Bishop Lee reports on recent research carried out on attitudes to Jesus and His followers.
Do you want the good news first or the bad news? Most of us have heard a joke that begins this way with the punchline telling us the news is uniformly bad.
So, is the data emerging from research carried out by the highly respected Barna Group (jointly commissioned by the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance and HOPE) more bad news for the Church and Christianity? The answer appears to be an interesting mixture of both good and bad.
The focus of the research was the person of Jesus and what Christians believe and practice, rather than the Church. The main themes were: What do adults believe about Jesus? What do they think about his followers? How often do Christians speak about Jesus, and lastly, how do Christians and non-Christians feel about these kinds of conversations?
Over 2,500 English adults nationally represented by their age, region and socio-economic situation were questioned in the research, plus another sample of 1,500.
In a few headlines the good news is that the majority of adults in England self-identify as Christian; 57% in fact. Around one in 11 of the population read the Bible, attend church or pray at least once a month and were defined in this study as practising Christians to distinguish them from the larger body.
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.
Continuing with possible encouragements, the data reveals that practising Christians are regarded in very positive ways by non-Christians, that almost three in every four practising Christians (72%) feel comfortable talking to non-Christians about Jesus, and that two-thirds (66%) report having had a conversation about Jesus with a non-Christian in the past month.
When asked about how they would describe Jesus, the words most frequently used across all English adults were spiritual (48%), loving (47%) and peaceful (46%). Practising Christians also chose loving (93%), together with wise (88%) and inspirational (88%). For those in the age groups counted as millennials (18-24 and 25-34) the description of Jesus as leader figured prominently.
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 bad news needs to be highlighted. 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 and addressing but anecdotally the miracles associated with Jesus and his ministry may be one reason why adults dismiss Jesus historicity.
If the percentage of practising Christians prepared to speak about Jesus was an encouragement, the data on impact was less so. After such a conversation, 16% reported they were sad they did not share the faith expressed, yet 42% felt glad and 59% did not want to know more about Jesus! Just what is being said, and in what manner, clearly deserves further questioning.
Holding on to the positives, 36% of practising Christians say that a conversation with a Christian helped them come to faith, and one in five non-Christians remain open to finding out more or having an experience of Jesus Christ.
The results of the research which has only recently been published has been turned into a user-friendly animation- above and at www.talkingjesus.org. For those who prefer the more detailed report, this can be downloaded from the same site.
As someone once said, Facts are our friends and this research should provide helpful learning for us to proclaim the Good News of Christ afresh in our age. There are findings which ought to encourage all of his followers and inspire us in connecting people with the God we meet in Jesus.
However, there is no room for complacency. My hope is that this research will open up conversations inside the church which in time will ensure that there are more positive conversations with those outside.