Near the beginning of the 21st century, respected Christian pollster and cultural commentator George Barna dropped a big rock in the youth ministry pond. New research, he said, proves that just 4% of all Christians “take the plunge” when they’re teenagers.
“The statistics are eye-opening,” wrote Barna, “because they show how little evangelistic impact we are having in America upon teenagers and adults.” In addition, the survey report charged, “The data also challenge the widely held belief that the teenage years are prime years for evangelistic activity.”
In the March/April 2000 issue of GROUP, I told readers I think Barna’s analysis and suppositions are ripe for rebuttal. Since then we’ve partnered with Professor Dave Rahn of Huntington College and the Youth Ministry Educators organization to come up with our own small-scale research project to learn more about the role of youth ministry in Christian conversion. We designed a seven-question survey that youth ministry professors gave to 369 Christian students on 10 campuses across North America.
The results of that survey are at the end of this article. Draw your own conclusions from the results, but just because I can, I’ll throw in my two bits…
The percentage of Christians who say they first committed their life to Christ when they were children is slightly lower than Barna’s survey number–but the breakdown generally matches his findings.
Three-quarters of our respondents said they came to faith in Christ over a long period of time, belying the moment-in-time conversion stereotype that dominates our thinking about evangelism. Nine out of 10 say they, indeed, had a crucial recommitment experience that was as significant as their conversion. And two-thirds of these folks said their experience happened when they were teenagers. Outreach trips, crises, big events, and camp experiences top their list of recommitment experiences.
Four out of five said they’ve “really questioned” whether they were truly committed to Christ. And for most (54%) that time of great doubt came during their teenage years. Who helped them through those doubts? Friends, family members, and youth pastors.
When we asked these Christian college students who or what has been the biggest influence on their present commitment to Christ, youth leaders topped the list.
In short, Barna’s stats infer that many people come to Christ because they were part of a churchgoing family when they were children. But the key recommitment time–when they fully embraced or owned their faith–came when they were teenagers.Click to tweet
I said I’d eat “statistical crow” if Barna’s analysis proved correct. I’m happy to report my mouth, throat, and stomach are currently crow-free…
Rick Lawrence is editor of GROUP Magazine.
The Truths That Matter Most
by Dave Rahn
I’ve been teaching an undergraduate class on evangelism for 15 years. And every year I tell a true story about my encounter with three erstwhile evangelizers early in my adult life.
My wife and I had just relocated to a community where I was set to be the new Campus Life director. We were visiting churches, looking for a place to sink our roots. One evening, an Evangelism Explosion team from one of those churches showed up at our door. I’d taken some EE training myself, so they were impressed that I knew what they were all about.
At an awkward break in our conversation, the group’s leader lurched forward and asked: “Well, Dave, if you’ve had Evangelism Explosion training, you know that on each visit we need to ask ‘the question’: ‘If you were to die tonight, what reason would you give that you should be allowed into heaven?’”
I remember wondering what version of EE training demanded such an obviously insensitive and rigid approach to evangelism. My face reddened, and then it hit me: I don’t really matter here. Getting the right answer to “the question” is all that matters.
The Rest of the Story
When I first read George Barna’s research report, “Teens and Adults Have Little Chance of Accepting Christ as Their Savior,” my thoughts vaulted right back to my troubling, head-scratching experience with those EE warriors. Our outreach strategies are deeply impacted by our definition of evangelism. I don’t have big problems with Barna’s data or survey methodology, but his analysis doesn’t tell “the rest of the story.”
Research that focuses only on when people first commit their lives to Christ can’t fully describe why they’re still committed to Christ. The veiled implication of Barna’s research report is that “first decisions” describe evangelism.
I routinely ask students in my undergraduate evangelism classes to reflect on their own conversion experiences so they can communicate their stories meaningfully to others. Like those represented in our survey, many struggle because they can’t define a precise moment when they came to Christ.
Reliability and Validity
In research projects, reliability addresses the accuracy of a measurement tool. Validity means that the reliable methods we’re using actually describe the truth we’ve set out to find. It ought to be clear what the research tool is designed to measure. That’s how those of us reviewing research can decide if it’s useful.
Barna’s survey reflects an operational definition of evangelism that explains only part of the evangelism mystery. In our survey, we wanted to allow for the possibility that many persons see their conversion experience as more of a process than an event. I think our survey results demonstrate that Barna’s conversion age research should be interpreted as an interesting contribution–rather than the last word–on the subject.
Dave Rahn is a veteran youth leader and director of the Link Institute for Faithful and Effective Youth Ministry at Huntington College in Indiana.
Mapping the Path to Commitment
We surveyed 369 Christian college students at 10 schools around the country to map out their complex faith journeys.
1. How old were you when you first decided to put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? 13 or younger: 63% Between 14-18: 29% 19 or older: 8%
2. When you think about how you came to faith in Christ, did it happen in an instant as it did with St. Paul, or did it happen over a longer period of time as it did with St. Peter? St. Paul: 23% St. Peter: 77%
3. Do you remember a subsequent moment in time–perhaps almost as personally significant to you as your conversion–when your commitment to Christ was especially launched or solidified? 13 or younger: 10% Between 14-18: 59% 19 or older: 20% Doesn’t apply to me: 11%
4. Describe that significant experience. Most frequent responses, in order: Mission/service trip, Crisis experience, Big event, Camp experience, Going away to college, Teaching others about Christ, The example set by other Christians, A Holy Spirit experience
5. Who or what has been most instrumental in influencing your present commitment to Christ? Most frequent responses, in order: Youth Leader, Parents, Friends, Other Adult (employer, teacher, relative), Brother or Sister, Church Pastor
6. Can you identify a point in time when honest reflection caused you to really question whether you were truly committed to Christ?
- 13 or younger: 5%
- Between 14-18: 42%
- 19 or older: 31%
- Doesn’t apply to me: 22%
7. Take two sentences to describe who or what helped you through this transitional stage of your faith in Jesus Christ. Most frequent responses, in order: Friends, Family, Youth Pastor, Bible or Other Book, Professor