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Survey results cause ‘disbelief’ among researchers

23 June 2017

Madeleine Davies speaks to consultants on youth work about the surprise findings of new research into young people’s religious practice


Moving on: Owen Davidson, aged 15, helps to guide Year 6 pupils at a service for school-leavers at Durham Cathedral last week. Nearly 2500 students from schools in the diocese attended six services which, this year, were led by Year 10 students from Ian Ramsey Church of England Academy, Stockton

Moving on: Owen Davidson, aged 15, helps to guide Year 6 pupils at a service for school-leavers at Durham Cathedral last week. Nearly 2500 students fr...

RESEARCHERS have questioned a new survey that suggests that more than one in five young people de­­­scribe themselves as “active Chris­tians” and say that they go to church.

The Church of England’s National Youth Evangelism Officer, Jimmy Dale, told The Sunday Telegraph this week that his team had been “shocked” by the results. “There was disbelief among the team because it was so high,” he said.

Researchers in this field said that the results were out of step with exist­ing research and their own experience of working with young people.

ComRes carried out the research online in December, polling 2000 people aged 11-18, on behalf of the HOPE Revolution Partnership, which includes the C of E, the Elim Pentecostal Church, and charities.

A total of 41 per cent in the sample described themselves as Christians, of whom half agreed that they were “an active Christian who follows Jesus”. Of the 41 per cent, nearly half reported that they read or listened to the Bible at least monthly. In the same period, 64 per cent said that they prayed; 51 per cent reported going to church; and 40 per cent said that they had partici­pated in youth activities organised by a church.

Ali Campbell, a consultant on youth and children’s ministry and former youth and children’s adviser for Chichester diocese, suggested this week that the results would put youth attendance at church at a higher level than the total number of all churchgoers attending C of E churches. It would mean that around 1.5 million were going to church at least once a month.

“Let’s not kid ourselves that we have more young people who are passionate about Jesus than is actually true,” Mr Campbell said. “We are taking as read things that young people are saying to us, without asking any questions about what that looks like.”

The ComRes findings also appear to be out of step with Scripture Union’s 95 Campaign, which seeks to reach “the 95 per cent of children and young people who aren’t in church”.

The 95-per-cent figure is based on UK church statistics 2010-20, col­lected by the Christian statistician Dr Peter Brierley, who said on Tuesday that the ComRes findings were double the number that he was counting in church. Other studies had suggested that people in a church were likely to be half as many as claimed to go, he said. “You go to churches and count the people, and I’m afraid the young people simply aren’t there.”

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of the young people who told ComRes that they were Christian said that they had “always been a Christian”; and 28 per cent said that they had become a Christian before the age of 11. In all, only eight per cent of Christians said that they had become so in their teens.

“You’ve got to have a face-to-face discussion with young people about what they understand a Christian to be, particularly when in a post-Christian environment,” Mr Camp­bell said. He is critical of the lack of open-ended questions used by ComRes, and suggested that the survey “raises far more questions than it answers”.

Dr Pete Ward, Professorial Fellow in Ecclesiology and Ethno­graphy in the Department of Theo­logy and Religion at Durham Uni­versity, also had concerns about the methodology deployed.

“Quantitative research is not the way to get at any of this stuff,” he said on Monday. “It’s just the wrong thing. It does not really tell us about where young people are at. It’s the nuance of the thing that is important.”

On Wednesday, Mr Dale said that he was struck by the fact that “the young people are choosing to identify as such, and when the narrative has been been so long that young people are afraid to identify as Christians. . . that is really encour­aging.”

The survey asks similar questions to those in the Talking Jesus research carried out in 2015 (News, 6 Novem­­ber 2015), which surveyed all ages of adults, and found that, after a con­versation with a Christian about his or her faith, 42 per cent of non-Christians said that they felt glad not to share the faith; and 30 per cent said that they felt more negatively about Jesus.

Of the young non-Christians who had had “a conversation with an ac­tive Christian about their faith in Jesus”, 23 per cent said that they felt more positive towards Jesus after­wards, 17 per cent felt more negative, 60 per cent selected “don’t know”. Sixteen per cent wanted to know more about Jesus; 62 per cent did not.

These findings resonated more with Mr Campbell’s experience, and also with the findings of a recent survey carried out by Youth for Christ (YFC). The “Gen Z” research — an online survey of 1001 young people aged 11-18, carried out last year by DJS Research — found that, while 61 per cent had a friend who was a Christian, 18 per cent said that they would be interested in finding out more about God.

