The headline in The Telegraph was stark ‘Preaching to people will put them off God, Church warns members’. According to The Times ‘Christians who speak openly about their faith with friends and colleagues are three times more likely to put them off God than attract them, research carried out privately by the Church of England has found.’
Actually, as Andrew Brown pointed out in The Guardian, the research was carried out by the Evangelical Alliance as well as the Church of England and is due to be presented to its governing body, the Synod. He also quoted some puzzling facts from the report:
On the one hand, a third of practising Christians interviewed said that they had had a conversation about Jesus with a non-Christian in the past week. Andrew Brown points out that if this is accurate; it’s a rate that means every non-Christian in the country is approached once every five months.
However, non-Christians seem not to have noticed – nearly half have never had a conversation about Jesus, while a third don’t think they know any Christians at all! Perhaps a few Christians are talking to their friends an awful lot while others never do?
Of course, we should always take statistics with a pinch of salt. In the study 43% of English adults believed the resurrection of Jesus took place, but only 60% believed he was a real person who actually lived – so 40% didn’t. If true, this would suggest that 3% of English adults somehow believe that somebody was resurrected who didn’t actually exist! Surveys have their limits…
Nonetheless, as Bishop Lee says ‘Facts are our friends’. We don’t do well if we ignore the evidence in front of us. Whether we like it or not, we have to deal with reality, not wishes. It’s tempting to spin the headline statistic and turn anything into good news, as the Evangelical Alliance does in saying that ‘1 in 5 are open to knowing and experiencing more about Jesus after a conversation about him’ – while ignoring the finding that 59% did not want to know more.
It suggests three questions to me. Firstly, there are a lot of non-Christians who think they don’t know any Christians at all. How can we reach them appropriately? Secondly, as the Church Times observed, the report doesn’t make much of Christian service or pastoral care – do Christians need to earn the right to speak? To show it by their lives before they speak it with their mouths?
Thirdly, it’s obvious that many attempts at talking about faith aren’t working well. How can we do better? How can we make it more natural, unforced and not embarrassing? In January I will be running a course called ‘Lost for Words’ which aims to do just that. It seems to me that we can’t guarantee that everyone will respond positively when we talk about our faith – the message of Jesus contains challenge after all – but we can at least try and ensure we do it well.