Yes, I know â€“ you can prove anything with statistics â€“ 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 â€˜the mainlandâ€™ 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 â€“ if you doubt me, Iâ€™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 â€˜Donâ€™t knowâ€™ and 11.9% were â€˜Donâ€™t careâ€™, 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 â€˜Reformed Presbyteriansâ€™. 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 â€˜a fun place to beâ€™ and the almost the same percentage (46.34%) described church as â€˜a place to connect with Godâ€™. 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 â€˜Hell is a real placeâ€™ and â€˜You get to heaven by believing in Jesusâ€™, whilst few accept that â€˜Everyone goes to heavenâ€™ or â€˜If you believe in any kind of God we could go to heavenâ€™. 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 donâ€™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 Godâ€™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 â€˜all head and no heartâ€™ â€“ an accusation often levelled at Reformed churches and sometimes not without justification â€“ but our emphasis on Bible teaching is healthy and attractive to those who come to see the shallowness of making experiences our spiritual guide.
Thereâ€™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 fatherâ€™s attending church is a stronger indicator that the children will attend church than a motherâ€™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 â€˜we are not as othersâ€™, 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 shouldnâ€™t be too sure after all.
It must be true! It was on the front of The Times â€“ JUDGMENT DAY. How could we have missed it? Where were the cataclysms, the fire, the floods, the earthquakes, the turmoil? It all seemed strangely quiet. How could the Day of Judgment have...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
The Bible has had a profound effect on the English language, as it has had on many other languages. Words, phrases, characters and incidents have found their way into common usage, even when their biblical origins have been forgotten. Hence we...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
The devil loves to divide. We see it right back in Eden, where he divided man from his Creator, husband from wife, man from the very ground beneath his feet. It was just the start of a long career of causing strife, conflict and division in the...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
30 years in the gospel ministry â€“ it makes you think! Reaching that milestone in 2014 certainly had that effect on me. A fellow minister, a close friend, has arrived at exactly the same point, and so inevitably we compare notes, usually...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
It makes sense. If you set out on a journey not knowing your destination, you will get lost. Not even the most accurate SatNav will save you from that embarrassment. If you donâ€™t really know where you are going, how can you hope to arrive safe...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
It would be dangerously easy. Just look at what is happening in society around us. The legalisation of â€˜gay marriageâ€™. Increasing pressure for acceptance of physician-assisted suicide, along with the inevitable redefinition of the role of...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
Are you happy? For many people thatâ€™s the big question. We live in a society where often the highest value to pursue is happiness. The most significant goal in life, we are told, is the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Itâ€™s not...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
I donâ€™t suppose it was much of a surprise that the talks facilitated by Richard Haass and Meghan Oâ€™Sullivan failed to establish an agreement among Northern Ireland politicians on the contentious issues which have recently highlighted the deep...[ abbreviated | read entire ]
In a crisis it is a precious thing to have the support of those who love us. It makes even the worst situation easier to bear if we know we are not alone. The greatest comfort for the Christian is that God is with us, whatever the trial. Even...[ abbreviated | read entire ]