THE Franciscan epigram “Preach the gospel at all times; where necessary, use words” was dismissed as inauthentic and “wrong” by the Archbishop of Canterbury in March, a correction since repeated by national officers of the Church.
Talking Jesus is the order of the day, and the recently published research of that name (commissioned by the Church of England and others) is being presented as evidence of the need to talk “to more people, more often, and more relevantly” (News, 6 November). Conversely, many in the media have read the data as gloomy, noting that, on average, such talk seems to do more harm than good.
The research deserves more serious analysis, and none has yet been published. In comparison, the Church of England’s 2011-13 Church Growth Research Programme surveyed widely to determine factors that influence numerical growth. While the summary, published in 2014 in From Anecdote to Evidence, was tendentious, at least there were thoughtful technical reports (News, 17 April).
In contrast, in Talking Jesus we arrive with breakneck speed at “ten recommendations for church leaders”, which largely amount to different ways of saying: “Talk about Jesus more.”
The Talking Jesus survey is of interest because it asks new questions, but this makes validation difficult, since comparison is not possible. It is therefore necessary to look first at that part of the results for which we already have data: church attendance. These figures are found in the data tables, published only on the website of ComRes, the organisation that carried out the survey.
People were asked to specify their frequency of attendance at a religious service (daily, weekly, monthly, and so on), and their Christian denomination. From the results, combined with 2011 Census data, it may be calculated that the number of adults who attend a Church of England service in an average week is 1.9 million, if this survey is representative.
This is more than twice the adult average weekly attendance of 0.84 million published in the Church of England’s own 2013 Statistics for Mission. Using the figures from another piece of research in this area, a 2013 YouGov survey commissioned by the University of Lancaster, the same calculation gives 0.95 million.
Most extraordinary in the Talking Jesus data is that 175 out of 1520 “practising Christians” declared that they participate daily “in a religious service as a worshipper”, which translates to 155,000 Anglicans, ten in each church.
WHEN presenting the research at the General Synod last month, it was said that some of the findings were being met with disbelief: for example, that 53 per cent of “practising” Christians “are always looking for opportunities to talk about Jesus with others”. It was admitted that there is a “halo effect” with surveys, but here “the percentages are so large that they need to be taken seriously.”
Given the questions oncerning attendance rates however, it is hard to be confident that there are not significant distortions in the fuzzier matter of conversations, and feelings about conversations.
Many Anglicans may have further cause for concern about the reliability of this research because the definition of a “practising Christian”, basic to the study, is more reflective of the theology of the partners (Barna Group, the Evangelical Alliance, and HOPE) than the breadth of the Church of England. “Practising” means regular prayer, attendance at a church service, and reading of the Bible, at least monthly in each case.
Unsurprisingly, the figures suggest that Bible-reading is the tightest category. So Jack, who occasionally dips into his Bible-reading app or attends an evening service, is “practising”, whereas Marjorie, a regular communicant for 50 years, who chairs a local charity, misses the mark — even though she hears more scripture in a month than Jack reads in a year.
IN THE act of communion, we leave talk behind. We recognise that we speak of a truth that cannot be contained within our language, of a reality before whom we kneel in contemplative silence. That this same reality is the deepest truth about every human being should caution us against interpreting the survey results as simply prescribing more talk. E. M. Forster’s phrase “poor little talkative Christianity” stings enough already.
God’s primary communication of himself is in a whole human life, not just in words. Similarly, the Church’s primary communication of Christ should be through the whole humanity of those who share his life — in both senses of “whole” — not just through its talk.
Openness to hear words follows from recognising the source as trustworthy, which means that the Church’s prior task is to be seen to be a people who lack self-interest, and have learnt to be genuinely attentive to others.
THE report’s recommendations pay little attention to the quality of talk about Jesus. We have the hard task of learning richer speech, responsive to the words and lives of those to whom we witness. That means careful analysis of the survey results, for a start, but it also questions top-down delivery of recommendations.
Historically, renewal has rarely been centrally planned — witness the monastic movement, and of course Jesus himself. It is rich speech, already present at the margins, that has evangelised the Church (and still seeks to do so) with respect to the ending of harmful discrimination according to race, gender, or sexuality.
Patient listening should also influence future survey questions, for instance, by not categorising people according to a narrow notion of “practising”. As St Francis also did not say: “Proclaim yourself Christian; use labels only where really necessary.”
The report was subtitled “Perceptions of Jesus, Christians and evangelism in England”. An interesting follow-up study would be “Perceptions of the Church”, at local or national level. Many individual witnessing Christians may be trusted by friends or family, but the barrier is often suspicion of the institution.
By wider listening, we need to give the message to all people that we are not merely a provider looking for more consumers; we are a body needing their presence to enrich and change us.
The Revd Dr Mark Hart is Rector of Plemstall and Guilden Sutton, in the diocese of Chester.