Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar. Ash Wednesday inaugurates 40 days of fasting in remembrance of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan. Days like this remind us that Jesus remains a central figure in the American context, a fact affirmed by the number of foreheads smudged with ashes you’re likely to see today—and by research showing that the vast majority of Americans believe not only that Jesus was a real person, but claim to have made a personal commitment to him.
But what does the rest of the world know and believe about Jesus? Although the Church of England is the established state church in England, the UK as a whole is often considered more secular than the U.S. So what do UK adults know and believe about Jesus Christ? What do they think of his followers? How often—if ever—do UK Christians talk about their faith in Jesus? How do both Christians and non-Christians feel about those conversations? The Church of England, Evangelical Alliance and HOPE commissioned Barna Group to find the answers to these and other questions.
Jesus: Man, Myth or God?
You don’t have to be a Christian to believe Jesus actually walked the earth 2,000 years ago, and among the general population of UK adults, this historical reality is a common assumption. Six in 10 UK adults believe Jesus was a real person (61%). Age plays a minor role in that belief—adults 35 and older (63%) are slightly more likely than those 18 to 34 (57%) to believe Jesus actually lived. Younger adults (26%) are also more likely than those over 35 (20%) to believe Jesus was a “fictional character from a book and not a real, historical person.”
But even though most UK adults believe Jesus was a historical person, they are much less convinced of his divinity. In fact, belief in Jesus’ divinity is not common at all. Only about one in five adults among the general population holds the orthodox belief that Jesus was “God in human form who lived among people in the 1st Century” (22%). The most common belief about Jesus is that he was “a prophet or spiritual leader, not God” (29%).
When we look closely at some of the racial demographics, the story is somewhat different. For instance, most ethnic minorities believe Jesus was a real person but are divided on whether or not he is God. Four out of five believe “Jesus was a real person who actually lived” (79%)—20 points higher than among white adults (59%)—but only 25 percent believe Jesus was “God in human form,” only slightly more than among whites. This is likely due to the fact that a majority of ethnic groups in the UK belong to a religion—but not always Christianity. For instance, almost all Pakistani and Bangladeshi UK adults are Muslim, and in Islam Jesus is considered a prophet but not God.
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, not quite half of all UK adults believe the event actually happened (44%). One in six believes “the resurrection happened word-for-word as described in the Bible” (17%) while one-quarter believes the biblical story “contains some content which should not be taken literally” (26%).
An Outsider Perspective on UK Christians
A majority of UK non-Christians knows a Christian. Two-thirds of non-Christians say they personally know someone who is a follower of Jesus—that is, someone they perceive to be a “practicing Christian” (68%). Most of these Christians are either family members (35%) or friends (38%). But one in three UK adults does not know a practicing Christian (33%). These individuals are more likely than average to be either under the age of 35 (39%) or between 35 and 44 (24%).
The good news is that most non-Christians in the UK enjoy the company of the Christian they know (61%). Three out of five say they enjoy being around their Christian friend or family member always (28%) or most of the time (33%). And overall, non-Christians attribute more positive than negative qualities to the Christian they know. The most common positive perceptions are that he or she is friendly (64%), caring (52%) or good-humored (46%), while the most common negative perceptions are that he or she is narrow-minded (13%), hypocritical (10%) or uptight (7%).
How Do Non-Christians Experience Evangelism?
Although UK adults have generally positive perceptions of Christians, they don’t always share enthusiasm for Christian beliefs when evangelized. More than half of UK non-Christians who know a Christian (57%) have had a conversation with them about Jesus. Younger adults 18 to 34 (60%) are somewhat more likely than adults over 35 (54%) to report having had such a conversation. Two out of every five non-Christians say evangelism made them glad not to be a Christian (43%). Another two in five don’t know how they felt about it (41%), while only 16 percent felt sad after the conversation about Jesus, that they did not share the Christian’s faith.
When Christians talk about Jesus, the response is mixed. One in five non-Christians say they, after such a conversation, felt open to an experience or encounter with Jesus. But almost half say they were not open to such an experience (49%) and six in 10 didn’t want to know more about Jesus (60%). One in six did want to know more (18%); 16 percent felt sad that they did not share the Christian’s faith; nearly one-quarter felt more positive about Jesus (22%) or felt closer to the Christian with whom they had the conversation (27%).
How Do Christians Experience Evangelism?
Despite the mixed responses from non-Christians, UK practicing Christians feel a strong responsibility to evangelize (85%). Nearly half strongly agree that ‘it is every Christian’s responsibility to talk to non-Christians about Jesus Christ’ (46%), and another two in five tend to agree (39%). About one out of ten say they tend to disagree with the statement (10%). Non-practicing Christians however, do not feel the same responsibility for evangelism. Two-thirds of non-practicing Christians disagree that they have a responsibility to evangelize (63%) while just 19 percent agree—about the same proportion as those who don’t know (18%).
