Barna Group Sure Hopes Gen Z Can Rescue Evangelicalism

They've realized Millennials won't save their bacon, so they've skipped down to the next generation.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Out of everything about the breathtaking decline of Christianity in America, evangelicals’ consistently WTF response to it might be the part I find most interesting. Here’s this utter reality slapping them across the face constantly, and yet somehow they manage to find the most surreal ways imaginable to deal with their ego burns. Case in point: this Barna Group survey about Generation Z. Today, let me show you how Barna Group desperately hopes Gen Z will save their bacon — and how older evangelicals will guarantee that doesn’t happen.

(Daniel Tausis.) Credit: Daniel Tausis / Unsplash

(Note: When I talk about Christianity’s decline, I’m referring to cultural power and Christians’ overall relevance and credibility to most people. Unfortunately, Christians still enjoy political dominance. They may even be gaining it. Thus, the only reason evangelicals care — even minimally — about making sales is that they can’t just force their marks to comply and obey. Studies like the ones discussed today will stop mattering the very second Christians fully gain that kind of power, if they ever do — just as they stopped caring about it centuries ago under similar circumstances.)

(Bride of Note: Also, I’m sorry if today’s use of “young people” triggers some flashbacks in our ex-evangelical readers. I saw it as necessary.)

Show Notes.

First, a basic rundown of the ideas in this story:

Barna Group is a for-profit business that conducts research about religion. I personally regard their research as iffy and sketchy. Then, they write commentary and advice about their results. And then, they sell that commentary to frantic evangelical leaders, who theoretically use these products in their own groups. Their leader and founder, George Barna, left the business for some new gig, but his views — utter culture-warrior wackadoodlery — guided Barna Group for many years. As a result, they have an interestingly gatekeep-y and lengthy definition of “evangelical.” (You can see it on p.2 here.)

David Kinnaman leads the business now. For reference, we reviewed his book You Lost Me and found it severely lacking.

(Barna Group does or at least used to do market consulting for secular businesses too, not just religious ones. For all I know, their secular work might be great.)

Generation Z is an age cohort consisting of people born between the mid/late 1990s to the early 2010s. La Wiki, Our Font of All Knowledge, calls them “digital natives.” That means that for the most part, Gen Z grew up with the consumer internet as an everyday part of their lives. They are widely regarded as the least religious generation in history — at least till we start doing research on the newest generation, I reckon. Presently, Gen Z people range from their tweens to early 20s. Only a fraction of them identify as Barna-Group-gold-standard evangelicals.

Personal evangelism means person-to-person recruitment attemptsEvangelicals largely haaaaate doing it.

Young people is Christianese for teens through young adults. Roughly, they’re 15-35ish. Evangelicals pronounce it as one word: yungpeepul. Currently, some yungpeepul still qualify as Millennials.

And finally, Alpha is absolutely famous. Mostly, they run indoctrination courses.

Barna Group and Their Evangelism Study.

Today’s story is called “What Makes an Engaging Witness, as Defined by Gen Z.” Barna Group released it on November 10, 2021. They based this story on their product, a study called Reviving Evangelism in the Next Generation. Barna conducted this study with the help of some people involved in Alpha USA and Alpha Canada.

It’s important to know that this study actually forms part of their overall product, a series called Reviving Evangelism. Its back blurb says it all: “How can they hear unless someone tells them?” (That means they know that nothing whatsoever about their religion can be intuited from the real world.) This new product is a subset of that overall one. It provides commentary specific to Gen Z.

As I mentioned above, not many Gen Z people subscribe to Barna Group’s idiosyncratic definition of evangelicalism. But evangelical leaders are well aware that if they can’t recruit more Gen Z believers, then their cultural power will dwindle to complete irrelevancy. So this study is about Gen Z Barna-certified evangelicals: what they’re like, how they Jesus, and most importantly how they seek to recruit their peers into their groups.

Recruiting has become evangelical leaders’ biggest worry and focus these days — as it dang well should. Appropriately, then, Barna Group offers up what they clearly regard as a very important benefit (VIB) for their product:

Provides you [the evangelical leader who buys this dreck] with practical tips for fostering a passion for evangelism in the young people you lead.

