- A poll conducted by Ipsos for the Episcopal Church produced some interesting data on how mainstream Protestants and non-believers view Christianity and Jesus.
- The most important thing Jesus did, according to 35% of mainline Protestants, was to forgive sins.
- A theologian from the United Theological Seminary says the survey shows teaching about who Jesus is and why he matters has been lacking.
A few questions for United Methodists:
- Do you think Christians are hypocritical and judgmental, or more generous and loving?
- Are you comfortable talking about Jesus with friends?
- Can you have a productive relationship with Jesus if you decide to make it a private matter?
- What were Jesus’ most important activities?
- Do you have any doubt that Jesus was a real, historical person?
A poll released by polling firm Ipsos, commissioned by the Episcopal Church, has some interesting results to these and other questions.
“I think what (the poll) shows is that we haven’t done enough work to teach people who Jesus is and why he’s important,”said Reverend David F. Watson, New Testament professor and academic dean at United Theological Seminary. “I think the absence of catechesis in many major traditions has now come back to haunt us.”
The poll, released earlier this year, was conducted among a nationally representative sample of 3,119 Americans ages 18 and older, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Conclusions regarding the above issues are as follows:
- 26% of respondents said Christians are hypocritical and judgmental, 23% think they are self-righteous, and 13% said they are arrogant. On the positive side, 47% said Christians gave and 44% said they loved.
- 67% of mainstream Protestants feel comfortable talking about Jesus with friends, with 23% feeling uncomfortable.
- 48% of mainstream Protestants consider their relationship with Jesus to be “private”, while 8% said it was “public” and 9% said they “had no relationship with Jesus”.
- The most important thing Jesus did, according to mainstream Protestants, was forgive sins (35%), followed by teaching (26%), saving souls (14%), don’t know (9 %), advocating for the poor (6%), healing (4%), seeking justice (4%) and other (3%).
- 88% of mainstream Protestants believe Jesus was a real person in the story, leaving 10% who said they didn’t know and 2% who said “no”.
In addition to Watson, United Methodist News has sought advice from Althea Spencer Miller, assistant professor of New Testament at Drew University, and two United Methodist pastors, the Reverend Stephanie Dodge, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Glendale in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Reverend Jeff Ridenour, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Oregon, Ohio.
Miller said the term “Christian” has become so indistinct that many who answered the poll questions were likely responding with a narrow view of the full spectrum of Christianity.
“Complexity is our life, not singularity and simplicity,” Miller said. “(‘Christian’ is) such a flat term now, which is used to represent and misrepresent such a gloriously diverse group of people.”
Miller said many don’t think of people like her when they think of mainstream Christians.
“Because I’m black,” she said. “I am an immigrant. I’m gay. And I’m a seminary teacher. … I resist when I have to answer as if I belong to a homogeneous group, when I don’t.
Dodge said doubts about the historical Jesus didn’t surprise her.
“I think doubt is part of faith,” she said. “I would actually say that healthy churches can allow people who doubt or disbelieve to be part of their community and have that support whether or not they believe the exact same thing.”
The reluctance to tell friends about Jesus among mainstream Protestants came as no surprise to Ridenour. Many people were brought up not to discuss politics, religion or sex in polite society, he observed.
“I think there’s also the fear that ‘I don’t know enough to talk to someone’ or that they might ask me something that I don’t have an answer for,” said he declared. “I think there’s just a reluctance to even talk with our friends about things that might divide us.”
Miller, who said she doesn’t “want to pass judgment on someone who thinks they need to be deprived of their Jesus,” thinks avoiding discussing faith ultimately leads to too narrow a view of faith. -this.
“While it might be helpful for a while, after a while it becomes the least helpful way to find yourself in the varied world that God has created,” Miller said. “Jesus invites us to explore contact with other people who don’t think like us. It’s just fundamental.
The concept of a solely “private” relationship with Jesus struck Watson as a non-starter.
“Christ didn’t just call a group of people and say, ‘Have a personal relationship with me in your heart,'” Watson said. “He brought together a community, and we call that community the church. To be a Christian, strictly speaking, is to participate in the life of the Church.
The trend away from the community may in part be the result of changes in the church in the 1950s, Ridenour said.
“We had a lot more responsibility before World War II, but I think when the church really grew in the 1950s, more and more of the classic lay leadership jobs were given to paid staff.”
The American philosophy of the hardy individual also contradicts the concept of a community where people are responsible and supportive of each other, Watson said.
“I think we live by a myth that we can…do things on our own,” he said. “I don’t think anyone accomplishes anything of value without the guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit. We need each other, and we also need God to guide us and give us the gifts we need to achieve what is truly good in the world.
Findings showing that a noticeable percentage of people think Christians are critical, hypocritical, self-righteous and arrogant alarmed Ridenour.
“We might say, ‘Well hypocrite – you know the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.’ But what’s going on with these other people that they see this?”
The pursuit of justice and the forgiveness of sins are interdependent, Dodge and Watson said.
“I think it’s hard to ask for justice without also asking for forgiveness for how we have explicitly or implicitly perpetuated injustice in the world,” Dodge said. “However, there is a big disconnect if we think we can ask for forgiveness and then turn around and ignore the great needs of our world.”
Ridenour said that “you cannot have personal holiness without social holiness, and you cannot have social holiness without personal holiness”.
“When you look at the life of Jesus, to separate out the social justice aspect, it takes away the whole message,” he said. “We cannot make disciples without transforming the world.”
Although membership in major Protestant denominations has been declining for years, the response should not be a drop in standards of belief or conduct, Watson said.
“I think the church of the future will have to be a much busier church than we’ve seen in years,” he said. “For a long time we had the tailwinds of cultural Christianity behind us, and those are gone now.”
While many view Christianity from a “neutral or negative perspective, that doesn’t mean they view Jesus that way,” he said.
“Now that these cultural tailwinds are no longer behind us, we are going to have to take more seriously the articulation of the meaning of our message and demonstrate the distinctiveness of our way of life.
“Otherwise why would anyone come to church?”
Patterson is a reporter for UM News in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected] To read more news from The United Methodist Church, subscribe free daily or weekly summaries.