David Kinnaman, Barna Group President, Discusses 21st Century Evangelism

For years, The Barna Group has been providing critical insights into the lives and thoughts of Christians and those around them.

David Kinnaman is the president of the group and wrote a fascinating book a few years ago, unChristian, which spelled out the challenges for today’s and future generations of Christians with a welcomed brutal honesty and forthrightness.

With school starting this week for many K-12 students, Kinnaman remarked on a recent Barna study which shows tweens and teens are increasing skittish about sharing their faith. Some companies, such as the Christian-themed DaySpring, are providing back-to-school gear for young believers to show their faith in a subtle way, but Kinnaman commented to Everyday Christian that there is nothing subtle about the changes and challenges students face regarding their faith re-entering the classroom.

EDC: With teenagers sharing their beliefs, how much of it are just the general adolescent concerns about being part of a peer group and not fitting in or is there something beyond that?

Kinnaman: I’m sure that has a big part to play in people’s reluctance to share their faith. Our (recent) research didn’t dive into what their motivations are. We’ve done some of that in years past, and it does relate to wanting to fit in and wanting to have good relationships.

I think the interesting thing is the decline that we see in some of the key groups in relation to their faith practices. A generation ago teens were more willing to talk about their faith public or described their faith in Jesus Christ with another person and that person then accepted Jesus as their Savior. There’s an increasing pressure to go along to get along beyond just the normal peer pressure. There’s an increased value on tolerance, on not rocking the boat and claiming to know something someone else doesn’t know related to spirituality.

EDC: Are these attitudes a reflection of adults being less engaged with their faith on the whole and Christians in particular being unwilling to share it for social reasons or because their discouraged from talking about it at work?

Kinnaman: It’s not unique to teens. We haven’t released the data yet, but there are certainly similar kinds of pressures being placed on parents and older generations as well. I think a fair characterization of teens is that they’re a cultural barometer of cultural pressure whether that’s media, whether that’s sexuality or whether that’s spiritual openness and assertiveness about their faith. It’s not say that they find faith to be unimportant in their lives. A lot of our research is saying that teenagers continue to be fairly active religiously. The real interesting story within the story is that the kind of religious activity that they’re engaged in tends to be very social but it’s not very confrontational.

EDC: Does the influence of social networking and the ability of people to be able to personalize their experiences rolls over into a faith aspect of being able to pick and choose on a buffet line of spirituality to see what parts fit you the best?

Kinnaman: People can choose the kinds of spiritual activities they want to have and decide what opportunities they have to talk about their faith and when they’d rather not. It becomes a much more individualistic approach to living faith and choosing faith rather than recognizing that there is a greater principle mentioned in Scripture of the necessity of sharing faith. It feels as though people pick and choose those things as top what feels right.

EDC: What kinds of challenges does this present to a pastor a youth leader to tell them, “It’s all right, even if somebody is going to give you a hard time about this.”?

Kinnaman: One of the ways to consider that is how we imagine the role of evangelism from this generation and recognize that there are probably going to be certain kinds of things that are more possible for this generation to do. We need to help them find their own voice when it comes to evangelism. It’s one thing to push them in the way things have always been done, and it’s quite another to help them understand what that actually looks like. I think there’s some places there for us to encourage the development of healthy evangelistic thinking without looking like their parents’ or grandparents’ evangelism.

One of those things is to recognize that the way these young people are wired is that they’re very optimistic. They’re very interested in succeeding. They’re very interested in making a difference in the world. They are encouragers at heart, although there’s also a ton of pressure placed on them to take their communication to the smallest possible digits, LOL and BFF and all the rest. I think there’s a real hunger for this generation to be expressing themselves that go beyond screens and in more relational and face-to-face ways.

EDC: Do you also sense that there’s a decline in feeling a sense of relevance to some of the topics? Is there an attitude of, “I’ll go to youth group or I’ll go to Sunday School, and that’s all well and good, but when I walk out the door I’m done with it.”?

Kinnaman: I think there’s a real sense right now from many teenagers that their church experience is largely on their terms rather than the terms of their parents or community, or in some ways, even their peers. To the extent that being involved in a church or being active in faith, since their sensibilities are that they are happy to be there until their faith demands of them things they’re not willing to do or to give, then it becomes a much easier thing to put aside.

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