David Kinnaman: Living Out the Gospel in Digital Babylon

David Kinnaman is the author of the bestselling books Faith For Exiles, Good Faith, You Lost Me and unChristian. He is CEO of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. Since 1995, David has directed interviews with more than two million individuals and overseen thousands of U.S. and global research studies. He was also a main stage speaker at the 2023 Amplify Conference.

In the following interview, we talk about what’s behind that much-circulated and talked-about stat that 47% of millennials say it’s wrong to evangelize, how churches can disciple people toward evangelism, the greatest challenges facing the church today, and what gives him hope in the midst of the challenges.

[In 2019, Barna] released a study that said that millennials want people to come to faith as Christians, but they feel like sharing their faith is offensive. So how does the church reconcile those [two realities]? And how do we encourage them past that kind of evangelism phobia?

I think the percentage was about half of Christian millennials (47%) say it’s wrong to evangelize. And at the same time, the majority of Christian millennials say one of the most important decisions a person could make would be to follow Jesus. So it’s not that they have a lack of confidence in Jesus. They have a lack of confidence in the current evangelism methods or the ones that they’ve been exposed to.

And a lot of the research that we see is this notion that non-Christians say they want to be listened to. They want to have a conversation that doesn’t force a conclusion. They’re open to spiritual conversations for the most part, but they also feel as though it’s often a conversation with a deep agenda, or you’re listening to me so that you can get in the words. But I think recognizing that this generation of Christians and Christian evangelists sort of feel those barriers, and they want to find a different way to do it. And they have to be shown the way, and I think they are showing the way toward a church that has more gracious conversations.

So what does that look like? Is that asking more questions, giving [fewer] answers, kind of almost an Alpha model where you’re just creating an open forum for people to ask questions and share their beliefs and their life experiences and those kinds of things?

Yeah, I think Alpha is a wonderful example, but there’s a lot of different ways. I mean, certainly it’s conversational. Certainly it’s openhanded. It’s allowing the Holy Spirit to do the work. It’s also encouraging and instilling courage. Millennials have a lot to teach the church, but they also have a lot to learn from others, and to be encouraged—to literally have courage put in them—to do this job of evangelism and to speak about their faith in natural and authentic ways.

What gives you hope about where the church is today?

Well, there are many things. First, we saw a lot of spiritual openness in a recent study. Fourty-four percent of Americans say they’re more open to God than they were before the pandemic. Three out of four Americans believe in God or a higher power. Three out of four say they want to grow spiritually. So there’s a real openness in our society toward God, even [among] younger people. It was fascinating to see that the majority of millennials and Gen Z said that they’re more open to God than they were before the pandemic, and I think that that’s a huge, huge opportunity.

Second, I think there’s a language for emotional health and mental health. That’s really important, that people are talking about those areas of their lives, and are demonstrating a desire to be helped and nourished in those areas. I think that’s another strong reality that needs to be looked at.

There are lots of good examples where even as the church tends to shrink or the number of practicing Christians is fewer today over the last two or three years than they were a decade ago and a decade before that, that the strength and vitality of those Christians remains very strong. That is another really positive reality. Even as, you might say, the darkness of our society gets more challenging, the light of the church continues to shine brightly.

The political fragmentation and the challenges [in] 2024 are real. And I think how the church shows up there is going to be important. There was good evidence that during the pandemic churches were able to shift some of the perceptions of [people toward] church. Five or six years ago, a majority of Americans said that churches are part of the problem our society faces, not part of the solution. But that flip-flopped. Now a majority of people say the churches are part of the solution. The pandemic, and the way we collectively responded to it is a good example of how churches can be at their best.

I think people are ready for a more participant-oriented church than they were before, rather than just being consumers of gospel content. I also think there is a good, healthy shift from measuring church growth just in terms of the numbers of people attending toward are the people actually growing and flourishing in our communities.

You touched on this a little bit in your answer there, but what do you think are the most pressing issues that the church is currently facing?