We shall see.

What Barna Group Discovered About Gen Z.

(Short Answer: They’re Boned. Absolutely Boned. Beyond Boned.)

This study focused only on teenagers in Gen Z. Barna Group has been raising the alarm about Gen Z for years now, at least since 2018. That year, after asking Gen Z people what they thought about various aspects of evangelicalism, Barna Group dubbed these young adults “the first truly ‘post-Christian’ generation.”

Well, it’s now 2021, and things have only gotten worse for evangelical leaders.

In that 2018 study I mentioned just now (relink), Barna Group discovered a whole bunch of really awful things that Gen Z thought of evangelicalism as a whole and as a culture. These things included:

  • hypocrisy
  • irrelevance to their lives
  • science denial
  • an inability to make their belief make sense
  • an utter inability to truly listen to respondents’ concerns or take them seriously

This new study doesn’t seem to address those negatives much at all. One can see why. It’s not like evangelicals could change anything there.

Instead, it focuses on figuring out why some Gen Z people are evangelical. It also asks how those Gen Z people engage with personal evangelism. 

Personal Evangelism: Still Not Evangelicals’ Favorite Thing.

For years now, we’ve marveled together at just how much evangelicals despise personal evangelism. Oh sure, I mean, they may call themselves evangelicals, a label which directly emphasizes evangelism.

But they don’t want to do it themselves.

They’d rather let their Dear Leaders handle that sales-and-recruitment stuff, along with the few laypeople in their groups who happen to be naturally gifted at salesmanship. If they don’t feel gifted that way (and evangelicals do regard above-average evangelism skills as a specific divine gift), then they are exceedingly reluctant to engage in recruitment on their own.

Evangelicals know perfectly well that most people don’t want to be their sales marks. So they don’t want to risk their relationships or credibility on sales pitches that will almost certainly be rejected anyway.

Evangelical leaders’ main task, in a lot of ways, consists of getting the flocks het up enough to go out and at least try to make some sales. A few years ago, we saw Ed Stetzer do that in the most hamfisted and obvious way imaginable.

But younger evangelicals don’t have quite as much to risk. And they are far more likely than older church members to follow the orders of the trusted adults and authority figures in their lives — and to take the tribe’s party lines seriously.

Barna Group Describes the Quirky Gen Z Approach to Personal Evangelism.

This study asked Gen Z teens to describe someone who is comfortable with evangelism. That’s a very interesting idea to me, given how uncomfortable almost all evangelicals are with this set of tasks. So Barna Group asked a whopping 1,324 teens aged 13-18 to describe what characteristics they’d expect to find in “someone who is comfortable sharing their faith.”

They then separated their respondents into three groups:

  • “Christian Gen Z who have conversations about their faith”
  • “All Christian Gen Z”
  • “Non-Christian Gen Z”

(And no, we have no idea how Barna defined these categories. What kind of conversations? With whom? To what end? How is “Christian” defined? We don’t know.)

Their results:

the comfortable evangelist
Describing the ‘comfortable evangelist.’ Click to embiggen. (Barna Group.)

Interestingly, Barna Group discovered that the #1 descriptor for all three groups was “listens without judgment.” #2 in the Christian groups was “confident in sharing their own perspective.” Even more interestingly, the non-Christians ranked #2 as “does not force a conclusion,” which trailed behind at #4 for Christians.

Barna Group Asks Non-Christians How to Sell Their Product to Them.

Next, Barna Group asked 393 non-Christian teens aged 13-18 about what kinds of evangelism approaches might work best on them.

I’m just surprised they’re asking about this stuff at all. This study might well represent the first time in Christianity’s decline I’ve seen any evangelicals even care about how to best appeal to their marks. Their results:

how oh how can evangelicals make their groups seem halfway appealing
LOL @ most respondents saying nothing would really work. Click to embiggen. (Barna Group.)

#1 on the non-Christians’ response list involved seeing Christians live like they actually believe all that blahblah they say they do, instead of making an official sales pitch of any kind. Almost half of the respondents said that’d be at least somewhat appealing to them.

