The headlines last week summed up the most surprising finding in new research from Barna: “Half of millennial Christians say it’s wrong to evangelize.” Take note: these aren’t millennials who merely claim a Christian affiliation but churchgoing Christians who say religion is an important part of their lives! Nearly half (47 percent) agreed with the following statement:

“It is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.”

In other words, almost half of Christians in North America today in their 20s and 30s believe it’s wrong to evangelize someone of a different faith.

Making Sense of the Stats

What’s going on here? How do we make sense of that statistic when in the same survey 96 percent of millennial Christians say “part of my faith means being a witness about Jesus,” and 94 percent of millennials agree that “the best thing that could ever happen to someone is for them to come to know Jesus.” And how does the 47 percent who say it’s wrong to evangelize square with the 73 percent of millennials who say they are gifted at sharing their faith with other people?

There’s certainly a lot to unpack here. Here are some suggestions that might help us interpret the survey.

Let’s start with the 96 percent of millennials who see “being a witness about Jesus” as an integral part of faith but believe it’s wrong to try and persuade someone else to adopt the same faith. What does that mean? My guess is that, for many or most of the respondents, “being a witness about Jesus” does not mean verbal evangelism. Millennials hear “be a witness” and don’t think of “witnessing.” Instead, they think of living an exemplary Christian life that serves as a witness to Jesus. They’re not saying, “verbally calling people to faith is a central part of the Christian life” but “representing Jesus to others in how I live” is what’s important. Life, not words.

Second, the 73 percent who say they are “gifted at sharing their faith with other people” indicates that many respondents find it easy to talk about what they believe, and yet hesitate when it comes to persuading someone to adopt the same faith. In other words, “sharing their faith” for millennials likely does not mean mean “evangelism,” but “talking about what Jesus means to me.

Third, it is possible that some of the respondents to the survey thought this question referred to the attempt to convince Christians to join a particular denomination. In my interactions with churchgoing Christians through the years, I’ve noticed how often people hear “different faith” and think “Presbyterian” versus “Lutheran” versus “Methodist versus “Baptist.” If this is the case, then the percentage saying it’s wrong to share one’s personal beliefs in order to get someone of a “different faith” to share the same faith may not represent a full-scale aversion to evangelism.

Still, the percentage on that question about “different faith” is striking when you compare it to previous generations, which indicates that there still is something of allergic reaction to evangelism among millennials, even if it may not be quite 47 percent.

What is going on culturally and in our churches that might lead millennials to say it’s wrong to evangelize?

Faith as Private Matter

Barna president David Kinnaman is certainly right to point out the cultural expectation against judging personal choices. After all, practicing Christian millennials were four-times as likely as Boomers and Elders to agree with the statement, “If someone disagrees with you, it means they’re judging you.”

This is a symptom of a deeper matter—the idea that faith is just a private embrace of “personal” truth. Culturally, this is the bigger challenge. It’s part of the fact/value split—the idea that religion belongs to the realm of private values (“what’s true or meaningful for me”), while science and other spheres in life belong to the realm of public truth (“what’s true for everyone”).

When faith becomes personalized in a consumer society steeped in expressive individualism, evangelism becomes controversial. The idea of converting someone to your faith sounds arrogant and closed-minded. And since one’s faith is only “true for me” but might not be a fit for everyone, then some of the main tenets of our faith get reimagined. Jesus isn’t the only way to God, but the only way to God at least for me. Surely God is going to deal graciously with people of other faiths, as long as they’re decent and sincere, right?

Absence of Hell 

In our churches and discipleship efforts, we have to consider an additional problem: Hell doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. For the churchgoing millennial, the absence of any mention or thought of hell as an eternal reality—spoken about by the apostles and warned about by Jesus—reveals a deficiency in discipleship. Do we take seriously all that Jesus says?

I realize that in the past some evangelical teaching and preaching focused on the eternal destinies to the point that the Christian life was reduced to being only about going to heaven and avoiding hell. The imbalance in this regard distorted the larger Christian message and diminished Jesus’s kingdom announcement.

Still, we should shudder at churches that don’t know what it means to shudder about hell. I don’t know how you can take Jesus’s message seriously and miss that glaring and frequent aspect of his teaching. Mock “fire and brimstone preachers” all you want, but take care that in the process, you’re not mocking Jesus himself.

Questions to Ponder

As church leaders, we must ask ourselves some tough questions.

In reaction to an older generation of evangelicals that may, at times, have overemphasized the heaven/hell dichotomy, and in reaction to a more confrontational style of evangelism, is the next generation failing to take Jesus’s message about hell seriously enough?

If younger Christians no longer believe that one’s eternal destiny depends on what one does with Jesus, could that be why they less frequently issue the call to repent and believe?

When millennials say “Jesus is the best thing that could ever happen to someone” and also say it’s wrong to introduce someone else to him, aren’t they basically saying, Jesus isn’t for you? 

Have we traded a life-giving inclusivism (the gospel is for everyone and Jesus is the Savior of all the world) for a death-inducing inclusivism (it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere)?