The American Bible Society has discovered, in their State of the Bible report, that younger Christians evangelize way more often than older ones. This isn't surprising at all, considering what we already knew long ago about the increasing social costs of demanding religious change from others.
In their State of the Bible report this year, the American Bible Society outlines some dire new realities for evangelism-minded Christians. The slow decline outlined in Pew Research’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study has only continued into the next generation. In trying to find some kind of good news, any kind at all, the study’s creators have hit upon one of the lowest-hanging bits of fruit imaginable. And here it is: Gen Z Christians evangelize way more often than older Christians do!
But that’s not only to be expected, it’s the opposite of good news. In truth, it’s a sign that the decline will only continue, if not worsen in coming years.
Captain Cassidy’s Guide to Christian Honesty
In studies measuring religious dedication and fervor, researchers depend on their respondents’ honesty and forthrightness. Unfortunately, Americans have a fine and longstanding tradition of lying our unholy heathen asses off about religion. We happily embellish every single aspect of our religious lives, from lying about church attendance to exaggerating prayer habits.
Ultimately, all these studies capture is what their respondents want researchers to think about their religious lives. Atheist or non-practicing Christian respondents might want researchers to think they’re fervent Christians due to fully justifiable fears about being discovered and outed. Meanwhile, even fervent Christians often answer in aspirational ways by describing how they totally would behave in an ideal world free of all constraints.
(Religious researchers try so hard to get Christians out of that aspirational mindset, too. Read their questions about, say, church attendance, and you’ll see how hard they’re trying to stress that they want actual, real, honest-to-goodness attendance reports here. It’s a fool’s quest, though. As one Christian site discovered, Christians still overwhelmingly say they regularly attend church in numbers that would likely challenge actual church buildings to contain them all.)
Thus, it is entirely possible that the data obtained by the State of the Bible folks is just Americans being a bit more honest about their religious lives, rather than Americans’ religious lives actually changing overmuch.
Of course even by itself, that’s still big and important news!
The State of the Bible, 2022 Edition
The American Bible Society produces the State of the Bible report. Founded in 1816, this group produces and publishes a number of Bible types and study guides. In particular, they created the Good News Translation, which is the Bible done up in modern-sounding English.
Starting in 2010, they began publishing State of the Bible reports. In them, Christian researchers seek to measure “Scripture engagement.”
(Scripture or the Scriptures is Christianese. It’s just a fancy way to say “the Bible.” In today’s context, Scripture engagement measures a Christian’s dedication to Bible study, fervor, and adherence to Christianity’s rules. In the real world, we know that they’re not connected at all. But the notion is taken for granted as truth in the Christ-o-sphere.)
The 2022 State of the Bible report interests me for any number of reasons. Right off the bat, the president of the American Bible Society, Robert Briggs, concedes in its introduction that it might sound like very bad news. In fact, John Plake calls their data “startling, disheartening, and disruptive” on page ix.
But Briggs tries hard to make things sound less dire than they are:
You might be discouraged by some things you see in this report, as I was years ago in my “sky is falling” speech , but I urge you to look closely for indicators of what God is doing.2022 State of the Bible report, page iii
Later, Plake tells us that this year’s State of the Bible is “the most robust study ever” out of all previous studies. I’m not a statistics expert, so I’ll just say that I can already spot some fidgey-widginess in their diagrams. Whatever else this study is meant to do, it is meant to keep money flowing to the American Bible Society. And nothing keeps money flowing like a sense of deep alarm and urgency in the flocks.
Dire levels of Scripture engagement in State of the Bible 2022
Right away, Plake offers readers this diagram to illustrate a shocking dip in “American Bible users.”
A “Bible user,” in this study’s sense, means someone who interacts with a Bible more than 3-4 times a year outside of a church setting. Quibble with the definition all you like—I sure could write several posts about it, and I just might, see if I don’t. Note, too, that even I would count as a Bible user by that definition. And while you’re at it, side-eye how the study’s creators arranged this diagram to look as scary as possible.
Still, the percentage has indeed dipped.
In previous years, about 50% of respondents claimed to be Bible users. Some years the percentage ran a bit higher, some a bit lower, but it stayed fairly consistent at least. This year, however, only 39% of respondents claimed to use the Bible that often.
The amount of claimed Scripture engagement also fell quite a bit:
In this diagram, “Movable Middle” basically means people who’ve just engaged with the Bible for the first time:
Altogether, we define Scripture Engagement as consistent interaction with the Bible that shapes people’s choices and transforms their relationships with God, self, and others.
Combining these factors, we identify some people as Scripture Engaged, and others as Bible Disengaged. There’s also a large group in between, which we have dubbed the Movable Middle. As people come to the Bible for the first time, they start in the Movable Middle before continuing into the Scripture Engaged category as they connect more deeply with God in the Bible. But they could also move the other way, their commitment lapsing to the point of disengagement.State of the Bible 2022, pages 3-4
(Elsewhere, the study seems to use this term to mean lax Christians.)
