YOUNG adults are more likely to report a positive experience of Christians and Christianity than their elders, a new survey suggests.
Half (51 per cent) of 18- to 24-year-olds, in a poll by ComRes, agreed that “Overall I have had a positive experience of Christians and Christianity”: ten per cent higher than the bracket above them (25-34), and higher than the average across all respondents (44 per cent).
The youngest age group was also the least likely to report never going to church: 65 per cent compared with an average of 71 per cent, and 78 per cent of those aged 45-54.
This week, the Church’s National Mission and Evangelism Adviser, Dr Rachel Jordan-Wolf, suggested that it could indicate that Christians in this age group were “doing a better job” both of representing Christianity to their peers and inviting them to church.
The online poll of 4087 British adults was carried out in March. Overall, 17 per cent of respondents went to church — excluding weddings and funerals — “once or twice a year”; nine per cent at least once a month; and seven per cent at least once a week. Among those aged 18-24, 20 per cent reported going to church once or twice a year.
On several measures, there are signs that the youngest group (18-24) may be slightly more positively disposed towards Christianity than that just above it (25-34). They are slightly less likely to agree that it is a negative force in society, or to find it hard to talk to a Christian.
On Wednesday, Dr Jordan-Wolf said that the earlier Talking Jesus research, carried out by Barna Group and ComRes, commissioned by the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance, and HOPE (News, 6 July 2015), suggested that those in the younger age group were more likely to report knowing an active Christian than any other generation.
“We might have a very active generation of Christians in these age brackets, who appear to be to be doing a pretty good job at both representing the Christian faith to their friends and asking people along,” she said. “I think a lot of them are in churches where they are confident to invite people along.”
She pointed, too, to research by Professor David Voas, which suggests that the religious practice and identities that people have in their mid-twenties tend to stay with them through the rest of their lives (News, 17 January 2014). Those aged 18-24 were “still making up their minds for themselves about what they believe”, she said. “You can still reach the younger generation, but it does get harder and harder to reach people.”
The C of E’s 2014 Everyone Counts survey suggested that 18- to 24-year-olds made up approximately two per cent of the average congregation; with about 70 per cent over the age of 45.
Dr Jordan-Wolf suggested that many were worshipping in other denominations, including big independent churches, that had “probably done better than us at creating churches that the young generation want to be a part of.” Church plants and Fresh Expressions were part of the work to “create churches that are more welcoming and attractive to this generation”.
Overall, ten per cent of respondents to the ComRes survey said that they believed that Christians were “a negative force in society” (rising to 12 per cent of 18-24s); 51 per cent disagreed, and 39 per cent held no view either way.
Two-thirds (65 per cent) disagreed that “When I know that someone is a Christian, I find it harder to talk to them”; nine per cent agreed. A third (32 per cent) disagreed that “Christians are more tolerant than other people” (19 per cent agreed). Those aged 18-24 were the least likely to agree.
Other surveys have suggested that Christianity is not regarded negatively by the public. Talking Jesus suggested that about two-thirds described the Christians they knew as “friendly”, and half as “caring”. Similar findings were found for under-18s, although 38 per cent said that they did not know an “active Christian”.
Less than ten per cent selected “narrow-minded”, “hypocritical”, or “homophobic”. But after a conversation with a Christian about faith, 16 per cent felt sad that they did not share their faith, and 42 per cent felt glad.
Christians were “amazed” at findings that suggested positive perceptions, Dr Jordan-Wolf said. “They have lost their confidence, and they didn’t need to, because people like them.”
On Wednesday, the Chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Andrew Bowyer, said that very few students arrived with an affiliation to the C of E, “but a larger proportion may be happy to engage in the chapel or local parish if they feel a real sense of community and authentic prayerfulness”.
This was a generation “influenced by the debates initiated by the New Atheists,” he said, but “very few would be of the view that the community would be better off without the chapel and chaplains.”
Growth and interest was focused on the Compline service, revived in 2015 and attended by 30 to 40 students a week, offering “late night, short, atmospheric, prayerful, good choral music by student volunteers, mini-homilies from students themselves, and hospitality by way of post-service food.” The college also looked to the Chapel to “take the lead in caring for people in serious grief”.
A “major challenge” for the Church was to “engage younger people through open doors and making beautiful church spaces accessible”, he said. “Cathedrals currently charging entrance fees should waive them for people 25 and under.”
YouGov polling in 2013 for the Westminster Faith Debates found that most respondents regarded the C of E as “neither a positive or negative force in society” (58 per cent) with 18 per cent agreeing it was a positive force, and 14 per cent a negative one. Those aged 18-24 were more likely to describe it as a negative force (21 per cent).
On Thursday, Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, who carried out the Faith Debates research, said that, when she had started teaching in the 1980s there had been “a lot more hostility to Christianity among students”. Many were women who “felt really angry about their treatment” and had grown up around the “huge struggle” towards women’s ordination. “You just don’t get that any more — they are really open and really interested.”
The high percentage of those aged 18-24 positively disposed towards Christianity was “partly a function of ignorance”, she suggested, as few had close contact with the Church, drawing their information from the media and Religious Education lessons. “It is just interesting, like the other religions. They haven’t had particularly strong experiences good or bad themselves.” It underlined the importance of “how the Church represents itself in the media and on the national stage”.
Another trend she had observed was the fading of the “religious — secular binary”. Twenty years ago, students had tended to proffer the thesis that “benighted” religion was dying out as society became “secular and enlightened”. Today, they had “a better understanding of pluralism and diversity, and don’t see it in such ideological terms”.
She cautioned that the polling did not mean that the younger age group was “suddenly going to want to go to church”, but suggested that it undermined a narrative of persecution among Christians. “It should give people confidence to talk more confidently about faith in discussions,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they are going to convert people but they are not going to be humiliated.”
British Social Attitudes research suggests that those aged 18-24 are much more likely to describe themselves as of “no religion” than their elders (71 per cent of 18-24s compared to an average of 53 per cent).
The ComRes report was commissioned by the publisher Hodder & Stoughton to coincide with the publication of Faitheism, a new book by Dr Krish Kandiah, the founder of the adoption charity Home for Good. He has found that some social workers “show a high degree of unconscious bias, suspicion, and reluctance to accept Christians as foster carers and adoptive parents”. Only seven per cent of respondents to the ComRes survey said that they would would hesitate about leaving their child with a Christian.
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