Barna study shows Christians age 13 to 18 are skeptical of evangelism, but they’re having deep and personal peer-to-peer conversations.
Treyson West doesn’t have a name for it, but if you want to call it evangelism, that’s fine.
He doesn’t think he has a strategy or model for trying to change people’s beliefs, though. He’s just interested in friendship and reliance on the Holy Spirit.
“The big thing is showing somebody what their identity could be through Christ,” says the 19-year-old high school graduate in the suburbs of Dallas. “Everybody is pushing you to be polarized. And ultimately that just pushes you deeper into a sense of not belonging, and Gen Z digs deeper into loneliness.”
That’s why, when West wants to tell a teenager about Jesus, he doesn’t tell them. He listens, and asks questions to get to know them, showing that he cares. And when God becomes real to one of his friends, he likes to point that out.
Recently, West was sitting with a friend in a car in front of the friend’s house, and the friend was talking about his life and struggles and whether he could believe in God. West asked him how he felt right at that moment, talking about God in the car.
“My heart feels, like, warm,” the friend said.
“Dude, that’s the Holy Spirit,” West said. “That’s God, right there.”
The friend accepted Jesus before he got out of the car.
A new Barna Group study, set to be released on Monday, says that West’s approach isn’t unusual for younger Christians. Gen Z believers want to share about Jesus, and they are having deep, personal conversations about their faith with their friends. But they have reservations about the idea of evangelism and are skeptical of evangelistic strategies.
According to Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation, produced in partnership with Alpha USA, 82 percent of Christians between the ages of 13 and 18 say that it’s important to them to share their faith. And nearly 80 percent say they have had a conversation about faith with someone at least once in the past year.
The study is based on an online survey of more than 1,300 teenagers between March and April of 2021. The parents were selected by random sampling, and the teenagers’ responses were weighted by demographic data, including gender, ethnicity, and geographic region, to ensure Barna was looking at a representative sample. Barna says the numbers have about a 3 point margin of error.
Seventy percent of the sample identified as Christian, according to Barna, and the next largest group, about 12 percent, identified as “nothing in particular.” Seven percent identified as “spiritually open,” while 3 percent said they were atheist and 3 percent, agnostic.
Gen Z is generally considered to be anyone born after 1996. The oldest of them are now 25. They were 12 when the housing market collapsed and Barack Obama was elected president. Barna chose to focus on the group of young people who are in high school right now—people who were born roughly between the introduction of the first widely available cellphone with a camera and the release of the first iPhone.
The 13- to 18-year-olds who identify as Christian “have strong feelings against specific evangelistic language and persuasive practices,” the study found, but they “are talking about their faith with non-Christians” and believe that “relational, neutral spiritual conversations with non-Christians strengthen their faith.”
Most Gen Z Christians do not think it’s important to have all the answers to questions about faith. They are skeptical of arguments that aim to change someone’s mind. Almost none think it’s a good idea to be quick to point out inconsistencies in others’ perspectives, which has been a key component of some approaches to apologetics.
Instead, 66 percent say they want to be someone who listens without judgment, 62 percent say they want to be confident sharing their own perspective, and 54 say it’s important to ask good questions.
Gen Z Christians “seem to be hyper-considerate conversation partners,” according to the report, “driven to listen and learn from others and preferring to ‘prove’ their faith in their actions, not their words.”
Despite their long exposure to social media—or perhaps because of it—Gen Z Christians are not big advocates for digital evangelism. The Barna study found that less than a third think that posting something to social media or sharing online content should be considered evangelism.
Jordan Whitmer, the 22-year-old founder of a Gen Z evangelistic organization called the HowToLife Movement, said there are young Christians proclaiming the gospel on social media, especially the video-sharing site TikTok. He sees that mode as something important.
“If Billy Graham was 25 years old today, he would be on TikTok. Or Louis Palau or D. L. Moody. They could spot an evangelistic opportunity a mile away, and that’s where it is,” said Whitmer, whose grandfather Ron Hutchcraft is an evangelist who worked with Youth for Christ and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
But today’s TikTok evangelists are aware of the drawbacks and dangers of social media. It’s not their first choice for talking about important things.
“I don’t know any of my friends who make TikToks or social media content or any Gen Zer who would say, ‘I love social media,’” Whitmer said. “You would never see that on a T-shirt. It’s a blessing and a curse, and 90 percent of the time it’s a curse, but you try to focus on the 10 percent.”
HowToLife primarily focuses on in-person evangelistic events. They have done more than 100 so far, organized by young Christians in a church or a high school with support from the national organization.
In some ways the events are as traditional as Graham’s crusades or old-fashioned tent revivals. But since they’re put on by Gen Z for Gen Z, there are also notable differences, Whitmer said. The 102 events the group has supported so far tend to elevate storytelling, panel discussions, and Q&A sessions, along with lots of music.
Occasionally a young person will preach. Whitmer has also been known to conclude an event with an altar call, which he calls “a straight-up, come-forward, Billy Graham–style invitation.” But more often than not, the events end with small groups of friends just talking.
Jordan Biere, the national director for Alpha USA’s youth division, said connection is incredibly important to young people today. That need has only heightened during the pandemic.
“They’re fiercely relational,” said Biere, who is 34. “They need to be present with one another, and physical presence matters to them.”
Alpha, which started in the Anglican Church in Great Britain, offers a 10-week course introducing people to the basics of Christian faith. The sessions are centered on discussion, and framed as “an opportunity to explore the meaning of life.”
Many of them are held in churches in the US, but Biere says he increasingly sees high school students who run their own groups, often in their homes. For them, Alpha groups facilitate relationships and deepen friendships.
“Faith conversation is actually a point of deep connection for Gen Z,” he said. “They have a deep longing for belonging, and faith conversation is a connection point.”
That’s what Graham Varnell was thinking when he started an Alpha group in his Baptist church in Richardson, Texas, a few years ago when he was in high school. The church, he said, had always emphasized evangelism, but when he’d tried to witness to one of his peers, it hurt their friendship.
The friend said no one wants to be a project. Varnell was hurt by the implication, but he also thought his friend was right; he had been looking at him as a project.
With Alpha, he decided to take a different approach and really focus on listening, hospitality, and friendships. The first few weeks, he mostly ended up with extra pizza, but soon there was a regular group, including Treyson West, and there were friendships, conversations, and then conversions.
“Friendship is absolutely paramount, that’s what I’ve seen,” he said. “Friends will bring friends and then we’ll just invite the Holy Spirit to come, and the Spirit comes with power.”
Recently, because Varnell and West have been talking so much about listening, they’ve started to change the way they pray, so that they listen to God more than they talk. The result, according to Varnell, has been “something of a charismatic outbreak,” though he hastens to add he’s not sure that’s the right term.
“You put your hands on someone and ask the Holy Spirit to come and wait like three minutes or four minutes,” he said. “It just turns into this space where there’s not a structure, or there’s a loose structure. … What I see with students most is they cry. They cry and cry until they’re happy, and they get fired up about God and they go and pray for each other.”
Varnell doesn’t know whether this is evangelism proper. But his friends and his friends’ friends are experiencing the love of God, and they’re talking and sharing about faith and Jesus. To Varnell, and a lot of other Gen Z Christians, that seems more important than whatever you call it.