It looks like in 2021, a number of people moved into the Movable Middle category. The State of the Bible researchers hoped very much that they were looking at this big massive trend of recovery. But it was not to be. In 2022, that category shrank considerably. Instead, the disengaged group ballooned this year.
Quite an interesting story lurks within that diagram. But it’s not the one that State of the Bible 2022’s creators really wanted to hear.
Gen Z in the State of the Bible 2022
Also, Gen Z is almost the least Scripture-engaged generation since these State of the Bible reports began. That’s not surprising, since we’ve known for years that Gen Z is the least Christian generation of Americans ever. You can almost hear Christian leaders’ jaws dropping to the floor with this image:
Gen Z respondents to State of the Bible are also almost the least likely of all generations to say that America would be “worse off without the Bible.” (Millennials know what’s up this year, clearly!)
When asked for a cause for “America’s moral decline,” every generation except Gen Z pointed to “lack of positive parental involvement.” Gen Z did not agree; they pointed to “negative influence of media.” (I don’t know if “What moral decline?” and “Evangelicalism—just, like, generally” were options. They should have been.)
Other questions showed a “generational slide,” like one question asking if Bible reading was “an important component of a child’s character development.” The older the respondent, the more likely they were to strongly or somewhat agree with that idea. Only 36% of Gen Z agreed at all, while 75% of Elders (ages 77+) did.
(Anyone else wanna party with the 4% of Elders who strongly disagreed?)
In addition, a slim majority of Gen Z respondents disagreed that the Bible “contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life.”
In a lot of ways, Gen Z people take a far more nuanced view of other doctrines (like who and what Satan is) than older Americans do.
So all in all, Gen Z doesn’t sound like fields white unto the harvest, to use the Christianese.
The sheer necessity of indoctrinating Gen Z
But Gen Z folks also contain the upcoming next generation of Christian adults. If the torch drops before it reaches their hands, the religion will suffer a devastating blow in terms of both membership and dominance. Getting Gen Z indoctrinated has become a primary concern of Christian leaders.
In years past, evangelicals used terms like the 4-14 window to indicate the crushing necessity of getting children indoctrinated before it was too late. That term in particular means that if children aren’t indoctrinated very thoroughly between the ages of 4-14, their chances of becoming lifelong Christians is very low indeed.
Unindoctrinated children might still convert in adulthood, but they’ve likely learned too much about critical thinking and perhaps about other competing religions. Worse, they’ve never been inculcated with the deep, nameless, formless fears that Christian evangelists depend on to win recruits. And worst of all, they’ve never learned to compartmentalize their religious beliefs away from secular ones. Religious claims likely face the same examinations and criticisms they would apply to any other claim.
Even if they convert, such people have a high chance of realizing that none of it’s true and deconverting right back out again.
Christians must at least get their religion’s general promises and terrors into the hearts of children too young to resist. And that’s getting harder to do as adults reject Christianity or stop practicing it, then have children who, in turn, aren’t indoctrinated at all.
Born between 1997 and 2012, older Gen Z people have already reached adulthood. They’re already starting to have children of their own.
That 4-14 window is closing very, very quickly. In just two short years, it will have closed forever on Gen Z. As it does, just consider for a moment how desperate Christian leaders will become.
Soon and very soon, we may find ourselves longing for the sweet simplicity of sneaky Creationists snaking their way into science classrooms.
It’s not all bad news in the State of the Bible report, though
Despite being such a small part of Christianity overall, Gen Z does have a few things going for it in the State of the Bible 2022 report.
For one thing, they’re slightly more likely (28%) than Gen X (27%) and Millennial folks (22%) to claim regular church attendance (page 111). Only Boomers (36%) and Elders (50%) beat them there. Similarly, at 47% they rate their religious faith as “very important in my life today” more often than Millennials (39%), though not as often as Gen X (53%), Boomers (62%), and Elders (79%).
Though Gen Z respondents rated themselves as far more stressed-out than previous generations did, the few among them who counted as “Scripture engaged” also tended to rate themselves as highly flourishing along a number of axes (page 143).
All of it makes the report’s creators ask:
Is this a resurgence? Is this youngest generation stopping the long decline?State of the Bible 2022, pages 112-113
Thankfully, they temper this surge of wild hope before they turn into that boy-with-butterfly meme:
And these researchers should indeed temper that surge of wild hope. In each of four religious traditions named in State of the Bible 2022—Evangelical, Mainline, Historically Black Protestant, and Catholic—Gen Z represents only 3-11% of their total membership.
When I saw that, my eyes went as wide as saucers! But the report’s creators only note blandly that maybe, just maybe, Christian churches need “to be intentional about cultivating relationships in younger generations.”
(Related: Intentionality is the new Christian buzzword)
Yeah, good luck with that.
The increasing social costs of evangelism
State of the Bible really wants to see a lot more personal evangelism. That’s the person-to-person kind that individual laypeople inflict one-on-one with others, not the big, flashy, arena-rock, Billy Graham style that most folks conjure in their minds when they hear the term evangelism.
