Young Christians Value Missions, but Question Its Ethics

ArticlesResearch Releasesin Faith & Christianityin Millennials & Generations•July 16, 2020

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

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COVID-19 has radically changed the way international missions work is happening this year. The worldwide fight against the pandemic has caused summer trip cancellations, visa difficulties and social and financial hurdles for both short-term and full-time missionaries.

Many churches and organizations are now reimagining the practical aspects of global ministry—but, even before the pandemic, other cultural shifts have demanded a new vision for missions. This is especially apparent when we focus our research on Millennials and Gen Z, who are not totally convinced of missions’ urgency and efficacy. The Future of Missions, a brand new Barna report conducted in partnership with International Mission Board, takes a closer look at what’s keeping young Christians from wholeheartedly engaging with global ministry. Centered on 10 conversations all church leaders and parents should be having with the next generation, the report analyzes Christian generations’ past and present perspectives of missionary work.

In this article, let’s take a look at current perspectives of international missions across the age groups.

Generations Agree That Missions Is Valuable, But Views Diverge by Ethnicity
Most engaged Christians’ views of missions work are influenced by at least some exposure to real-life missionaries; in fact, young adults aged 18 to 34 are more likely than teens and older adults to say they personally know at least one missionary “well” (58% vs. 47% adults 35 and older, 36% teens 13 to 17). This fact accompanies a belief that overseas missions is important. A strong majority of engaged Christians in every generation says missionary work is “very valuable.” Statistically speaking, the three age cohorts are indistinguishable on this point.


Among Americans under 35, however, black engaged Christians (61% teens, 62% young adults) are more reluctant than the white majority (74% teens, 73% young adults) to say they value missionaries’ work. Given the Euro-American Church’s historical entanglements with colonialism and African slavery, and the growing cultural awareness of that legacy’s ongoing impact, it’s not surprising that young black Americans would express deeper ambivalence. (Check out the Q&A with Barbara Jones for more insights on this vital thread of the missions conversation.)

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Young Adult Christians Wrestle More Than Other Age Groups with Missions’ Past
Although there are many examples of the transformative value of missionary work around the world, there are also aspects of its history—and sometimes its present—that are difficult or even impossible to defend. Anyone who dreams and plans for the missionary future must grapple with these realities.

Overall, engaged churchgoing Christians 18 to 34 appear to be more concerned than older adults with problematic aspects of the past. (It’s worth mentioning here that, in Barna’s experience, teen responses often look like their parents’; when they move into young adulthood, however, their views start to diverge more from previous generations’ as they form their own opinions.) One-third of young adult Christians (34%) agrees that “in the past, missions work has been unethical,” compared to one in four adults 35 and older (23%). Two in five (42%) agree that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism” (vs. 29% older adults 35+, 31% teens).


Clearly, even as young Christians still value what missionaries do, many also have significant and often valid questions about international missions. In fact, analysts found a group of engaged Christians who both express reservations and, at the same time, either financially support a missionary or have been on at least one overseas mission trip themselves. You can learn more in the report about these individuals Barna is calling “supportive skeptics.”

So, what can church leaders do now to prepare for a new era of missions? As the response to COVID-19 continues, the Church has opportunity to join young adults in closely examining both the how and the why of missions work.

For more insights from The Future of Missions, get the Church Kit including both print and digital copies, the presentation slides and a downloadable infographic on how missionaries’ roles have evolved and changed over time. To get every Barna report and actionable resources, subscribe to Barna Access Plus and stay on top of the trends that impact your organization.

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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 Kyle Glenn 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 brand new Barna report. Purchase your copy today!

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