Please Don’t Make Me “Win Souls” (a look at Barna’s latest research)

by Rebecca Hopkins

A note about this series: Barna recently released The Future of Missions, a 100-page report about trends in American missions. Some of the findings indicate that in the future, Americans may choose to stop referring to themselves as missionaries who “convert” and “make disciples,” out of principle. The data indicates that younger generations of Americans will need to find ways to make peace with—and perhaps call out—practices of the past in order to serve. It also predicts that African Americans may be, proportionately, more likely to sign up to serve overseas than whites will.

Starting today, A Life Overseas will cover Barna’s basic findings. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll bring Ted Esler, Missio Nexus president, into the conversation about deconstruction and missions. Part 3 will publish on Monday and will cover the data on African Americans and missions and the conversations happening around mobilizing them into overseas work. 

Who will be the major players in the future of missions? They’ve got a name—“supportive skeptics.”

Younger generations want to make a difference—especially in areas of social justice. But they need some things to change in overseas mission work in order to join. This mixture of conviction and concern was a main finding of Barna’s latest research. 

“Millennials are giving themselves permission to wrestle with things and giving themselves permission to ask the hard questions,” said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research at Barna. “Their religious practice is not just tied to a way of life that you were told that you needed to adopt.” 

And those characteristics likely won’t go away when they get older. 

“This is a generational thing, not a life stage,” she said. “What we’re seeing in the data is that there are certain environmental factors that really do impact generations and change them in a way that’s not just a life stage factor but is having a large impact.”

The International Mission Board commissioned the study that surveyed Christians: 600 teens (ages 13-17), 1,000 young adults (ages 18-34); and, by comparison, 1,500 older adults (ages 35 and up). They also included surveys of 500 parents of teens and young adults. 

Foundationally, younger American Christians continue to care about global Christian service. Young adults—72 percent—consider mission work “very valuable.” And while only 62 percent of young adult black Americans consider the work “very valuable,” they’re also more likely than whites to go on mission. And younger generations are the best qualified for missions.

“We’re consistently seeing that the up and coming generations care very deeply about social justice,” Kimberlin said. “They’re moved by this. Are we communicating to these young people that addressing injustices is a large part of what it takes to do missions?”

But while they support much of the work of missions, they question the “why” and “how” of it. 

Some key findings:

  • One-fourth of engaged Christians aged 18 to 34 is a “supportive skeptic.” They have given to missions, volunteer in their church, and believe that “sharing the Gospel with non-Christians” is an important part of the work. But they have concerns. They either believe missions creates unhealthy dependency, missions was too linked with colonialism in the past, missions hurts the local economy, or missions needs to repair its reputation. This group also includes a large percentage of minorities.
  • One in three of young adult Christians believe “in the past, missions work has been unethical.” Just one-fourth of adults 35 and older agree with that statement.
  • Christians of all ages strongly prefer the term “sharing faith” over terms like “convert,” “evangelism,” “making disciples” and “winning souls.” 
  • Aid edges out evangelism for its importance in missions in some of the survey results among the more skeptical of younger Christians.
  • “Show God’s love” is the top responsibility missionaries should do, most young Christians say.
  • Younger Christians are more likely (29 percent) than older Christians (23 percent) to believe that the role of missionary is similar to “someone else who does work to fight poverty and injustice,” showing their strong value of social justice work. 
  • Short-term missions, accountability, and traditional fund-raising models were some things younger Christians would change. Business-as-missions models also raised some concerns. The concern of “Tent-faking” was mentioned in interviews, for instance. 
  • Younger Christians are less likely (50 percent) to pray for missionaries in the future than older Christians (63 percent).

The report poses 10 questions that the church must answer about global ministry along with the next generation. The questions center around language, fundraising, history, accountability, aid vs. evangelism, new kinds of missionaries, parents as potential barriers, and how to prepare the next generation for missions. 

“I think we need to approach Gen Z in a way that we understand that they are skeptical and all that they’re really craving is humility, teachability and authenticity from the leaders,” Kimberlin said. “Show them that we don’t have it all together, but we’ve got passion and we’ve got drive and we’ve got the Great Commission on our side. And we love what we do.”


Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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