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Evangelism and Christian Teens

What one survey revealed about their beliefs and practices

I'm not a person who is easily bedeviled by stage fright. Most often, the opposite is true—I don't know when to keep my mouth shut and so I blather on, winging random and frequent opinions about anything and everything to anyone and everyone who might be nearby. Still, I do recall one particular time when stage fright seized me. I could feel my heart race, my muscles tense, and sweat begin to pool in my armpits while I was speaking to a group of people.

It started out innocently enough. At the time, I was working as an advertising copywriter for a luxury travel company. I found many good people there, but not many religious ones. It didn't take long for everyone to discover that I was a Christian…with opinions. At any rate, my desk was situated right next to the break room. One day, around Easter, a group of about a half dozen folks came in to eat lunch together. They started chatting about the holiday and soon came upon the topic of the Jewish Passover. Since none of them was Jewish, and since they knew I was "religious," they called me over and asked me to tell them what I knew about that Hebrew celebration.

I didn't think much of it. I knew these people and called many of them my friends. So I walked over and started sharing a few basic facts about the Passover. As I was talking, I also included some of my thoughts on how elements of the Passover feast symbolized the promise of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. It was no big deal, a natural part of the conversation. They asked some questions; I answered as best I could. Then all of a sudden—almost midsentence—it hit me: I wasn't simply chatting with these people. I was actually Sharing The Gospel with them—or "witnessing," or "evangelizing," or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

Honestly, I don't know why that made a difference to me. Although I wouldn't call myself a fervent evangelist, I have spoken about Jesus to lots of people lots of times. But something in that moment choked my thoughts. I was suddenly aware of one woman sitting at the table who, due to unfortunate experiences with family members, was typically hostile to Christianity. And another woman who belonged to a different religion. And a guy who generally seemed to view all Christians as right-wing Republican nutcases. And…you get the idea. I started thinking about how I should be careful not to offend anybody, and I worried about my choice of words.

And my heart started pounding.

And I could feel myself beginning to sweat.

And I started stumbling over my thoughts and words.

I'm ashamed to say that I ended the moment a little abruptly, simply because I felt too much pressure from Sharing The Gospel with my coworkers—even though none of them was the least bit unkind to me. Soon their conversation drifted to other topics, and that was that. A few months later I moved on to a different job, and I never had a similar opportunity with those people again.

I regret my cowardice at that moment because, as you must know all too well, it's not easy to be a Christian in today's world. In fact, I often think that Christianity should come with some kind of warning label: "Caution! People don't like Christians—get used to it." When I was a high schooler, I remember other students mocking me as a "Jesus Freak" so much that I finally gave in and bought a T-shirt that proclaimed the same thing. In college a bookstore manager told me that even though I was well-qualified for a job in his store, he wouldn't hire me because my religion opposed pornography, and he didn't want to take a chance that I'd "preach" to his customers and stop them from buying Playboy and Penthouse magazines. In the years since, I've been singled out for verbal abuse, insult, and discriminatory treatment because of my faith.

I suspect I've gotten off easy—because I know I'm not the only one with these kinds of experiences. After all, we are called Christ's witnesses. Interestingly (and perhaps as a sort of heavenly warning label for us), the Greek term for "witness" used in New Testament writings is martys. Does that look familiar to you? It should. It's the root from which we get the word "martyr," "reminding us," says theologian John Drane, "that bearing witness can be a costly business."

What Kind of Evangelists Are in Our Youth Groups?

Knowing this about my own experience, I've wanted to see if I could get a clarifying glimpse at what kinds of "evangelist personalities" could be seen in our youth groups. So I used a survey (you can find much more in my book The Jesus Survey) to cross-correlate the data as a whole to see what kinds of groupings kids' answers typically fell into. When I was finished, the following four personalities came to the forefront.

Passionate Evangelists. These were the Christian youth who expressed a strong belief in the expectation of Christian evangelism and also claimed (either somewhat or strongly) they'd shared about their faith in Jesus in the past month. These represent about 1 out of 3 (32 percent) kids in our youth groups.

Irregular Evangelists. These youth group members comprised just over half (51 percent) of Christian students, and reflected kids who gave somewhat mixed messages about their belief and lifestyle habits. These Christian teens typically expressed—either somewhat or strongly—a belief in evangelistic efforts, but in the last month their actions either exceeded their belief or their belief exceeded their actions. For instance, some only somewhat agreed that Christians have an evangelistic obligation, but also strongly reported that they'd shared their faith in the last thirty days. Others said they strongly supported a belief in sharing their faith, but then couldn't report the same strong confidence—or any confidence at all—about their evangelistic actions in the last month.

Reluctant Evangelists. These Christian kids expressed uniform denial of the idea that followers of Jesus are expected to tell others about the gospel. In spite of that belief, they also reported that in the last thirty days they'd told a non-Christian about their faith in Jesus anyway. This is the smallest grouping of "evangelist personalities" in our youth groups (6 percent).

Absent Evangelists. Christian students in this category were consistently living out what they believed—which was that Christians are not obligated to share the gospel with others. As such, everyone in this group disagreed that Christians are expected to tell others about Jesus and also reported that they had not shared about their faith with anybody over the course of the last month. These kids numbered 12 percent in the survey.

What This Reveals

First, the Passionate Evangelists among our teens are—by large margins—also the ones most likely to adhere to traditional Christian doctrine about Christ. For instance, nearly 3 out of 4 (72 percent) show a strong belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, whereas no other evangelist personality has more than half who share that belief. Additionally, 50 percent of the Passionate Evangelists also strongly believe the Bible is trustworthy. Compare that to the other groups and it's nearly double what the Irregular Evangelists believe, twenty-five times more than what the Reluctant Evangelists believe, and seven times more than what the Absent Evangelists believe. So, from that perspective, it appears that those teens who adhere to core Christian orthodoxy are also the ones who are most enthusiastic about sharing their faith with others. As has come to be the norm in this study, right belief has a direct, measurable impact on a Christian student's experience. That's encouraging.

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of our teen evangelists are not strongly rooted in basic Christian belief about Jesus. For instance, while it's great that 50 percent of our Passionate Evangelists believe the Bible to be trustworthy, that also means that 50 percent of those evangelists have measurable doubts about God's Word. And while Passionate Evangelists are substantially more likely to be Confident Christians—that is, teens who express confident belief in four core Christian doctrines—only about 1 in 5 (19 percent) of these Christian evangelists expresses unshakeable faith in all four of these basic tenets of Christianity. Additionally, combining all groups of evangelists within our youth congregations reveals that barely 1 out of 4 (26 percent) is likely to share authentic Christian belief when engaged in evangelistic effort.

That's a concern—and it's primarily the problem of Christian parents and church leaders who are instructing these kids in the faith. We can be proud of these teens for being willing to stand up and talk about Jesus in often hostile cultural settings, but we must also become better disciplers who are helping our young evangelists experience and discover raw truth about Jesus. If we are successful in doing that, together we might just change the world.

Adapted from The Jesus Survey. Copyright © 2012 by Nappaland Communications. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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