A large majority of churchgoing Protestants believe it's their duty to share the gospel with non-Christians, and they also say they would feel comfortable doing it. But a majority of them still don't profess their faith to nonbelievers, according to a recent survey.

LifeWay Research released the findings on evangelism as part of its discipleship research project designed to measure spiritual maturity. The extensive survey of more than 2,900 church-going Protestants identified eight biblical attributes consistently evident in the lives of maturing believers. Of those eight, "Sharing Christ" had the lowest average score among Protestant church attendees.

"Most Christians love evangelism — as long as someone else is doing it," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. "So, I believe that Christians need to see evangelism as their job. They need to take responsibility to share the message that they say they treasure."

And those denominations that stress reaching out to nonbelievers confirm that the effort is effective in attracting converts to their faith.

"We look for opportunities to connect with people outside of our faith, and sharing the gospel becomes a natural part of the relationship," said Steve Pike, director of the Church Multiplication Network for the Assemblies of God, which claims to open a new church somewhere in the world every 42 minutes.

The LifeWay survey found 80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but 61 percent have not told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months.

Three-quarters of churchgoers say they feel comfortable in their ability to effectively communicate the gospel, while 12 percent say they don't feel comfortable telling others about their faith.

Nevertheless, just 25 percent say they have shared their faith once or twice, and 14 percent have shared three or more times over the last six months.

The survey also asked how many times they have personally invited a nonmember of their faith to attend a church service or other program at their church. About half (48 percent) said never, while 33 percent said they've personally invited someone one or two times, and 19 percent said they've done so on three or more occasions in the last six months.

More than 40 Protestant denominations were represented in the survey, including Episcopal/Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of Christ, Church of God/COGIC, Congregational, Disciples of Christ, Evangelical or E-free, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, Non-Denominational, Pentecostal, Presbyterian and Seventh Day Adventist.

Stetzer said his research counters the notion that newer converts are more likely to share their faith with outsiders than longer-term Christians.

"In reality, people who have been a Christian longer have higher responses for sharing Christ than newer Christians. While new Christians may find it natural to share their new experience, mature Christians do it intentionally," said Stetzer.

Pike attributes the reluctance among Protestant Christians to invite others to Christ to a tendency to limit social interaction to those of one's own faith. Sensitivity to broaching religion in the workplace can also prevent people from discussing their faith.

He explained that Assemblies of God followers are encouraged to join social or service organizations and become involved in their local communities as a way to interact with others outside of their faith and foster genuine friendships not founded on common religious beliefs.

"We believe the God is present in that environment, and as He gets involved the opportunities to share will emerge," Pike said.

Assemblies of God attributes its growth to that approach. In 2008, when the church's Multiplication Network was formed, 247 new congregations were created; this year Pike reports that the network is on track to create more than 400 congregations in the United States, averaging 70 members each.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was not represented in the study, has had proclaiming the gospel as a major tenet since its founding in 1830. In 2011, the LDS Church reported more than 55,000 full-time missionaries were preaching its gospel around the world, and in that same year there were 281,312 convert baptisms.

According to Stetzer, the research showed that the best indicator of spiritual maturity in the entire sharing Christ factor is praying for non-professing Christians.

In the study, 21 percent of churchgoers say that outside of church worship services, they pray every day for people they know who are not professing Christians. Twenty-six percent say they pray a few times a week. One-fifth (20 percent) say they rarely or never pray for the spiritual status of others.

"If you are going to be intentional about sharing your faith, praying for others is a great way to start," he said. "We often acknowledge the importance of prayer in people coming to faith in Christ, but we also found it has an impact on the person praying."

LifeWay's discipleship research project is designed to help pastors, churches and individuals measure spiritual development, as well as suggest ways to further that development. A key component of the project is the Transformational Discipleship Assessment, an online evaluation that measures spiritual maturity using the eight factors of biblical discipleship, which are Bible engagement, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships and unashamed (transparency).

email: mbrown@desnews.com