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01 November 2015

Talking Jesus: game-changing research into perception of Jesus, Christians and evangelism

Talking Jesus: game-changing research into perception of Jesus, Christians and evangelism

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? In September, we published research we had commissioned with the Church of England and HOPE, conducted by Barna Group and ComRes into perceptions of Christ, Christianity and the Church in England.

Despite negative media portrayals, most people actually like the Christians they know, while the vast majority of the population still identify with the Christian faith. This is according to a study conducted by ComRes and Barna Group, on behalf of HOPE, the Church of England and the Evangelical Alliance. It took place among 3,000 people living predominantly in England. The research was the result of months of collaboration and had the buy-in from the majority of the mainstream denominations in the UK. 

We intend to track the data in the study – entitled Perceptions of Jesus, Christians and Evangelism – over the next 30 years. 

The research showed that 57 per cent of people in England call themselves Christians, and one in five of those who don’t is open to finding out more about Jesus after hearing Christians talk to them about their faith. 

It also showed that the majority of non-Christians know a Christian and think well of them: they are most likely to describe us as ‘friendly’, ‘caring’, ‘good-humoured’, ‘generous’ and ‘helpful’. 

However, just nine per cent of those Christians would be described as ‘practising’ – reporting regularly praying, reading the Bible and attending church at least monthly. 

“The survey shows that the Church is well-connected throughout society. This connection is through the myriad of relationships that Christians have with the majority of the population in normal, everyday ways,” said Dr Rachel Jordan, national adviser for mission and evangelism for the Church of England. “What is more, people like their Christian friends and family members and they enjoy being with them. This is a different view of the Church and Christians to the one often portrayed in the media, but this survey shows it is the one held by the majority of the population. Followers of Jesus are good friends and they are fun. It is here in these relationships that we have conversations about faith, in a place of trust and friendship, and 20 per cent of our friends and family members want to know more about our faith in Jesus.”

The decision to commission this survey took place in March 2015 when we gathered more than 40 key leaders of denominations and networks, as well as key influencers from across the spectrum of the English Church, in the Lake District. For 24 hours, they prayed and talked. They shared our heart for mission; their collective longing to see God move in this nation. They reflected on an initial piece of research of 1,000 people in England the Alliance, Church of England and HOPE had commissioned Barna to undertake. The results of this first piece of research were shocking.

Futurologist Dr Patrick Dixon, chairman of Global Change, warned the gathering of the danger of institutional blindness. The power of the Holy Spirit was needed alongside the hard work of contextualising the gospel: not an institutional response, but a people movement; something simple that enabled Christians to have millions more sensitive, positive, culturally-relevant conversations about Jesus that could be deeply effective in evangelism. 

This piece of research had the potential to equip everyday Christians to have more sensitive, positive, culturally-relevant conversations about Jesus that could be deeply effective in evangelism. But the group wanted to make sure. So denominational leaders agreed to fund further, more comprehensive, research – the results of which were published in September.

Steve Clifford, general director of the Alliance, said: “Our hearts are heavy with the reality of how little our friends and neighbours understand about who Jesus is. But there are glimmers of hope; we are excited about this unique opportunity to understand the landscape we are in. This is not a quick-fix strategy, but a long-term commitment to changing the story in our nation, so that people might meet Jesus, love him and follow him.”

Two out of every five people in England (39 per cent) do not know Jesus was a real person who actually lived. And under-35s were more likely (25 per cent) than older people to think Jesus was a fictional character. In total, 22 per cent of people think Jesus was a mythical figure, while 17 per cent are unsure whether he was real or not. Of those who consider Jesus to have been a real person who walked the earth, three out of five also believe in his resurrection from the  dead, as documented in the New Testament. Overall, some 43 per cent of English adults believe in the resurrection, the survey found.

When asked to pick words to describe Jesus, non-Christians were most likely to say he was ‘spiritual’, ‘loving’ and ‘peaceful’.

Steve added: “There is overwhelming evidence in the New Testament and independent, non-biblical sources indicating Jesus was a historical figure and any historian worth their weight will agree with this. That nearly 40 per cent of people in this country are unsure of this or think Jesus was a mythical character paints a worrying picture of our education system. While it’s great to see that non-Christians think positively of Jesus, it would be even better if they realised the significance of his life, death and resurrection for their own lives today.”

Roy Crowne, executive director of HOPE, added: “It is the first time that a study like this has been done. The results are a game-changer for churches wanting to share the good news of Jesus. Church leaders can often get discouraged by reports of declining numbers. But these results show that Christianity in Britain is diverse, full of life, and many people are passionate about sharing their faith. The research also shows there are some big challenges for churches to face if we are to see loads more people becoming Christians and
joining the Church.”

For more information on the research, including powerpoints, a video and other downloads, visit talkingjesus.org.

We have created a short booklet summarising the research, entitled Talking Jesus. To download or order copies for your church, click here.  

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