New stats say 1 in 5 teens are 'active Christians' – but do the numbers really add up?

When something seems too good to be true, it's probably because it is. As reported by the Daily Telegraph at the weekend, a new piece of research suggests that 21 per cent of young people (aged between 11 and 18) describe themselves at 'active followers of Jesus'. And while that is a wonderful idea, and one that all of us involved in youth ministry hope and pray for, I'm afraid it definitely doesn't ring true. One of the team behind the research was quoted as being 'shocked' by the results, and said 'there was disbelief among the team because [that number] was so high'. It's a remarkably honest sentiment, and one I share.

Is it really true that 20 per cent of young people are active Christians? Unsplash

The problem is that the reality on the ground doesn't match up with that number at all, or with the claim that 13 per cent of teens are 'practising Christians' who attend church once a month, and pray and read the Bible once a week. As an example: there are 22,000 teenagers in Luton, where I work. According to these numbers, 2,860 of them would be found in church, at least on the occasional Sunday, and reading their Bibles every week. Even more than that number – 4,620 of them – would be coming on to our radar as 'active followers of Jesus' as we work in the town's schools, on the streets and in our community hub.

Let me give you the brutal truth: I'd estimate the reality to be less than a quarter of those numbers. And while Luton is hardly in the UK's Bible Belt (if such a thing even exists), those percentages don't fly in Surrey, where I live and attend church, either.

If 13 per cent of young people were practising Christians, they'd start a revolution in their culture. They'd probably represent the largest single interest group, and the biggest cultural tribe, among teens in the UK. They'd almost certainly have the critical mass required for a bona fide revival in their age group. And if that many teenagers were attending church every month, our youth groups would be burgeoning, and our church leaders would all be wrestling with the challenge of how to incorporate, involve and keep hold of all these kids. They're not.

So what's going on? Hope Revolution, which commissioned the research, certainly isn't trying to mislead anyone. So perhaps the truth – assuming that ComRes managed to find a truly reflective sample – is that the survey didn't quite enable the young people interviewed to explain themselves properly. Or at least, that the bar for 'active follower of Jesus' in our culture is so low that 21 per cent of teenagers really do think they qualify as one.

Surely an active follower is one who puts Christ's teachings at the heart of their life. Sometimes they wake up thinking about him, while prayer, reading the Bible and acts of social justice are part of the everyday, as is telling their friends about him. They might not attend church, but they're almost certainly supported by some kind of community of faith. That's what active Christ-followership generally looks like. If a young person can be an active follower of Jesus by liking a few of his quotes on Instagram, and feeling a bit reflective when they walk around an old church, then we've got even bigger problems than we thought. Although perhaps part of the issue is the lack of discernible difference they see in the lives of adults who call themselves 'active followers of Jesus'...

I can only react to this research on the basis of my experience, which is that while undoubtedly there are many wonderful young teenagers who really do actively pursue Jesus daily, they are a small minority. Every day I meet the overwhelmingly vast majority, and while they might not be negative about Jesus, or even think he's got some interesting things to say for himself, they're not following him. In fact, many of them aren't even asking the classic 'apologetics' questions any more. Even the people behind the research – great youth workers who I've known for years – are aware of this.

There is good news in these figures however, but perhaps it's a stage back from the Telegraph's claim. If this many young people called themselves Christians, then that number is almost certainly receptive to the faith at least. And when you dive down deeper into the data, 16 per cent of young people said they wanted to hear more about Jesus, and 56 per cent said they'd be comfortable with being told about another person's faith. Those are really encouraging statistics which should embolden our youth evangelism – especially when it's done peer-to-peer. There's a large number of teenagers out there who are essentially waiting for us to tell them about Jesus. But they're not already following him actively.

The Church is faced with a huge challenge in re-engaging young people. If this research in any way allows us to sit back and think that the job is half done, then it's actually pretty dangerous. If however it encourages us that teenagers are receptive to our message, and helps to restore a bit of the Church's lost confidence, then it's a useful rallying cry. Let's just not pretend that we're right in the middle of a youth revival which none of us even noticed.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.