Parents: ±4.3 percentage points
  • Pastors: ±3.8 percentage points

Engaged Protestants have attended a Protestant church at least once within the past month, are involved in their church in more ways that attending services, have made a commitment to Jesus that is still important in their life today and say their faith is very important in the life today.

Barna researchers also interviewed 16 current missionaries from August to October 2019. Each interview was 45 to 60 minutes. Identifying details have been changed to protect them, their families and their ministries. 

Engaged churchgoing Christians, sometimes called engaged Christians in this report for the sake of brevity, attend a Protestant church at least once a month, say they are involved with their church in more ways than just attending services, have made a commitment to Jesus that is important in their life today and say their religious faith is very important in their life today. Age groups include teens 13 to 17, young adults 18 to 34 and older adults 35 and older. 

Supportive skeptics have donated money to missions, don’t think missionary work is “very” valuable or are bothered by evangelism, agree strongly or somewhat with one or more of the following statements: Missions work can sometimes lead to unhealthy local dependence on charity; Charity work often hurts the local economy; Christianity should fix its reputation before doing more missions; Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism.

Photo by Nicole Geri on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna research 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, 2020

The data in this article is from The Future of Missions, a new Barna report. Purchase your copy today!

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