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Do half of millennials really say it’s wrong to evangelize? Not the ones I know.
Mind the click-bait
Christianity Today’s clickbait headline caught my idea because it referenced a study a friend of mine from the Evangelical-Mecca, Grand Rapids, tagged me in on Twitter. (Yeah, I have some Internet friends, what’s it to you?) It caught my eye because I thought that of course the leading Evangelical publication needs to get us to click on their website (a little cynical, I know, but for-profit media wants circulation above all else). But it also caught my eye because the study that the publication is referencing doesn’t seem to exactly say that half of millennials hate evangelism. And since I am a millennial who loves evangelism, I got a little defensive.
Here's a study from George Barna. I like Barna’s stuff and have used it in the past. I generally take it with a grain of salt, because he’s pushing products too (this study is done in order to sell his new book Reviving Evangelism--he interested me enough to buy it, so his idea must be working), but I do think he is reliable. So it’s not that the figures are lying, necessarily, but how we figure the figures matters. And more than that, our real-life experience matters. Yes, anecdotal evidence, to me, is as powerful as a poll (since 2016, I’ve been so disappointed by polling, I think it’s all anyone’s guess anyway—Nate Silver ain’t my hero).
Millennials want to witness and what to share their faith!
Overwhelmingly, millennial Christians say that part of their faith is being a witness for Jesus—96 percent of them do (although, it's important to note that Barna doesn't specify a percentage of who "somewhat" and "strongly" agrees). That trend is the same across past generations too. Ninety-four percent of them think faith in Jesus is the best thing that could happen to someone! That’s incredibly encouraging for evangelists. The vast majority of them know how to respond to questions about faith as well; and here’s the kicker, they say they are more gifted at sharing their faith than Gen X, Boomers, and their Elders. So all of that is good, in my opinion, and positive for our movement, for the advancement of the Gospel, for the awakening of the world to Jesus’ cosmic event of salvation.
But those positive statistics, largely unchanged from past generations (the greatest disparity is in millennial's giftedness at sharing their faith) don’t make much of a headline. But what does make the headline are the last two prompts: 47 percent of millennials, according to Barna, think it’s wrong to share their personal beliefs with someone in hopes (my emphasis) of changing their faith. And 40 percent of them think if someone disagrees with you, they’re judging you.
Evangelism is about more than just abstract doctrine recital
I think the wording of these questions matter, and I'm not sure what the wording Barna used. But it it is likely what's on the above graph. If we assume that millennials were answering the questions that are listed, I think we run into problems. (Side note: Barna doesn’t publish his source material, so there is some mystery here.) Millennials say that they are gifted at sharing their faith, but think it’s wrong to do so in hopes of changing someone’s beliefs.
They may not know this is what is happening, but I suspect a reason that they think it’s wrong to share their faith in hopes of changing someone else’s is because they have another motive for doing so. They may think that the sum of our salvation or beliefs isn’t just a matter of belief locked into our mind and thus an abstraction. They may think sharing their faith is changing the whole world, not just individuals.
Christianity Today may define “evangelism” using that question, but it’s just a leap to say that half of millennials thus think it’s wrong to evangelize. They may just think the questioner’s conclusion about what it means to evangelize, simply changing someone’s beliefs, is wrong.
I think this tendency marks a shift in the church, in both how it understands the world, and how it understands its work in the world. To be honest, changing minds and changing beliefs is useless if they aren’t enacted. And in my opinion, Christians have been too-often “Christians in belief only.” They know the answers to the doctrinal questions, but that’s about it. And it shows in the immoral American landscape, one where morality itself is seen as a partisan issue. Some may be Christians in their minds, but social construction is their religion because they invent how they live. In a way, that doesn’t challenge the world they live in at all. It’s a classic problem in the Bible, of course. Israel praised the name of God while allying with evil enemies; and James says that even the demons declare the name of the lord.
When our beliefs don’t change our actions, they are dead and our faith is dead. So, I might also answer, that it’s wrong to reduce evangelism down to a mental ascent. I actually think that’s more biblical. Maybe millennials are too smart for Barna’s questions and are deconstructing it (I mean, isn’t that exactly what I did?).
Millennials feel judged because they are incredibly judged
With regards to the question about disagreement and judgment, I honestly think that’s just the result of the fact that millennials are an incredibly judged generation. They are blamed for all sorts of society’s ills prior to being at an age to be responsible for them. So, I think that they are under a miasma of judgment, and unfortunately as a friend told me, studies like this don’t help them not feel judged by the church. And of course, if they are judged by Christians, they might be reluctant to evangelize as defined by Barna. I do think the excitement for Christian conversion is deadened by the constant remarking about how “Christian” the United States should be.
The millennials I know showed me that the best way to help someone follow Jesus is to be their friend, and likewise, it's the best way to help someone not be racist. We see this elsewhere, too: the best advertising is word-of-mouth. The best way to evangelize is to witness and share your faith, not for the expressed reason of conversion, but for the fact that sharing your story releases the Gospel and allows the Holy Spirit to work. The Holy Spirit does the heavy-lifting, not our own evangelistic tactics.
My millennial friends want to love and share and witness: they want to evangelize
And that’s why I think that the study is a little too “loud.” I’m amazed that millennials want to witness, share their faith, and think Jesus is the greatest thing that can happen to someone. And in Circle of Hope, we have millennials that run the whole church. They definitely want to relate, connect, and love people like Jesus did. That incarnational approach is exactly how Jesus approached his own ministry. He came in the flesh to relate to us that we might relate to him.
Maybe my encouragement is not enough for you, and you’re still buying the line from Christianity Today. If that’s the case, please, don’t shower millennials with more judgment. We’ve had enough. Don’t throw another study at us, or another blog post, or another seminar that’s supposed to make us real Christians and real leaders. We’ve taken more responsibility for the misdeeds that have happened before us than is fair, and the ones I know are working their butts off to enact the Gospel in the world, to further peace and reconciliation, to pursue their own health and sense of identity in Christ. Walk with us, relate to us, witness to us, share with us. You know? The things we said we were into. The things we said worked. No judgment. No ulterior motive. No condemnation. Relate in good in faith. That’s what Jesus wanted.