Home Voices Next Generation Evangelism: 3 Approaches and a Way Forward

Next Generation Evangelism: 3 Approaches and a Way Forward


This article was co-written with Karyssa A. Allen.

It seems like every time you open social media or look at the news, there is a new study reporting the decline of Christianity in the United States. By now, you have likely seen one or more of these studies describing the continuous percental drop of those who self-identify as Christian within the American population. Vibrant, authentic faith is very different than someone simply clicking the box next to “Christian” on a survey. For this reason, it is probably more accurate to say that these reports speak more to the decline of cultural Christianity in the United States rather than a mass exodus of once-committed Christians willfully walking away from their faith. It’s not that there is not decline—there is—but the details matter.

Regardless, the decline of cultural Christianity means that Christians are increasingly losing what I frequently refer to as the “home-field advantage.” The cultural milieu isn’t as Christian-appearing as it once was, and this cultural change has important ramifications for the younger generations of our society—young millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha (who are just now emerging as teenagers). What does evangelism look like for the younger faithful Christians in our culture today?

Though the practice of sharing their faith is much more challenging for young people in an increasingly secularized society, young Christians do evangelize. Taking a broad look, there seem to be three primary approaches that young people today seem to take towards the practice of evangelism. 

Incarnational Approach

First and most commonly, the incarnational approach. This approach to evangelism emphasizes living lives of spiritual and moral excellence while also being immersed in the rhythms of life alongside non-Christians. It is the proverbial, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” applied to the Christian life. Young believers find this approach to evangelism valuable for a couple reasons. First, in a time when building trust with a Christian is a major hurdle for someone exploring faith to overcome, this approach is a long-term commitment to building that trust. It is a helpful first step towards the patient nurturing of the inner work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.

Second, incarnational approaches to evangelism can be valuable because they put personal testimony and story at the front-and-center of evangelistic conversations. Since young adults tend to be more postmodern in thought than previous generations, this approach often resonates more deeply with this present generation. In previous approaches to evangelism, the grand story of Scripture was often the starting point of a person’s journey to saving faith, and then later was reinforced with testimonies of Christians with whom the person was in relationship. Now, the starting point is often personal stories of how Christ has impacted our lives, which then leads to understanding and accepting the truth of Scripture.

However, if taken to its extreme (which it often is), incarnational evangelism can stop short of actually being evangelism. The incarnational approach, if one is not intentional, can become simply a passive rejection of the idea of trying to persuade anyone about the gospel that requires a response of “by grace and through faith.” It is the “Oprah-fication” of American Christianity that elevates religious pluralism above our Great Commission call. Especially for young people, for whom the desire to be seen as tolerant is significant, incarnational approaches can sometimes evolve into a sort of “you can believe whatever you want—as long as you keep it to yourself” approach to faith. 

When done right, incarnational evangelism is indeed patient and consistent in people’s lives; it rightly seeks to do away with some of the sales-pitchy evangelistic forms of the past. But, if one is to avoid the pitfalls of this approach, there must also be an ever-present intentionality to discern opportunities to talk about Jesus. We see this in the life of Jesus himself who, John’s gospel says, “dwelt among us.” He was present in people’s lives and willing to walk with them in their mess—but he also jumped at the opportunity to talk about the kingdom of God.

Declarative Approach

Another path, perhaps the opposite of the one we just discussed, is far more aggressive. It is also the form of evangelism most people think of when they think of evangelism—but can also be taken to unhelpful extremes. Those who take this approach are convicted by how bad the world seems, and resolve to speak up in response. Out of a desire to proclaim the truth of the Bible, people taking the declarative approach to evangelism call people to repent and put their faith in Jesus. These sorts of evangelists will often look to the boldness of Jesus in the temple and the apostles challenging authorities as scriptural examples of this approach to evangelism.

While declarative evangelism directly addresses the unhealthy extreme of incarnational evangelism and takes seriously the call to preach the gospel to the nations, it can also has potential pitfalls when badly engaged. Because of our increasingly secularized society, many young people feel they are unlikely to be accepted by their non-Christian peers. On one hand, this rejection can serve to test the genuineness of their faith. On the other, this rejection can sometimes lead to an unhealthy, reactionary sort of martyr complex. Often fueled by social media, declarative evangelism can also sometimes be taken to such an extreme that it ceases to be evangelism—it can become mainly condemnation without an engagement of gospel grace. Instead of cultural engaging, it is prone to culture warring. Declarative evangelism is the only of these three approaches that can be done without relational proximity and, thus, can be prone to harshness and losing a Christlike love for people. 

These young people will do well to remember that the same Jesus who called the Pharisees a brood of vipers also spoke gently, yet firmly, to the woman caught in adultery. Ephesians 6 also reminds us that our battle is not against other people, but against principalities and powers. Finally, 1 Corinthians 13 teaches us that our lives, even though they may be full of power and truth, are as empty and meaningless as a clanging cymbal if they do not embody love. The gospel should not only be declared from our mouths, but embodied in the moral excellence of our lives and, as we will discuss at present, demonstrated by our Christlike service.