I think the political fragmentation. There’s another presidential election coming around the corner and that’s going to be rough. And I think recognizing the ways in which Christianity has been sort of ushered off the center stage is really critical and just true. The question of how does Christianity [remain] effective as a remnant, a church in exile—I call it Digital Babylon—how do we understand the ways that the Christian Scriptures provide us a way forward in a kind of exilic posture toward our society. I think of some of the challenges economically that churches and nonprofits are likely to have.

And all this points toward a new set of opportunities in terms of [new] wineskins and what God’s calling us to do, and how he’s calling us to do that in faithfulness.

Pretty much every evangelical church would agree, even by definition, that evangelism is core to what we’re doing, and reaching people—doing the Great Commission—is an important part of being the church. And yet most churches don’t end up championing evangelism, or don’t end up doing it successfully, or don’t make it part of their DNA. So what are some of the marks of churches that are actually doing evangelism, doing discipleship really well?

Well, that’s a really deep and good question. First and foremost, it’s acknowledging that there are many different aspects of the way that people grow spiritually. If we’re being honest, we place a premium on content and [particularly] on Sunday morning content and preaching and teaching as a mechanism—and that is an important way that people grow—but it’s also recognizing that people grow in relationships, they grow through suffering, they grow through experiencing disappointment and setbacks.

American society is often unable to process the challenges. We don’t like to be unhappy, we don’t like to be uncomfortable, we don’t like to suffer. And that’s human nature. But it turns out there’s some good things that come to us—for those who wait, for those who suffer, for those who mourn, for those who are poor in spirit, for those who have been bereaved. In some ways, American churches do the same kinds of things that American society does, which is we try to bubble wrap people from the worst of the worst that life has to offer.

[To illustrate,] parenting is this constant dance of helping to provide a safe enough environment for people to grow into all they’re meant to be and to form character, but you don’t form character by being bubble wrapped. So I actually think there’s good evidence that churches that are actually leaning into suffering and lament and helping give people a map [through] the heart of darkness and a way out of it is really critical.

And on that basis, we see evidence that the churches that are actually growing in the most effective ways are focusing on a whole-life discipleship, on spiritual life and transformation and the deep need we have for repentance in Christ, but also on financial and emotional and relational and vocational well-being, a kind of flourishing life, a John 10:10 life. And they look at different dimensions of their organizational health and understand the kinds of things that are contributing toward growing disciples.

It’s very difficult when you’re a small organization, a small church or even a large church, to do all that because there’s a lot of pressure in our society to make consumer Christians as opposed to resilient disciples. But there are great examples of churches all around the country that are doing really great work, and they’re focusing on developing flourishing people and thriving churches.

The promise of Jesus is for this life and the life to come. [There’s an] opportunity that we have in this moment of spiritual openness that Jesus is well-regarded and well-liked and he seems to be beckoning people.

There’s this little mantra, and maybe you’ve heard it, that the local church is the hope of the world. I actually think that is not quite right. It’s actually not even accurate. Jesus is the hope of the world, and the church happens to be the body of believers who provide a picture of him.

When we recognize our hypocrisy, when we recognize the ways that we fall short, and yet [also recognize] this sort of beacon of hope that the church can represent, I think there’s some powerful things that can ensue. But Jesus is the one who we devote our lives to. Millennials who are reluctant evangelists sometimes say, Are we trying to sign people up for the church? Are we centering these human systems and structures even though the church was built by Jesus and the gates of hell will not prevail against it? I think in a way we’ve kind of created this secret handshake. I know what we mean when we say the church is the hope of the world, but that’s not really what we’re about. We’re about Jesus.

So we need to be communities of Jesus who really exude all that he represents—all the transformation and all the soul-searching and all the faithfulness through suffering and all the opportunities that this life in Christ affords.

Preregister now for the 2024 Amplify Conference on October 22 and 23 hosted at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and take advantage of discounted super early-bird registration pricing to hear from other leaders who are championing the gospel in their unique spheres of influence.