Just before the onset of COVID-19 – which drastically changed the dynamics of missions work – a survey found that America's generations of young Christian adults are not fully accepting of missions' urgency and efficacy.
The Barna Group set out to determine the missions mindset of Millennial (23–38 years old) and Gen Z (ages 13–22 in this survey) believers in the United States. This is especially significant as global coronavirus precautions have spurred visa difficulties and summer trip cancellations, as well as brought about financial and social obstacles for short-term and full-time missionaries worldwide.
Factors in young generations' worldview on missions
Partnering with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Barna last year surveyed more than 3,600 self-identified Christians in the U.S. The group comprised approximately 1,500 adults (35 and older), 1,000 young adults (ages 18 to 34), more than 600 teens (ages 13 to 17) – and approximately 500 of their engaged Protestant parents – along with 600+ pastors from missions-focused churches. Many factors, according to Barna, went into their mindset on missions.
"Generations agree that missions is 'very valuable' …" Barna researchers reported. "Most engaged Christians' views of missions work are influenced by at least some exposure to real-life missionaries; in fact, young adults aged 18 to 34 are more likely than teens and older adults to say they personally know at least one missionary 'well' (58% vs. 47% adults 35 and older, 36% teens 13 to 17). This fact accompanies a belief that overseas missions is important."
In fact, as the graph below shows, the difference between the value of missions to the three age ranges mentioned above are virtually indistinguishable.
However, there is significant disparity when it comes to the ethnicity of Christian Americans – especially as racial tensions have been spurred before the 2020 presidential election.
"Among Americans under 35, … black engaged Christians (61% teens, 62% young adults) are more reluctant than the white majority (74% teens, 73% young adults) to say they value missionaries' work," the Barna report revealed. "Given the Euro-American Church's historical entanglements with colonialism and African slavery – and the growing cultural awareness of that legacy's ongoing impact – it's not surprising that young black Americans would express deeper ambivalence."
Struggling with missions' past linked to colonialism
With racial tensions escalating in recent years, young American Christians are more apt than older generations to wrestle with missions' past.
"Although there are many examples of the transformative value of missionary work around the world, there are also aspects of its history – and sometimes its present – that are difficult or even impossible to defend," Barna researchers maintained. "Anyone who dreams and plans for the missionary future must grapple with these realities."
It was found that the 18–34 group was most likely to believe that "in the past, mission work has been unethical" (see graph below). This same age group also believes that "Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism."
Despite the fact that missions today can scarcely be compared to missions in the past – with incident of alleged police brutality and "social justice" activism heightening racial tensions – younger Christian generations have grown to question churches and ministry groups striving to follow Jesus Christ's Great Commission laid out in Matthew 28:16–20 to evangelize the world.
"Clearly – even as young Christians still value what missionaries do – many also have significant and often valid questions about international missions," Barna explained. "In fact, analysts found a group of engaged Christians who both express reservations and – at the same time – either financially support a missionary or have been on at least one overseas mission trip themselves."
Graphs compliments of Barna.com