Continuing to talk of Jesus: Bishop Lee's Synod address

First published 5th December 2015

In his address to the December Diocesan Synod, Bishop Lee reflected further on the Talking Jesus research and its implications for Christians and the Church.

Recently I came across a cartoon of a couple of men carrying briefcases waiting at a bus stop. One was wearing a jacket and tie, the other a dark blue T shirt with Lets talk about Jesus inscribed on it. The one in the T shirt was saying to the other, It guarantees me an entire seat to myself.

If you had only read the pieces in the national newspapers you could have been forgiven for assuming that the results of a recent survey had concluded that people neither wanted to talk about Christian faith, nor hear about it. Andrew Browns online piece for the Guardian declared A Church of England report shows non-Christians dont like evangelism. In fact, such proselytising actually puts them off religion. The message was similar in both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail; talking about your faith, for Christians, does more harm than good so best to keep quiet!

As one of those fortunate to see an embargoed copy of the research and to be present at a launch in September - which included a thorough opportunity to interrogate and respond to the findings it would be fair to say the newspaper headlines throw more light on the views of the columnists than respondents to the survey.

I wrote a piece for the Diocesan website in October which some here will have read, but for those largely in the dark about the research and its findings, in partnership with the Evangelical Alliance and HOPE, the Church of England commissioned a survey on Perceptions of Jesus, Christians and Evangelism in England. The research itself was carried out in July of this year by the Barna Group, an organisation with recognised expertise in this kind of work and a track record of providing useful data for churches. (It should be noted that similar surveys were commissioned by other sponsors in other regions of the UK but the research I am referring to here is specific to England.)

More than 2500 English adults aged 18 or over, representative by age, gender, region and socio-economic category, were included. The focus of the research was on discovering what these people believe about Jesus Christ, what they think of his followers, how often (if ever) Christians talk about their faith, and how people Christians and non-Christians alike feel about such conversations.

In the survey, those who self-identified as Christians (57% of English adults) were subdivided into practising Christians (who reported praying, reading the bible, and attending a church service at least once per month) and non-practising Christians.

These designations help to provide a distinction between those we might label as nominal Christians and committed followers or disciples; practising Christians represented 16% of all Christians and 9% of the whole adult population. Six age bands were studied, but to compare younger generations with older ones, the 18-24 and 25-34 bands were combined into an 18-34 group known as millennials - and compared with those aged 35 and over.

So what did the data reveal and where was the evidence that gave rise to such negative headlines? Given that there was a mix of good and bad news, and that I covered the good news first in the October message, lets start with what the Guardian and others seized on, namely that after a conversation about Jesus with a Christian, 6 out 10 non-Christians did not want to know more and 4 out of 10 were pleased they did not share that persons faith.

Rather than beckoning people closer, some conversations were having quite the reverse effect! However, to conclude that it would be better for Christians never to speak of Jesus and abandon evangelism altogether flies in the face of a very different strand in the data. Evidently some conversations about faith and Christ left people wanting to know more and saddened that they did not have that faith for themselves. The proportion with such experiences was admittedly lower (around 1 in 5 or 6) but does not support Christians taking uniform vow of silence with respect to sharing their faith!

It does not take a genius to posit that some conversations might have been misplaced, insensitive, preachy or alienating for a whole variety of reasons. My guess is that most people in the room today have come across someone whose evangelistic fervour feels more of a liability than an asset in terms drawing people to our Lord. However, it has to be recognised that there are elements of Jesuss call to follow him which will always be unpalatable and to deny this would seek to bypass the way which passes through Calvary. Conversations around the person of Jesus may necessarily be uncomfortable but how can we help to avoid causing stumbling which is not that represented in Christ himself.

Continuing with some positives, I was surprised by how many practising Christians reported having a conversation about Jesus with a non-Christian in the past month. Two-thirds had done so with 80% saying they had within the past 6 months. There was also evidence that evangelism was very much on the dashboard for practising Christians (though not for non-practising Christians) with only a small percentage (10%) not feeling a responsibility to speak to others about Christ. Despite the encouragement all this offered, the data drew some suspicion from ministers at the launch I attended it did not really accord with their perception of how their congregations behaved!

When the data is divided into age groups the percentage of those aged 18-24 (15%) and 25-34 (18%) who are practising Christians, though lower than for the 65+ age group (20%), turns out to be closer to their representation in our relatively ageing population. An interesting finding is that the lowest percentage (14%) of practising Christians was found in the 55-64 age band.

Arguably the most remarkable finding related to the resurrection; 43% of English adults believe the resurrection of Jesus from the dead took place. However, this is where some of the more challenging news must be referenced. When asked Which of the following best describes your understanding of Jesus Christ? only 60% regarded him as a real person who actually lived.

Four in every 10 adults regarded Jesus as a mythical or fictional character or were not sure whether he was real or not, with more of the millennials not viewing Jesus as a historical person.

This is clearly something which needs further research but anecdotally the miracles associated with Jesus and his ministry may be one reason why adults dismiss Jesus historicity. Another reason, ventured by Ann Holt, could relate to younger adults experience of primary school Nativity plays.

When Jesus, Mary and Joseph are joined by the likes of dinosaurs, Daleks and cartoon characters one can imagine some confusion arising around reality! As the new Director of Education in Chichester Diocese, Ann has sought to ban Daleks and dinosaurs from Nativity plays in church schools. Something for Bristol to follow..?

There was so much to be quarried from the research which I cannot do justice to here. Christians in general are well regarded by those who are not Christian and are not often labelled as narrow-minded, hypocritical or homophobic in stark contrast to comparable surveys in the USA.

If you have access to the internet it can be accessed through the Diocesan site or by typing Talking Jesus into a search engine. In the minute or two that remain I want to raise some questions which seem relevant to our goal of Creating Connections, and perhaps especially with our desire to connect with younger generations. The survey focussed mainly on the figure of Jesus with many positive aspects to build upon, yet I am left with questions about how the connections are made with becoming a disciple and belonging to the local church.

Nearly half of practising Christians grew up in a Christian family, and the proportion of people in our churches who are graduates and from middle class backgrounds is high. How can we connect with those who come from different demographics or have no connection through their family background?

In drawing to a close, I ought to mention a cautionary note from a minister present at first presentation of the survey findings. We have set the bar low if we see the research results as positive. We need a reality check: this research could make us feel better about ourselves when we shouldnt. We are doing badly with reaching all ages with the gospel. My own view is that this research contains a mix of encouragement and hope but should not foster complacency.

In the diocese our 10 000 Voices initiative has helped increase our confidence in sharing our faith story and this research can guide and build on that confidence. All followers of Christ are called to be witnesses but we are also blessed by those with a heart and gift of evangelism. A small steering group called REG the Releasing Evangelism Group has been established to help support parishes to grow in expertise and confidence in sharing the gospel.

We have asked the lead clergy of benefices across the Diocese to nominate a person with a passion or gifting for evangelism to become a link with REG. Through them we are looking to build a network of people we can encourage and equip churches in the task of talking of Jesus and connecting all generations to our Lord. Please pray for this endeavour and ask your own clergy to seek out and nominate someone who can belong to the REG network from your parish.

And by the way, the lead up to Christmas could be an easy time to do some of your own research. Can you help me discover some of the reasons so many people dont realise Jesus was real. If you are at the bus stop and say the Bishop of Swindon asked us to do some research for him, the worst that can happen is you will get a seat to yourself.

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