One respondent wrote: “They are normal like everyone else. Their faith doesn’t change them.” The report suggests that this lack of interest “may be a result of growing up in a post-modern household where faith is fine for their friends who are Christians. However, there may be an issue sur­rounding peer evangelism and faith-sharing among Christian teens, par­ticularly if very little difference is seen in their lifestyles. It may be that they are ill equipped or not proficient at sharing their faith effectively with those around them.”

A total of 19 per cent of the 1001 surveyed by YFC described themselves as a  “follower of Jesus”.

The national director of British YFC, Neil O’Boyle, said on Wednes­day that his team had been surprised by the high figure, but that after looking through supporting questions concerning practice had con­cluded that “we can’t say with any confidence whatsoever that [they] really are traditional followers of Jesus. . . We would say the vast majority were nominal.”

The percentage who said that they would be interested in finding out more about God was “actually quite positive”, he said. “The most im­­portant thing to recognise is that God simply isn’t on the agenda. It’s not that they are not interested: it’s they are just not thinking about spiritual issues. . . Once you start having a conversation, that is a different deal.”

More than half (56 per cent) of the non-Christians who responded to ComRes said that they would feel comfortable if a Christian that they “knew well” talked about their faith; 27 would feel uncomfortable. More, 47 per cent, said that they would feel uncomfortable if the Christian offered to pray for them, and 52 per cent if the Christian gave them something to read or watch about their faith. Almost half (49 per cent) said that they would feel uncomfortable if invited to a church service. 

Of all non-Christians who had ever had a conversation with an active Christian about his or her faith in Jesus, more than half (56 per cent) felt comfortable, and 26 per cent felt uncomfortable. 

A “real challenge” for young people, Mr Dale said, was that there was a lack of models for effectively talking about their faith, and a need to explore how to “build in that rhythm of sharing faith on a regular basis”. In September, HOPE Revolu­­tion Partnership will launch “Mission Academy Live” in a bid to address this.

The results point to a diversity of religious practice across ethnic groups: those young Christians de­­fined as Asian/Asian British or Black/Black British were more likely to report regular church attendance, Bible-reading, and prayer than those defined as White British. They were also more likely to say that they felt confident about evangelism, and to report that they had spoken to some­one about Jesus in the past week.

Dr Elizabeth Henry, the C of E’s national adviser for the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, said that she was not surprised by the findings. She welcomed the research as a  “gift” to the Church:  “We are learning so much about inclusion and about living our faith from the partnership.”

While, overall, Anglican was the most common denomination selected by Christian respondents (49 per cent), BAME Christians were more likely to select Roman Catholic, and more than a quarter (29 per cent) of Black/Black British respondents chose Pentecostal. “As the research demon­strates, family is the biggest influence on people coming to faith,” Dr Henry said. “A sense of belonging and being valued is core to that choice.”

In total, 43 per cent of those who described themselves as Christians said that they felt that other Chris­tians would be better at talking to non-Christians about Jesus. More than half (54 per cent) were afraid of offending people at least sometimes, or feared that they might get bullied or seen as less popular (51 per cent). But 70 per cent felt comfortable talking to non-Christians about Jesus at least sometimes, and 41 per cent said that they had talked about Jesus to someone who was not a Christian within the past month.

Asked about the reasons that they had become a Christian, young people were most likely to select growing up in a Christian family (45 per cent), or going to a Christian school (17 per cent). Research published by Theos last year suggested that passing on faith was not a priority for parents (News, 4 November). Nearly one third (28 per cent) of church-attending Christians said that they did not mind whether their children shared their beliefs.

Other influences cited by Christian respondents to ComRes were Sunday school (15 per cent), reading the Bible (15 per cent), and visiting a church building (13 per cent).

“We need ways of doing research that are more attentive and more engaged,” Dr Ward said this week.  “The problem is that numbers creative motivation and finance. . .

“Real connection is very rich and textured, and brings us into conversations and relationships. We want research that helps us understand that side of things.”

“We’ve got to stop doing research projects,” Mr Campbell concluded. “We are doing that instead of work­ing with young people. . . My ques­tion is: how is this supporting a volunteer in a parish church in the middle of nowhere, working with young people in their community? There is too much research being done when we could be focusing on equipping people locally to get on with it. I don’t think it is rocket science.”



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