Christians are big on relationships but weak on discipleship and evangelism, study finds

(Photo: Unsplash/Isaac Benhesed)

Churchgoers are keen to talk with other people about their faith but struggle to have evangelistic conversations in practice, a new study has shown.

The study by Lifeway Research found that although the intention to share Jesus with others was there, over half (55 per cent) of Protestant churchgoers in the US said they had not spoken to anyone about how to become a Christian in the last six months. 

This was despite a similar number (56 per cent) saying they were praying for opportunities to tell others about Jesus at least once a week and nearly a quarter (23 per cent) saying they were praying for such moments every day, according to the 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study of 2,500 Protestant Americans.

Over a quarter (27 per cent) admitted they rarely or never pray for opportunities to share their faith.

"Sharing the good news that Jesus paid for our sins through His death on the cross and rose again to bring us new life is the mission of the church, but it does not appear to be the priority of churchgoers," said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

Of those who had an evangelistic conversation in the past month, most had done so with one or two people (24 per cent). Only around 1 in 10 churchgoers said they had at least one evangelistic conversation each month.

When it came to ethnic groups, Hispanics (36 per cent) and African Americans (29 per cent) were the most likely to pray for evangelistic opportunities every day compared to a fifth of white Americans. 

"The task of making disciples of all nations has not been fully embraced in the American church—especially by the majority culture," said McConnell. "This is in spite of the convenience of having other ethnicities and immigrants from other countries often living in the same neighborhood."

(Photo: Lifeway Research)

Church attendance also made a difference, with those attending once a week (75 per cent) being more likely than less frequent churchgoers (69 per cent) to pray about evangelism at least once a month.

In terms of age, those 65 and older were the least likely to have discussed their faith others, with nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) saying they had no evangelistic conversations recently.

"Recently, there has been much discussion about young adults participating less in evangelism. That's not the case, however," said McConnell.

"In fact, young adult and middle-aged churchgoers are more likely to have shared with someone how to become a Christian in the past six months than older churchgoing adults."

(Photo: Lifeway Research)

Many Christians may not have had an evangelistic conversation, but the study found that over half (55 per cent) had invited a non-Christian to a church service or activity in the last half year.

The frequency with which invitations were made also changed according to church attendance, with those going to church at least four times a month (58 per cent) more likely to have invited an unchurched person to a service in the past six months than those who attended less than four times a month (47 per cent).

"Jesus never promised the Great Commission would be completed quickly, but He set the expectation that the efforts to reach all nations with His gospel should be continuous. Many in church today appear to be distracted from Jesus' final command," said McConnell. 

The study also found that although Protestant Americans are good at making friends at church, the relationships appeared to be based more on mutual interests than helping each other grow spiritually. 

While over three-quarters of study participants (78 per cent) said they had developed significant relationships with people at their church, less than half (48 per cent) said that they intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith. 

Young adults - those aged 18 to 34 - were the most likely to say that they were intentional about investing time in the growth of others (26 per cent) - twice the percentage of churchgoers aged 65 and olders who said the same thing.

"In an American culture in which significant relationships are hard to form, most churchgoers have had at least some success at making friends at church," said McConnell.

"But the majority aren't as confident as they could be about the significance of those relationships."

Around a third of Hispanics (32 per cent) said they were intentional about spending time with others to grow in faith, followed by black Protestants (24 per cent) and evangelicals (21 per cent), and mainline Protestants (12 per cent). 

"There is a different element to relationships at church that the majority of churchgoers haven't prioritized," said McConnell.

"One of the ways a believer shows they have love for God is by investing in other believers. The relationship isn't just about mutual interests; it is about proactively being interested in the faith of others."

The study also found that only a third (35 per cent) of churchgoers were consistently nourishing their own faith by taking part in a Christian class or small group four or more times in a typical month. 

Mainline Protestants (48 per cent) were more likely to never attend a small group than black Protestants (36 per cent) and evangelicals (35 per cent).

"For much of church history, small groups or classes have been one of the most effective ways churches offer for attendees to connect with others, study the Bible and serve together," said McConnell.

"This avenue of seeking God together is both relational and devotional."