Thursday, November 05, 2015

Talking About Jesus - Would It Be Better If We Didn't?

Talking Jesus this week published a survey of just over 2500 'normal' people and 1500 Christians. The findings are going to General Synod later this month.

Here are the questions the research was trying to get at:
What do people in this nation know and believe about Jesus? What do they really think of us, his followers? Are we talking about Jesus enough? And when we are, are we drawing people closer towards him, or further away?

The work was a joint project between the CofE, Evangelical Alliance, and other Christian agencies. Some of the findings:
 - 40% of the general population believe the Bible is God's word
 - 60% think Jesus really existed, 25% of under-35s think he is a fictional character
 - 21% think he was God, the majority believe Jesus was a spiritual leader/normal human being
 - just over 40% think Jesus was raised from the dead

A key focus of the survey was evangelism, how Christians are seen and how we share (or don't share) our faith:
- 2/3 of people know a 'practising Christian', and 60% of them enjoy that persons company. That means 40% don't/didn't know
- When asked to describe their Christian friend/acquaintance, positive characterstics scored much higher than negative ones (hooray!) - caring, friendly, generous, good-humoured were all about 5x more common than hypocritical, narrow minded, uptight and foolish.

Here's the really worrying bit: the majority of Christians feel comfortable to some degree in talking to others about Jesus, look for opportunities to do so, and have done so in the last month. But as for the fruits.....
 More than half of English non-Christians who know a Christian (58%) have had a conversation with them about Jesus. Younger adults 18 to 34 (61%) are somewhat more likely than adults over 35 (54%) to report having had such a conversation. Two out of every five non-Christians say evangelism made them glad not to be a Christian (42%). Another two in five don’t know how they felt about it (42%), while only 16 per cent felt sad, after the conversation about Jesus, that they did not share the Christian’s faith. 

 When Christians talk about Jesus, the response is mixed. One in five non-Christians say they, after such a conversation, felt open to an experience or encounter with Jesus. But almost half say they were not open to such an experience (49%) and six in 10 didn’t want to know more about Jesus (59%). One in five did want to know more (19%); 16 per cent felt sad that they did not share the Christian’s faith; nearly one-quarter felt more positive about Jesus (23%) or felt closer to the Christian with whom they had the conversation (26%).

Whilst Christians who share their faith feel positive about having done so, the clear majority of those on the receiving end are turned off Christian faith, and the one telling them about it, by the experience. Christians think that the effects of their talking about Jesus is positive, but that's not what most of their hearers think. 

The recommendations from the survey don't reflect any of this. They pick up on some of the positives (that there are millions who believe Jesus was real, was God and rose from the dead, but haven't joined the dots, that Christians are generally seen in a positive light), but there is nothing that addresses our inability to share our faith in a helpful way in the majority of cases. Though the full report mentions a goal of (enabling) Christians to have millions more sensitive, positive, culturally-relevant conversations about Jesus that could be deeply effective in evangelism, I don't actually see anything that explores what sensitivity and cultural relevance look like. 

For many Christians, talking with a friend about their faith and about Jesus is a key part of their journey into faith. Sadly it sounds like for many non-Christians, such a conversation could also be a key part of their journeying away from faith. The solution is not to stop talking about Jesus, but to find out how to do it well, in a sensitive and relevant way.

There are many encouraging findings in the report, but I wish that there was a bit more engagement with the discouraging ones. I'm with Andrew Brown - there's no point encouraging more of us to talk about Jesus if we're not doing it very well. It's very helpful research, and the powerpoint summaries are really useful, but there's no point doing the research if we ignore one of the key findings. 


  1. The flaw in this argument is that it assumes that people don't change, i.e. that the 19% who wanted to know more about Jesus remain indefinitely wanting to know more about Jesus and that the 59% who didn't want to know more still didn't want to know more further down the line.
    But what if the 19% all find out more and decide that faith in Jesus is for them. In other words they stop being "normal" and become Christian. So they stop being part of the sample. Does that mean that the 59% becomes 100%? Weren't all who believe now, at some time part of the 19%?
    The data is a useful snapshot, but it's a snapshot of a constantly changing situation.

  2. I agree with Teme Valley Vicar above, but would add that the parable of the sower applies; good seed on hard or unprepared ground cannot sprout or thrive. Yet Jesus didn't say "be careful only to put seed into good soil"

  3. Teme Valley Vicar is right: this is only a survey of those with whom evangelism has been unsuccessful (so far) since any who have become Christians through it are excluded. This should have been made clearer.

    I also agree with Epideme: many passages in the Bible tell us not always to expect a positive response to proclaiming the good news. Indeed, scripture often makes it sound like a minority will welcome it (few find it, few are chosen). While it is of course important to help Christians do it well, it is also important to do it notwithstanding rejection or even putting people off.

    After all, if nearly a quarter of people who we share faith with actually want to know more - that's a lot of people to take on in their faith journey. Why focus on those who don't? Apart from anything else, if we stop sharing faith then while the proportion we put off will drop to 0%, so too will the proportion for whom we are bringing them closer to faith.

  4. Thanks for the comments - good point about those who become Christians and how that affects the findings.

    I'm not saying we quit evangelism, but the whole tone of the website and the action points around the research was very 'we need to talk more about Jesus', and there didn't seem to be anything that picked up on this part of the findings. For the record, I think we do need to share our faith more, rather than less, but I also think we need to do it better. That won't happen if we assume that everyone who is put off Jesus by a Christian is a hard-hearted sinner, and carry on regardless.

  5. Two comments.

    First, the self-report of Christians talking to non-Christians about Jesus just has to be false. It's ludicrously high. If -- as the report claims -- 3% of the population were talking about Jesus to non-Christians every week (and that's a rather higher figure than C of E Sunday attendance) then the rest of the population would be getting evangelised all the time.

    Secondly, of course some people will be converted, but to suppose that they are a significant proportion of those who are not actively repelled requires mathematical blindness. If there were lots of converts, they would show up in this survey, among the "Practising Christians". But when the PCs were asked when they themselves had become Christians (if they had: many had of course been brought up that way) only 7% said this had happened in the last 11 years.

    That's, um, 7% of 9% of the population (Rachel Jordan's figure for "Practising Christians") which is .63% of the population over eleven years -- shall we say 0.05% of the population per year?

  6. I think there's some (TBH) "whistling past the graveyard" going on in the comments above.

    Take the results SERIOUSLY. Non-Christians (and Non-Evangelical Christians!) are NOT buying what you're selling.

    And that's the issue, isn't it? It's not about the "talking", per se [in the Internet Age, people talk about EVERYTHING]. It's the selling of Jesus: as a product the *consumer* needs to buy, Buy, BUY as, at best, the exclusive means to a meaningful life, and at worst, Fire Insurance.

    St Francis said it (attributed) so well, so long ago: "Preach the Gospel always, if necessary use words." [Addendum: if you think words are necessary---they aren't].

    People are drawn to goodness, any "news" of goodness comes YEARS later (like, after your longtime friend asks *you* what you do Sunday mornings). If one's casual acquaintances, neighbors or co-workers don't know you're a Christian: that's a good thing. Keep up the good work!