This strong responsibility among practicing Christians to evangelize is backed up by their actions. For instance, most practicing Christians have recently talked about Jesus with a non-Christian. Two-thirds have talked about their faith in Jesus within the past month (66%), and eight in 10 have talked with a non-Christian about Jesus in the past six months (81%). Belief and action also align for non-practicing Christians, who overwhelmingly behave in inverse ways, with almost half having talked about Jesus to a non-Christian either more than 6 months ago (30%), or never (18%).
Practicing Christians back up their beliefs about evangelism with real action, even seeking out opportunities to share about Jesus and their faith. Over half of practicing Christians talk to non-Christians about Jesus (53%) and seven in 10 are comfortable sharing their faith (72%). Only less than one-quarter of practicing Christians say they feel unable to take up opportunities to talk about Jesus (24%). Most also feel confident about those conversations (71%). A significant minority are ‘afraid of causing offence when talking to non-Christians’ (32%); think others are better suited to talking with non-Christians about Jesus (36%); or ‘do not know how to talk to non-Christians about Jesus’ (24%).
Relationships matter a lot when it comes to evangelism. The level of comfort among practicing Christians who share about their faith is likely related to the fact that these conversations happen primarily in the context of an established relationship. For instance, practicing Christians are most likely to share about their faith with friends (76%), family (70%), acquaintances (59%), and a co-worker (48%).
Younger Christians appear to be leading the charge when it comes to evangelism. Nearly twice as many younger adults 18 to 34 (practicing and non-practicing combined) say they talked about their relationship with Jesus in the past month (33%) compared to adults 35 and older (18%).
There also appears to be a certain optimism among practicing Christians about the impact of their evangelism efforts. More than half say the impact of their faith-sharing conversation on the other person’s opinion of Jesus was very or fairly positive (56%).
Reflecting back on their experiences of evangelism, both non-Christians and practicing Christians were asked to describe what happened after having a conversation about Jesus. After talking to a non-Christian about Jesus, one in four practicing Christians recall asking if they could pray for the non-Christian. Slightly fewer non-Christians remember being asked this (27% compared to 19%). A similar proportion of non-Christians remember being invited to a church service (18%), although, fewer practicing Christians actually recall doing this (14%).
Practicing Christians perceive varied responses from non-Christians after speaking with them about Jesus. Top answers include ‘want to experience the love of Jesus Christ for themselves’ (20%); ‘request prayer on behalf of themselves, or a friend or family member‘ (19%); ‘they are looking into Christianity more broadly’ (18%); ‘express an interest in going to church’ (17%); ‘ask to have another conversation’ about Jesus (10%); and ask how they could ‘find out more about Jesus’ (6%).
What the Research Means
Gareth Russell is the Vice President for UK and Europe (Barna Global). He has presented the findings to a number of church groups, along with helping to launch a website called www.talkingJesus.org. He explains that “this research has generated healthy discussion among church leaders about what’s working and what’s not working in evangelism. Leaders have been pleasantly surprised to learn that many practicing Christians in the UK are not only sharing their faith regularly but they are confident in doing so. It was also encouraging in that one in five non-Christians who know a Christian are open to faith and a conversation about Jesus with that person.”
“On the other hand, leaders have been stunned to see that only 6 in 10 UK adults believe that Jesus was a real historical person, although belief in the resurrection amounts to about 4 in 10 adults. Still, people seem to be disconnected from the significance of the resurrection for their own lives. Finally, people have favourable views of Christians—the vast majority of assigned characteristics were positive. We have been encouraged to see the response to the research and the renewed sense of mission among leaders in the UK context as a result of this data.”
About the Research
The Church of England, Evangelical Alliance and HOPE commissioned Barna Group to find the answers to these and related questions. The researchers designed an online survey to administer among a carefully screened sample of 3,014 UK adults ages 18 and older who are nationally representative by age, gender, region and socioeconomic grade. The sample error on this survey is plus or minus 1.8 per cent points at the 95-per cent confidence level. Additional data were collected through an online survey among an oversample of 1,621 UK practising Christians. The sample error on the oversample data is plus or minus 2.4 per cent points at the 95-per cent confidence level.
Self-identified Christians select ‘Christian’ when asked to identify from a list of options which religion, if any, best describes their religious faith. Self-identified Christians make up just over half of the UK population (58%).
Non-Christians select any other option than ‘Christian’ when asked to identify which religion, if any, best describes their religious faith. Non-Christians account for two in five adults among the UK population (42%).
Practicing Christians identify as ‘Christian’ but also report praying, reading the Bible and attending a church service at least monthly (and often more frequently). About one in six self-identified Christians are practising (17%), about 10 per cent of the total adult population.
Non-practicing Christians identify as ‘Christian’ but do not qualify as ‘practising’ under the criteria above.
Six primary age groups were used to identify UK adults: age 18-24, age 25-34, age 35-44, age 45-54, age 55-64, and age 65+. However, the bulk of the reporting focuses on comparing adults 18 to 34 with those who are 35 and older. ‘
About Barna Group
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service here.
© 2016 by Barna Group.