Proof: Young people are far more receptive to the gospel than we think

Last month, Hope Revolution published its 'Talking Jesus' research, looking at perceptions of Jesus, Christians and evangelism among 11 to 18-year-olds.

The finding have caused quite a stir, with one statistic in particular raising eyebrows. The research found that while 41 per cent of 11 to 18-year-olds identify as Christian, 21 per cent were willing to also say that they identified as 'active followers of Jesus'.

This research follows on from the adult 'Talking Jesus' research carried out last year, as a partnership between the Church of England, Hope and the Evangelical Alliance. This research set parameters on what could be taken as a 'practising Christian', as opposed to those who had selected Christian out of a cultural or nominal affiliation. 'Practising Christian' was defined as attending church once a month and reading the Bible and praying once a week. If these same parameters were then applied to the youth findings, 13 per cent of all 11 to 18-year-olds were deemed to be practising Christians.

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When I was interviewed about these finding for the Sunday Telegraph, I commented that as a team, these results had 'shocked us', even going as far as to say that 'there was disbelief among the team because [that number] was so high'. Martin Saunders, in his commentary piece, noted that that was 'a remarkably honest sentiment', and one he shared.

For many of us in youth ministry, these figures do seem high and have raised many questions.

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One of the common questions has been about the methodology and how ComRes acquired the data. Katie Harrison, Director of ComRes Faith Research Centre, whose team carried out the research, said:

'We recruited respondents using equivalent online panels to those used in similar studies of adults, for consistency, and asked parents of young people in this age group whether they and their children were happy for their child to participate. This meant we established equivalent methodology and rigour to enable comparison with similar research among adults, while also gaining access and consent.

'The sample size of 2,000 is large enough to be credible for analysis, and there are some fascinating findings here. It's important to note that the findings tell us how young people answer these questions; it's not an observation exercise to monitor actions or behaviour. When we ask young people these questions, these are the answers they give. It would be very interesting to explore some of these areas further through qualitative research or longitudinal studies to help us understand how this cohort perceive faith, Christianity and church.'

While that helps to clarify the 21 per cent who identify as followers of Jesus, it raises the question of where the 13 per cent of church attenders are. One of the factors that may have affected this finding is that the definition of 'church' was left up to the young people. Young people were asked how regularly they attended church. This might include chapel services at church schools, youth groups, Bible studies, prayer events or any other manner of things that young people could identify as 'going to church'. This raises questions as to how this generation define 'church', perhaps suggesting they hold a wider definition than the hour and half on a Sunday morning.

Even given these possible explanations, we in the Hope Revolution team wrestled with these results before releasing them.

One of the key events for us was the release in May of the 'Gen Z' research by Youth For Christ. From a base of 1001 11 to 18-year-olds, this found that 19 per cent identified that they considered themselves a follower of Jesus. That makes two independent research projects, collectively across 3001 young people, both with very similar findings.

Whatever your thoughts, I think the research poses some major questions for us as a Church. 

Whether we believe that the 21 per cent who identify as active followers of Jesus are 'real' active followers of Jesus is in some ways irrelevant, because for whatever reason, they think that they are.

When the popular belief is that is hard for young people to identify as a follower of Jesus, I find it fascinating that 21 per cent of all 11 to 18-year-olds in England are willing to do just that.

Now admittedly there are those identifying as active followers of Jesus who don't believe Jesus was the son of God and don't believe in the resurrection, but in so many ways, this simply raises more questions for us to reflect on, not least of which (as Martin rightly identified) around what this age group think it means to be an active follower of Jesus.

I think Martin is asking the right questions and the challenge is to figure out how we react to the findings. At the very least, this research reveals a huge positive around the openness to faith amongst this age group and a remarkable willingness to identify as a follower of Jesus, despite the fact that we might not necessarily agree with them as to what that means.

When it comes to the figures on church attendance, Martin states that he would 'estimate the reality to be less than a quarter of those numbers'. Even if that is the case, surely this is a huge challenge to us that 75 per cent of those identifying as attending churches are not appearing on our radars.

If you were a business and were told that there was a 400 per cent higher public ownership rate than you were seeing in sales, you would be asking some serious questions. Surely that is true of the findings here.

In marketing terms they talk about cold and warm contact, but If we are saying that 13 per cent are identifying as being 'church goers' and 21 per cent saying they are keen to actively follow Jesus, we can forget warm contact – surely that's some red hot contact that we're not even identifying.

And maybe that's the incentive we need. When the Telegraph article was released, one church we have contact with, who thought it would be pointless to try to work with young people, realised there was hope, commenting: 'Well if that's the case, maybe my church should start doing some youth work!'

My hope is that this research will raise aspirations and inspire us when it comes to evangelism with young people. My hope is that it causes the church to dream dreams about new ways they could reach out to young people who are identifying as active followers of Jesus, but seemingly not setting foot in our churches.

Whatever our thoughts at this stage, much like most research, there's a lot more unpacking to do.

Jimmy Dale is National Youth Evangelism officer for the Church of England.

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