Evangelicals in the UK: a snapshot
'David' tithes his monthly income, but 'Julie' does not. He believes evolution and Christianity are compatible, but Julie's not sure. They may have voted for different parties in the General Election 2010, but they share the belief that Jesus is the only way to God. Both David and Julie are evangelical Christians.
Last year the Alliance, together with Christian Research, took a snapshot of the beliefs and practices of evangelical Christians in the UK. Phil Green explores what this says about us...
With a sample size of more than 17,000 evangelicals, this was the most extensive piece of research of its kind. The results provide a valuable insight to 21st century evangelicalism. They'll encourage, challenge, stimulate conversation and provide a foundation for future research.
'Julie' and 'David' are fictitious, but based entirely on the data collected. They are both in their 50s and are typically evangelical. This means they share many common beliefs and practices, but they are also different from one another.
Julie and David both attend a church service once, sometimes twice a week. They are both part of a small group; Julie goes weekly, David fortnightly (although his attendance is a little sporadic). Most days Julie reads her Bible and prays. David also prays every day, although days often go by when he doesn't read his Bible. They both volunteer in activities that benefit their local communities, although Julie, who is a little older than David, puts in more volunteer hours. They both give money to their church and a range of charitable causes. David's family tithes their household income, Julie's doesn't.
They listen to, read or watch the news every day, and both voted in the 2010 General Election (although they voted for different parties). They both believe Jesus is the only way to God, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it's a Christian's duty to care for the environment. They believe evangelicals should be united in truth and mission and that Christians should engage with government and have a voice in the media.
Julie and David have many friends who are also Christians, but several of them do not consider themselves evangelicals. Although they find that in many ways their beliefs and habits are similar, there are key differences. This group of friends admits that although their faith and the Bible are important to them, they do not give them such a significant role in their lives. These friends do pray and read the Bible, but not every day.
Julie and David have interesting discussions with their friends. Some, but certainly not all, are less convinced that Jesus is the only way to God and are less sure that all Christians should be actively involved in evangelism. David and Julie believe sex before marriage is wrong, but many of their friends disagree.
That said, although Julie and David have noticed there are significant differences between Christians who consider themselves evangelical and those who don't, some of their friends appear to be evangelical in all but name.
As Derek Tidball says, "Evangelicals are like any other Christians, but different. They are Christians with attitude. They hold convictions about the Bible, the work of Christ and actively working out their faith which, combined, make them a distinctive stream in the Church. But are they holding to them as firmly as they should? And do they really practise what they believe?
"The wider Church, as well as the wider world, needs evangelicals to be true to their distinctive calling, but to be true without arrogance. Truth must be expressed with the grace and humility of Christ."
While they hold similar views, Julie and David have different opinions on a range of issues. They are evidence that evangelicals are not the homogenous group the media frequently portrays. Julie holds strong views on most issues. Theologically, she believes the Bible, in its original manuscript, is without error; and that hell is a place where the condemned will suffer pain forever. When it comes to ethics, she believes assisted suicide and sexual activity between two people of the same sex are both wrong; and that abortion can never be justified. She thinks that women should be eligible for most roles within the Church, although there are some roles only men should perform. But she's unsure what to make of evolution.
In contrast, David strongly believes women should be eligible for all roles within the Church and that evolution and Christianity are entirely compatible. He also thinks there are occasions when abortion can be justified. When it comes to other issues he's less confident. He's not sure whether the Bible, in its original manuscript, is without error, and he does not know what he believes about hell. When it comes to the issues of practicing homosexuality and assisted suicide, he really struggles.
He leans towards them both being wrong, but really isn't sure. Theologian and sociologist Elaine Storkey says this diversity presents both a challenge and an opportunity. "This research has highlighted just a few of a wide range of issues where evangelicals hold a variety of opinions," she says. "Is this diversity good, or is it a problem? Although it is of utmost importance that we are united by truth, it is essential that this includes a space where we can discuss areas of disagreement. We should be helping people wrestle with the issues of the 21st century, enabling them not only to reach a godly conclusion, but also wrestle in a godly manner."
David and Julie have children who are in their early 20s. Sarah and Paul are both Christians, and are very similar in their beliefs and practices. Paul considers himself an evangelical Christian, while Sarah, like many others in her generation, doesn't.
Paul and Sarah highlight a noticeable trend: 16 to 24-year-olds are less likely to consider themselves evangelical Christians. Those who do consider themselves evangelical are different from other age groups.
Paul displays many typically evangelical traits. He attends church weekly, volunteers in activities that serve the local community, believes Jesus is the only way to God and considers sex before marriage wrong. He also talks about his faith far more often than his parents. On the other hand, he's not quite so convinced that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it should have the supreme authority in guiding his beliefs. He doesn't read his Bible so often, but he prays most days. He doesn't give so much money to charity.
Andy Frost, director of Share Jesus International, isn't surprised by this. "Post-modern Britain, with its melting pot of faiths and ideologies, has created a new generation characterised by contradiction," he says. "On the one hand, they reflect passion to share their faith; but on the other hand, they less vehemently defend Scripture and lack personal time to read the Bible and pray."
Meanwhile, Sarah doesn't consider herself an evangelical. Andy Frost suggests this might be because "the word 'evangelical' has been tarnished by American political agendas" and because the word "is confusing to a generation which doesn't understand party lines and church squabbles". He doesn't think that evangelicalism is in decline, but he thinks it needs to be redefined for them as "grace and truth".
This snapshot is the first in a series of reports that will paint a detailed picture of 21st century evangelicalism in the UK. This picture will be an invaluable asset to church leaders and Christian organisations as it provides encouragement, presents challenges, guides reflection and stimulates discussion.
While Julie and David are both typically evangelical, they certainly don't agree on everything. Is one of them right and one of them wrong? Or do they need to learn to live with the tension? And if Paul and Sarah, while typical for their generation, are quite different from their parents, the key question is: what does this mean for the future of evangelicalism?
The first report will be available to view online or as a free download from 12 January. To get a copy, as well as to find out more about how the research was conducted, plans for the future and how you can get involved, visit: eauk.org/snapshot