Engaging Relational Evangelism in the Back-to-School Season

This month, high schoolers and college students across the nation will be heading back to school after a summer away. And as of this year, every high school and college student—from high school freshmen to college seniors—has something in common: each one of them is a member of Gen Z.

For many students, the transition from a less-structured summer to the schedule and responsibilities of the school year poses a number of challenges. Gen Z is known for living life online (with US teens reportedly spending over 7 hours a day in front of screens), so the forced in-person interaction of school could be its own challenge for many teenagers.

Gen Z is known for living life online

However, the transition from summer back to school can be an opportunity. Gen Z is often characterized as closed-off, self-absorbed, and over-stimulated, but is also known to be highly relationship-oriented. Perhaps because the amount of time they tend to spend in the digital world has left a relational vacancy in them, Gen Z exhibits a strong desire for human connection. This means that opportunities for relational evangelism are hiding in plain sight. Recent research from Alpha and Barna Group shows that the rising generation is more open to conversations about faith than we might expect.

Teenagers Want to Talk about God—In Person
It’s not breaking news that fewer and fewer young people in the US identify as Christians. Statistics showing that many young adults leave the faith after high school have led many to conclude that “American teens are growing out of being Christian.”1 Nearly 25% of teens who identified as Christians as children no longer do so in their teen years. But that isn’t the whole story.

While many teens don’t call themselves Christians, it doesn’t mean they are not open to talking about God. In fact, teenagers are more open to face-to-face conversations than to digital ones. Only 23% of teens are open to having a spiritual conversation online, but more than 58% would have a spiritual conversation with a person in front of them.1

Teenagers are more open to face-to-face conversations than to digital ones

What does this have to do with going back to school? It means that going back to school in person is an opportunity for young people to engage their peers in spiritual conversations in an environment in which they want to have those conversations. With over half of the teens in the US “open to in-person spiritual conversations,”1 striking up a conversation about faith with a friend or acquaintance has a good chance of being well-received.

Making the Most of Relational Evangelism
While the statistics may show that it’s worth the risk to strike up a spiritual conversation, there is still a barrier that will stop many people from ever broaching the subject: it’s awkward. Many times we may want to find the ideal situation, the perfect transition to a non-threatening and comfortable conversation about faith. If that perfect moment never comes (spoiler alert—it never does), many of us will spare ourselves the discomfort and never bring up any of life’s big questions.

It’s true: starting a spiritual conversation can feel awkward. It can be weird. It can be uncomfortable. Yet a lot of that awkwardness comes when we feel like we have to force a conversation into happening. The weirdness of the conversation is often self-imposed. If we feel like we have to shove our own views down someone else’s throat, prove our own beliefs, or “seal the deal” with a faith decision—then yeah, it probably will be awkward for everyone involved.

Teenagers are most open to spiritual conversations that happen “naturally and take place in calm, comfortable, relational environments.”1 So while the perfect moment may never come, if you’ve built enough relational capital with someone and want to have a spiritual conversation with them, maybe you can find a “good enough” moment without making it weird.

We don’t have to be street corner evangelists, throwing out gospel formulas at every person who comes our way. We also don’t want people to feel like we care more about making them become Christians than we care about them as people. If we are to represent Christ—if we want to present the Christ of the gospel to others—we must first show them that we care about them. Instead of prioritizing “the conversation,” prioritize the relationship with the person; then you may have a real encounter with that person and give them the opportunity to have a real encounter with Jesus.

Engage Your Kids at Home
As teenagers return to school, there is also an opportunity for their parents to talk with them about faith. Sixty-four percent of non-Christian teens “openly admit to having unanswered questions about faith.”1 We’d be kidding ourselves to think that this statistic is much different for Christian teens. In fact, most of us have questions about faith. But it isn’t bad news that Christian teenagers have questions; those questions can be an opportunity for parents to engage in evangelism and discipleship in the home.

Forty percent of non-Christian teens turn to family members to talk about their questions about faith.1 For Christian parents, the home can be a place where they can engage with their children’s questions and doubts about faith (whether or not their children identify as Christians). The home can and should also be a place for parents to talk with their kids about spiritual conversations they’re having with peers, encouraging them in any relational evangelism they are doing at school with their friends. Parents, don’t overlook the opportunity you have to encourage your children and build them up in their walk with God as they return to school (Ephesians 6:4).

The home can be a place where they can engage with their children’s questions and doubts about faith

This back-to-school season is an opportunity for teenagers and parents alike. Gen Z is open to spiritual conversations, and they want to have those conversations in person with someone they know. Teenagers can take the opportunity to start relational conversations about faith with their peers, and parents can do the same in the home—encouraging their children in their faith and their efforts to walk in the manner in which they were called by God (Ephesians 4:1-3, ESV). Take the chance this school season to start a conversation with someone about faith, God, or life’s big questions.

Jesse Childress

Jesse Childress has a deep appreciation for good food, philosophy, theology, and literature. He is the former Lead Content Editor and Writer for Summit Ministries' worldview blog Reflect, and spent a term studying at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Jesse has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University (now Houston Christian University), and began attending Denver Seminary in the fall of 2022 to study counseling, focusing particularly on the relationship between trauma and faith.