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Talking about Talking Jesus

Dr Tim Ling & Jonny Price

Talking About Talking Jesus

You’ve probably heard about Talking Jesus.

It’s a collaborative research project put together by HOPE Together, Evangelical Alliance, Luis Palau, Kingsgate Church, Alpha and CV global that has over recent years sought to discover what people think of Jesus, Christians, and evangelism in the UK today.

The latest Talking Jesus report was published last year and discusses the results of an online survey of a nationally representative sample.

It is the sort of thing that as a Learning and Development team we like to look at and reflect on how it may support our learning and practice. So, we have. It warrants attention. If 45% of the population, as reported, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead then our foundation for explaining the potential difference this can make to people’s lives is far firmer than has previously been thought. What did we make of it?

Happy Talk?

Our first reaction on reading the report was that the findings, while incredibly positive, didn’t tally with what we see in other research around Christian belief and practice in the UK. While the narrative of a declining faith has been overplayed by those who oppose a Christian worldview, there is certainly truth to the fact that church attendance and religious affiliation has been in decline for decades. This disconnect intrigued us, so we pulled together a small group, drawing in one of our Commissioned Evangelists to reflect a little more deeply.

There’s a lot in the report (so do take a look) but we particularly focused on beliefs around the resurrection and the link between class, education and faith.

Resurrection

The report (and home page of the website) states that 45% of the population believe in the resurrection. As mentioned above, if this is true it is of real significance for our practice of faith sharing. We therefore spent some time doing researcher type things – asking questions: how was the question asked, what information was given to participants, and what assumptions were made within the questions? It appears that participants were given a multiple choice of the following options:

  • I believe the resurrection of Jesus from the dead happened word-for-word as described in the Bible
  • I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but that the story in the Bible contains some content which should not be taken literally
  • I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead
  • Don’t know

The aggregate of the first two questions was 45% of participants. However, there appears to be no explanation of what resurrection means. The survey assumes knowledge on the part of participants. While this may seem obvious, without some primer information it is impossible to dig into what these answers mean from the participants perspective. This is of particular note in a population with decreasing contact with church and church festivals. There is also a methodological question about having two of the answers being positive, one negative, and one ambiguous, which may lead to an inbuilt bias towards the positive answers, potentially answering about what they know about the Christian faith, rather than what they personally believe. We were left wanting to know more and uncertain about the security of the headline.

Class, education and faith

The second thing we discussed from the report was that “the people who are least likely to know a practising Christian are those who do not have a university or higher education. In fact, the more highly educated a person is, the more likely they are to know a practising Christian”. Our initial reaction to this was how instinctively true it was. We then reflected more. While it may be true within certain church traditions, which by their nature attract graduates and professionals, these are also the groups least likely to engage with the social action projects of churches.

We therefore started to wonder about the nature of the research design and whether its methodology leant into this bias. An online questionnaire assumes two things; people have easy access to the internet and have the time and inclination to complete it. How would those whose access to the internet via a pay-monthly smartphone engage with this and would they use some of their limited data on doing so? From their direct experience, team members both noted that they believed that Christianity was a working-class faith, but that these groups are under-represented in data partially for the reasons given above. Even if the sample is weighted it will only ever be nationally representative of those with digital access and time.

At Church Army we recognise our own particular context and bias, to the least the last and the lost. We looked at the report’s recommendations through this lens and wonder if encouragements to run Alpha and giving out accessible copies of the Gospel, embedded this divide further. While we believe that Alpha is in many ways a gift to the church, it often assumes a middle class culture of hospitality and welcome that is distinct from the hospitality and welcome experienced in working class communities. Similarly, giving out books assumes literacy and book reading are a part of the life of those we engage with, which may not always, or often, be the case.

Happy Talk

We think there are good things for us to learn in the Talking Jesus report. The positive view that the general public have about Christians is encouraging. It is also contrary to the general feeling within the church. The absence of any comparator groups in the report means this view is based on a limited perspective, e.g. are Christians more or less positively viewed than Arsenal fans? Nonetheless, it is still a positive and should enable many Christians to feel that they are seen as likable. However, we would want to caution against too much Happy Talk as we fear the report’s potential as a resource and as an encouragement to engage in evangelism may be lost through emphasising over-positive headlines which do not chime with many Christians’ experiences. What do you think?

We would love to hear your thoughts via email here

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