You might notice that of the rest of the choices, most might as well not be done at all. And most respondents tended to say that nothing that evangelicals offered as options would work on them or would be very unlikely to work.

More than that, apologetics arguments trying to make the Bible sound like actual evidence for Christian claims turns out to be the 2nd-least-effective evangelism method. That last bit is beyond hilarious to me, given how hard evangelical leaders shill apologetics courses aimed primarily at young Christians.

The Surreal WTF Response of Barna Group to Their Own Survey Results.

If evangelicals actually paid attention to anything their potential marks thought or wanted, this study would seem to indicate that overt sales pitches, apologetics, offers of prayer, bait-and-switch youth events, and testimonies are all largely both unwanted and ineffective.

The one thing that actually matters is the one thing evangelicals can’t actually provide: a lived-out faith that is free of hypocrisy. Their roadmap to decent humanity is and has always been broken. Heck, they can’t even live according to their own stated rules.

So Barna Group’s takeaway from this study involves trying to give Gen Z yungpeepul what they call “opportunities to live out their faith in community, pursue justice and meet tangible needs,” as well as trying to build their young charges “confidence” by “coaching Christian teens to be active and considerate listeners.”

However, you have to filter these otherwise-decent-sounding ideas through the evangelical mindset.

Evangelicals’ version of all of these things are Bizarro-World in nature. They’re like if “Opposite Day” was a place and culture, not a silly children’s game.

Sidebar: The Evangelical Filter in Action.

For example, “pursue justice” does not mean to evangelicals what Gen Z means by it. It absolutely does not mean racial justice, pursuit of less racist systems, firmly holding law enforcement fully accountable, recognition of Black people’s suffering, and meaningful redress.

At most and at best, it means “racial reconciliation,” which often just means white evangelicals letting themselves off the hook for systemic racism through tribe-approved substitutions like performative crocodile tears and public wailing during their endless conventions. (They have always preferred these easy fake solutions for difficult tasks.)

But ever since Trumpist politics and QAnon completely addled evangelicals’ remaining sensibilities and compassion, the tribe bristles at any hint that maybe, just maybe their broken and dysfunctional system maybe helped perpetuate racism in America — and that those systems require serious attention and change before that kind of reconciliation is possible.

Gen Z generally means it when they say that “Black Lives Matter.” The white evangelicals who glom onto Barna Group stuff definitely do not want any of that.

So when Barna Group talks about giving Gen Z permission to pursue “justice,” they’re using the general same words that Gen Z will like, yes, but once Gen Z figures out what evangelicals really mean by those words they will bounce right out of the sales pitch.

(Let’s not even get started about how abysmally inept evangelicals are at listening.)

Gen Z: Evangelicals’ Last Best and Only Hope.

In a lot of ways, younger evangelicals represents their tribe’s best — and largely only — hope of recovering from their decline.

Evangelical leaders’ attention was always fated to shift from Millennials to Gen Z. Millennials utterly failed to secure a turnaround in the tribe’s fortunes. So now those leaders look to Gen Z to save their bacon.

In this study, Barna Group did their level best to try to offer their customers a reason to hope. They told older evangelicals that there’s totally a way to get yungpeepul into personal evangelism, which will totally result in tons of new recruits that the tribe desperately needs.

However, the only way Gen Z could save evangelicalism is by turning it into something older evangelicals absolutely don’t want and would never, ever allow anyway.

And just as Gen Z non-Christians will bounce from evangelism attempts once they realize the salespeople are being deceptive, Gen Z evangelicals will bounce from the tribe itself once they realize — as so many of us older folks already have — how impossible it is to change any broken system from the inside.

NEXT UP: Abortion rights are an intrinsic part of a robust platform of human rights, not ‘the culture‘ that zealous Christian moral failures still hope to recapture. Speaking of Gen Z’s superpowers, we’ll check out an optimistic sign of our future next time — see you then!

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Parting thoughts: Compare and contrast how evangelicals deal with their dying industry with how game designers interact with potential customers. The dev posting in the subreddit r/TheBloodline is doing it right.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...