With the United Kingdom’s growing reputation as a post-Christian nation, a recent poll shows that its citizens’ beliefs about Christianity might not be exactly as many expected.
To find out what Britons really think about Jesus, Christians and the Bible, the Evangelical Alliance, HOPE International and the Church of England commissioned the Barna Group to get a better feel for the island nation’s spiritual climate. More than 3,000 adults were surveyed, and the results were nationally representative of the U.K.’s 18-and-older population, with the younger generation tending to be more skeptical about the Bible and its teachings.
“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 U.K. adults, this historical reality is a common assumption, [as] six in 10 UK adults believe Jesus was a real person (61 percent).” Barna researchers assert. “Age plays a minor role in that belief — adults 35 and older (63 percent) are slightly more likely than those 18 to 34 (57 percent) to believe Jesus actually lived. Younger adults (26 percent) are also more likely than those over 35 (20 percent) to believe Jesus was a ‘fictional character from a book and not a real, historical person.’”
Despite their common belief that Jesus was a historical person, most Britons question His divinity.
“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 percent),” Barna reports. “The most common belief about Jesus is that he was ‘a prophet or spiritual leader, not God’ (29 percent).”
Surprising to many, ethnic minorities have a higher tendency to believe in the true personhood of Jesus than whites.
“Four out of five believe ‘Jesus was a real person who actually lived’ (79 percent) — 20 points higher than among white adults (59 percent) — but only 25 percent believe Jesus was ‘God in human form,’ only slightly more than among whites,” researchers point out. “This is likely due to the fact that a majority of ethnic groups in the U.K. belong to a religion — but not always Christianity. For instance, almost all Pakistani and Bangladeshi U.K. adults are Muslim, and in Islam Jesus is considered a prophet but not God.”
Correspondingly, the key component of Jesus’ existence is rejected by most.
“When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, not quite half of all UK adults believe the event actually happened (44 percent),” the study reveals. “One in six believes ‘the resurrection happened word-for-word as described in the Bible’ (17 percent), while one-quarter believes the biblical story ‘contains some content which should not be taken literally’ (26 percent).”
Exposure to the Living Word
Even though most Britons know a practicing Christian, a significant proportion — especially those in the younger generations — do not.
“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 percent),” Barna explains. “Most of these Christians are either family members (35 percent) or friends (38 percent). But one in three U.K. adults does not know a practicing Christian (33 percent). These individuals are more likely than average to be either under the age of 35 (39 percent) or between 35 and 44 (24 percent).”
Sixty-one percent of nonbelievers who do know Christians enjoy their company and look upon them in a positive light.
“Three out of five say they enjoy being around their Christian friend or family member always (28 percent) or most of the time (33 percent),” the study results continue. “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 percent, caring (52 percent) or good-humored (46 percent), while the most common negative perceptions are that he or she is narrow-minded (13 percent), hypocritical (10 percent) or uptight (7 percent).”
However, when it comes to being evangelized, nonbelievers in the island nation aren’t as positive. Fifty-seven percent of non-Christians have spoken with believers about Jesus, and they report having mixed reactions.
“Two out of every five non-Christians say evangelism made them glad not to be a Christian (43 percent),” the conductors of the study continued. “Another two in five don’t know how they felt about it (41 percent), while only 16 percent felt sad after the conversation about Jesus, that they did not share the Christian’s faith.”
Only a slim percentage of Britons who don’t adhere to the Bible were swayed during an experience when they were presented with the Gospel.
“One in five non-Christians say they, after such a conversation, felt open to an experience or encounter with Jesus,” Barna informed. “But almost half say they were not open to such an experience (49 percent) and six in 10 didn’t want to know more about Jesus (60 percent). One in six did want to know more (18 percent); 16 percent felt sad that they did not share the Christian’s faith; nearly one-quarter felt more positive about Jesus (22 percent) or felt closer to the Christian with whom they had the conversation (27 percent).”