For decades now, Christian leaders have known that if their religion is to recover from its decline at all, they need their flocks to perform a whole lot of this kind of evangelism. They themselves have their hands full just with the flocks they already have. They don’t have time to evangelize. So it falls to the flocks to save their own religion.
And they don’t wanna.
Over the years, I’ve often noted the absolutely hilarious disconnect between Christians’ acceptance of the importance of recruiting vs their actual willingness to do any of it, ever, at all. Even completely moving evangelism goalposts, as John Stott famously did years ago, from a successful sale to making any sales attempts at all didn’t help.
Overall and as a general rule, Christians just don’t like to evangelize. That is a complete and utter fact coming at us straight from the Fact Factory. It hasn’t changed in decades. I don’t think it ever will.
That said, it was much easier to evangelize back when Christians held more dominance in American culture. Now that Christianity no longer enjoys automatic deference from even non-Christians, and Christians themselves have such poor credibility as a group, evangelism actually has a serious social cost.
Evangelism: How to lose friends and alienate people
As a result, people feel much freer to reject evangelism attempts. Afterward, they often avoid or emotionally pull away from the Christians who made those attempts. Here’s a commenter on one evangelical’s blog complaining about exactly that:
In my opinion, older people experience evangelism’s social costs more intensely than younger ones. It’s harder to make friends as an older person. So it’s a real risk to do something we know will probably alienate the ones we do find. Even the super-fervent guy in the above screenshot is aware that nobody wants to hear his demands and his judgemental opinions about their lives. He’s estranged himself from “most of” his own family through his zeal, and he’s likely driven away all of his non-zealous onetime friends.
As I personally discovered in my youth, all of the above is true for younger adults as well. But Gen Z, being younger, will generally find it much easier to make new friends.
As well, their fervor may overwhelm other sensibilities. They tend to take all the talking points and exhortations much more seriously. And they are much more likely to believe, through simple inexperience with the human condition, that those they evangelize desperately need and don’t already know about their flavor of Christianity.
So unsurprisingly, every single study I’ve ever seen about evangelism has found that young Christians are the most likely to evangelize others. It’s been that way since I was a teenaged Pentecostal.
State of the Bible leans hard on this one bit of “encouraging” news
In their chapter about evangelism, State of the Bible ends with this:
We’re especially encouraged by Gen Z. Our last chapter included some causes for worry, but here we see a desire for faith-sharing among Scripture-engaged young people. We also see signs of a greater openness to spiritual conversations in the Gen Z culture.State of the Bible 2022, page 151
A “spiritual conversation,” incidentally, is any conversation involving any aspect of a Christian’s beliefs. State of the Bible includes one example (page 140) that is literally just teenagers in a car sharing brief opinions of their parents’ various religions. The recorder’s own daughter, the reporter and only witness of this conversation, says she’s a Christian and really believes in its claims. Of course, this statement super-impresses one of her acquaintances:
Another girl looked over and said, “It’s cool that you know that. I don’t know what I believe.”State of the Bible 2022, page 141
Since we are not told that the speaker ever again engaged the daughter on the topic, we may safely assume that the matter rested there forevermore. Evangelism-focused Christians can’t shut up about any success, no matter how small. So this tiny victory is as far as the conversation ever went.
Whatever the other girl ended up believing, it did not look like anything the daughter believes. But they always design their tiny-victory stories to sound like they all led to greater successes.
And State of the Bible, along with the recorder and their daughter, will absolutely count this as a “spiritual conversation” and consider it evangelism.
State of the Bible is celebrating something that’s actually really bad news for Christianity
Now that we have the puzzle pieces, let’s check out the picture they create.
We have an upcoming generation, Gen Z, containing the smallest percentage of “Scripture engaged” and church-affiliated adults in American history. With a median membership of about 65, churches are lucky to have more than one or two Gen Z members in the pews. Even then, they are sporadic attendees at best. And there’s a very good chance that even those few churchgoing members will disengage from church culture by the time they reach their 30s.
Worst of all, it’s beyond obvious by now that there is absolutely nothing that Christian leaders can do to bring Gen Z (back) into the fold. Gen Z people are more acutely aware of manipulation attempts than any previous generation, so the usual evangelism tactics bounce right off of most of them.
Though individual churches may vary considerably from the norm, overall church culture offers nothing that Gen Z wants or needs, so they largely refuse to join.
If they do enter the fold, of course, they’re quite fervent and pious. However, they soon find out that Christian marketing is a long litany of false promises, so they generally leave.
Think on that, the next time you see pictures of a bunch of super-pious, ultra-earnest young evangelists trying their hardest to recruit others. By the time you see those pictures, they’re quite possibly already apostates wincing at the memory of the extremes they once pursued in religion.
And this is the generation that evangelizes the most often.
This is the great news that State of the Bible 2022 wants Christian readers to cling to.
This tiny number of apostates-in-the-making is the one carrying the Jesus torch to the next generation.
Does the heart good to see it, doesn’t it?