Yes, I know – you can prove anything with statistics – yet sometimes they can highlight important trends, indicate patterns we should be aware of, flag up issues that need to be addressed. A good example is a recent survey of the views of young people conducted by the magazine Premier Youthwork. Some very interesting results were obtained in this survey of 293 young people, almost 95% of whom were professing Christians.
Of course in seeking to learn lessons for ourselves, we have to take into account that those polled were English, but the truth is that spiritually the gap between Northern Ireland and ‘the mainland’ in spiritual matters is narrower than we would like to admit. The days when people here could console themselves with the vision of Northern Ireland as a little oasis of Christian faithfulness in the midst of a sea of spiritual darkness are long gone – if you doubt me, I’ll take you for a dander round the streets of Belfast. On a recent door-to-door outreach scarcely one in ten of the locals made any kind of claim to a church link, however tenuous. Some Ulster evangelicals need a reality check.
What about the survey results? For a start, as far as denominational affiliation was concerned, 10.8% were ‘Don’t know’ and 11.9% were ‘Don’t care’, with another 12.3% not fitting at all into the very wide range of classifications on offer. It confirms what is a significant trend in church life, especially among younger Christians: commitment to a denomination is generally very weak. Increasingly a church is not chosen because of the label it carries, but for other reasons, including its style of worship, the quality of its teaching, the warmth of its fellowship. We have to recognise that fewer and fewer will come to us or stay with us just because we are ‘Reformed Presbyterians’. Far more is needed. And indeed to most people in our communities the label is meaningless.
Encouragingly, 78% of those surveyed attend church weekly and another 12.3% twice a month. A smaller percentage (64.1%) attend a youth group with the same frequency. There is a striking contrast in their attitudes to the two gatherings. Given five options and allowed to choose one, just under half (49.2%) described youth group as ‘a fun place to be’ and the almost the same percentage (46.34%) described church as ‘a place to connect with God’. Surely there are lessons here both with regard to church life (why do more not see church as a place to connect with God?) and also with regard to youth work (why do only 15.2% regard it as a place to connect with God?)
On matters of belief, there are majorities for acceptance of statement such as ‘Hell is a real place’ and ‘You get to heaven by believing in Jesus’, whilst few accept that ‘Everyone goes to heaven’ or ‘If you believe in any kind of God we could go to heaven’. The fact that by no means all hold to biblical positions on these key issues should warn us of danger ahead, however. Part of the explanation for such variable commitment to foundational doctrines may be found in the fact that 50% of the young people who identified as Christians don’t read their Bible more than once a month and only a third read it a couple of times a week or more. Those are frightening statistics. They seem to support the impression we have that many Christians, young and not so young, are seeking God’s voice in all kinds of experiences rather than in his revealed Word. The inevitable result is weak commitment to divine truth. We of course need to be on our guard that we do not become ‘all head and no heart’ – an accusation often levelled at Reformed churches and sometimes not without justification – but our emphasis on Bible teaching is healthy and attractive to those who come to see the shallowness of making experiences our spiritual guide.
There’s more of interest in the survey: as far as what is deemed most important in a church, the results were 1. An experience of God, 2. Community, 3. Teaching, 4. Social action and 5. Evangelism. Evangelism only fifth! A father’s attending church is a stronger indicator that the children will attend church than a mother’s attending. 83% of Christian young people think sex is only for marriage (although their practice may be different), but only 36% think homosexuality is a sin. That last statistic indicates where one of the future battles in the churches will be fought, and indeed is being fought now.
We could, of course walk away, giving thanks that ‘we are not as others’, but that would be both complacent and foolish. For one thing, we are just one part of the Christian Church and we need to understand the environment in which we, and in particular our young people are living. We might also hope that the same survey conducted within our congregations would yield rather better results, but maybe we shouldn’t be too sure after all.