Getting the Word out
Planting seeds in the heart of unbelievers is not taken lightly by most practicing Christians in the U.K., regardless of how it is received.
“U.K. practicing Christians feel a strong responsibility to evangelize (85 percent), [while] nearly half strongly agree that ‘it is every Christian’s responsibility to talk to non-Christians about Jesus Christ’ (46 percent), and another two in five tend to agree (39 percent),” the survey divulges. “About one out of 10 say they tend to disagree with the statement (10 percent). Non-practicing Christians, however, do not feel the same responsibility for evangelism, [as] two-thirds of non-practicing Christians disagree that they have a responsibility to evangelize (63 percent), while just 19 percent agree — about the same proportion as those who don’t know (18 percent).”
Despite the relatively unreceptive climate to evangelism, most believers take the Great Commission seriously.
“Two-thirds have talked about their faith in Jesus within the past month (66 percent), and eight in 10 have talked with a non-Christian about Jesus in the past six months (81 percent),” the results show. “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 six months ago (30 percent), or never (18 percent).”
The faith of Bible-believing Christians in the U.K. is seen tangibly in a majority of their lives.
“Over half of practicing Christians talk to non-Christians about Jesus (53 percent) and seven in 10 are comfortable sharing their faith (72 percent),” the study notes. “Only less than one-quarter of practicing Christians say they feel unable to take up opportunities to talk about Jesus (24 percent). Most also feel confident about those conversations (71 percent). A significant minority are ‘afraid of causing offence when talking to non-Christians’ (32 percent); think others are better suited to talking with non-Christians about Jesus (36 percent); or ‘do not know how to talk to non-Christians about Jesus’ (24 percent).”
Spreading the Gospel in Great Britain is mostly done with people who Christians already know, as 76 percent of believers spread the Word with their friends, 70 percent with their families, 59 percent with acquaintances, and 48 percent with co-workers. This happens more frequently with younger generations.
“Younger Christians appear to be leading the charge when it comes to evangelism,” Barna explains. “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 percent) compared to adults 35 and older (18 percent).”
A majority of all British practicing Christians are pleased with their evangelistic experiences and shared the outcome.
“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 percent),” the researchers add. “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 percent compared to 19 percent). A similar proportion of non-Christians remember being invited to a church service (18 percent), although, fewer practicing Christians actually recall doing this (14 percent).
Here are some of the most common responses that believers received when sharing with non-Christians about Jesus.
“[The] top answers include ‘want to experience the love of Jesus Christ for themselves’ (20 percent); ‘request prayer on behalf of themselves, or a friend or family member‘ (19 percent); ‘they are looking into Christianity more broadly’ (18 percent); ‘express an interest in going to church’ (17 percent); ‘ask to have another conversation’ about Jesus (10 percent); and ask how they could ‘find out more about Jesus’ (6 percent).”
Barna Global Vice President for U.K. and Europe Gareth Russell says the results are helping new evangelistic efforts across the U.K., where he is working with other Christians leaders to launch the new www.talkingJesus.org website to spread the Gospel even further.
“This research has generated healthy discussion among church leaders about what’s working and what's not working in evangelism,” Russell stated. “Leaders have been pleasantly surprised to learn that many practicing Christians in the U.K. 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."
He also notes that evangelicals in the U.K. have a lot of work to do.
“On the other hand, leaders have been stunned to see that only six in 10 U.K. adults believe that Jesus was a real historical person, although belief in the resurrection amounts to about four in 10 adults,” Russell inserted. “Still, people seem to be disconnected from the significance of the resurrection for their own lives.”
Despite the challenges ahead, the Christian leader is optimistic that efforts to spread the Gospel in the U.K. will continue to strengthen.
“Finally, people have favorable views of Christians — the vast majority of assigned characteristics were positive,” Russell concludes. “We have been encouraged to see the response to the research and the renewed sense of mission among leaders in the U.K. context as a result of this data.”