Recently, an evangelical Christian polling firm released a study on Christian views of evangelization. It asked participants to say whether or not they agreed with statements such as, “Part of my faith means being a witness about Jesus” and “When someone raises questions about faith, I know how to respond.” The survey then broke down the responses by age group: Millennials (ages 20 to 34), Gen X (ages 35 to 53), Boomers (ages 54 to 72), and Elders (age 73+).
In general, respondents in all age groups responded favorably to statements regarding the importance of sharing one’s faith and knowing how to do it.
One statement stood out, however: “It is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” To this statement, a sizable majority of practicing Christians in the Gen X, Boomer, and Elder categories (rightly) expressed disagreement. But almost half of Millennials agreed that it was wrong to share one’s faith in hopes of converting somebody to it.
Before we delve into this particular statement, we should note that it’s likely most participants in this survey were Protestant, not Catholic. The study defines “practicing Christians” as those who “identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and have attended church within the past month.” The organization that performed the study, Barna Group, is an Evangelical Christian organization, so its participants likely skewed Evangelical.
But, based on my own quarter-century of talking to Catholics about evangelization, I would wager that, if anything, Catholics would be even more likely than Evangelical Protestants to agree that we shouldn’t try to convert other people. At any rate, they surely would not be more likely to disagree.
So why do young Christians believe it’s wrong to try to convert non-Christians to Christianity, even if they also think that evangelization is a part of their faith? It’s likely due to two powerful ideas that have dominated our culture for decades now: tolerance and relativism.
In many ways, tolerance has become the defining virtue of our times. And, properly understood, it is a virtue. But our cultural understanding of the word has morphed into full acceptance and endorsement of another’s beliefs, no matter how false or harmful those beliefs might be. So if that’s the greatest virtue, then to attempt to change someone’s beliefs—especially his religious beliefs—is the greatest sin of them all.
Although less explicitly promoted than tolerance, relativism is modern secular culture’s other defining “virtue,” and it is related to tolerance. It’s the reason why we should be tolerant of other’s beliefs: because there are no “right” or “wrong” beliefs, just different ones. So you can be a Christian, a Muslim, a Wiccan, an atheist, or a believer in Zorp the Lizard God and no one has the right to say that your beliefs are any less true than others. The Western view that every person, no matter his beliefs, should have equal rights under the law has transformed into the view that every belief is equal in validity. And if you don’t think other beliefs are wrong—that they can be wrong—why would you want to convert others to your belief system?
Although these two cultural ideas have influenced all of us, Millennials are more acutely impacted, as we can see from the survey results. Why is this so?
Perhaps it’s because, unlike older generations, Millennials have lived only in a world where these views are pervasive; they have no experience of a world where these two ideas did not dominate. Clearly, though, when Christians of any age begin to believe that it’s wrong to try to bring other people to the Faith, they go against the whole of Christian tradition.
The requirement to evangelize goes back to Jesus himself. Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). When Jesus spoke these words, there were, of course, no Christians in the world other than a few disciples, so he was explicitly commanding his followers not only to try to change people’s religious beliefs but basically everyone’s beliefs, in all the nations all over the world!
In fact, evangelization was a defining feature of early Christians: the thing that made them distinctive from the Jewish people from which they originated. First-century Jews took it as their role to be an example to the nations, a Chosen People picked by God to be his faithful family. But they didn’t see an explicit need to go out and try to convert Gentiles to their religion. But upon Christ’s command to his apostles, the first Christians—who were all Jews—went in a definitive new direction. Now they would not only be a passive example but would actively work to convert the nations.
This evangelizing thrust continued throughout Christian history. There has never been a time when the Church has not sent out missionaries to evangelize pagan lands. In our own time, there has even been the effort of the “New Evangelization,” directed toward re-evangelizing formerly Christian peoples. Evangelization is the lifeblood of Christianity.
Could it now be wrong to evangelize? Of course not. By evangelizing we offer a priceless gift to others: eternal salvation. This is a gift we ourselves have received, but to realize it fully we must—as with love, joy, and other gifts—give it away to others. This is not simply a duty; if we recognize how beautiful this inheritance is, it becomes a privilege. We become part of God’s work to transform lives for the better, both in this world and for eternity. Why should we ever hesitate to do that?
Let us resist the distorted twin “virtues” of tolerance and relativism that our culture pushes upon us. Instead, let’s embrace the command—and privilege—Jesus gave us to share our faith with others. Not just as a good story of what God has done for us but to help others reach a place where he can change their lives, too.