Most people like the Christians they know while the vast majority of the population still identify with the Christian faith.
Fifty-seven percent of people in England call themselves Christians (though a fraction of those would be described as “practicing”), 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.
These are some of the findings of a new study looking at perceptions of Jesus, Christianity and evangelism.
A coalition of church groups, supported by the majority of the mainstream denominations in the United Kingdom (including the Baptist Union of Great Britain) commissioned the first-of-its-kind survey in the hope it will be a major catalyst for effective and focused evangelism in the years to come. It intends to track the data over the next 30 years.
The survey found that the majority of non-Christians know a Christian and think well of them. They are most likely to describe them as “friendly,” “caring,” “good-humored,” “generous” and “helpful.”
However, just 9 percent of U.K. Christians would be described as “practicing” – 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 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,” she said. “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.”
Jordon said, “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 percent of our friends and family members want to know more about our faith in Jesus.”
The survey highlighted, however, a worrying lack of religious literacy among the general English population, raising calls for religious education in schools to be better supported.
Two out of every five people in England (39 percent) do not know that Jesus was a real person who actually lived. And under-35s were more likely (25 percent) than older people to think Jesus was a fictional character.
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, 43 percent 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.”
“There is overwhelming evidence … indicating Jesus was a historical figure. … That nearly 40 percent of people in this country are unsure of this or think Jesus was a mythical character paints a worrying picture of our education system,” said Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance.
“While it’s great to see that non-Christians think positively of Jesus, it would be even better if they realized the significance of his life, death and resurrection for their own lives today,” Clifford said.
James Carleton-Paget, senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at Cambridge University, said, “The argument that Jesus never existed, which has had a number of advocates since the 19th century, was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used. …The tale of a crucified Jewish savior, in spite of arguments to the contrary, is simply too unlikely, even outrageous a story, to have had its origins in no more than the frenzied imaginations of a group of ordinary Galilean Jews.”
Roy Crowne, executive director of HOPE, said, “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,” Crowne said. “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.”
Yemi Adedeji, associate director for HOPE and director of the Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission, said, “This invaluable research will give confidence to churches from across denominations, regions and ethnicities and the insight it provides will enable us to answer the questions people are asking of us, not the ones we think they are.”
More information on the research is available here.
Paul Hobson is editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. A longer version of this news article first appeared in The Baptist Times and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @PaulHobson10, The Baptist Times @BaptistTimes and the Baptist Union @BaptistUnionGB.