Detail from Filippino Lippi’s St Paul Visiting St Peter in Prison, via Wikimedia Commons. Caption: 'If in a sense we're all sinners, why aren't you here in prison with me?'

What the new Church of England booklet Talking Jesus actually says is that a group of Christian leaders, meeting in March, shared a ‘collective longing for God to move in this nation’. For those who do not speak fluent Evangelicalese this sounds like telling God to ‘shift your arse off that sofa and get with the program’. There are no further instructions to God, but what runs right through the booklet is an elitist distinction between those who know what needs to be done and those who need to be done to.

Talking Jesus is sponsored by the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance and an organisation called Hope that arranged a social survey. Here I summarise the booklet, suggest a background explanation and offer alternative ways to talk about Jesus.

The booklet

The booklet is mainly about the results of the survey. It divides the population into those who self-identify as Christians and the rest. Christians are ‘practising’ or ‘non-practising’.

Of the general population, 57% identify as Christian and 43% believe in the Resurrection. Jesus was a normal human being to 17%, God in human form to 21%, a non-divine prophet or spiritual leader to 30% and never even existed to another 22%. The Resurrection happened word-for-word as described in the Bible to 17%, it happened but not quite like that to 26% and it didn’t happen at all to 13%.

Of practising Christians, 33% have talked about Jesus to a non-Christian in the past week; within the last month, 33%; 6 months, 15%; year, 3%. 72% felt comfortable doing so. The Christians thought the conversation had a very positive effect in 9% of cases, fairly positive in 47%. The non-Christians saw it differently. 16% felt sad that they didn’t share the faith while 42% felt glad they didn’t. 19% wanted to know more about Jesus, 59% didn’t. 20% were open to an encounter with Jesus, 49% weren’t. 23% felt more positive about Jesus, 30% more negative.

Andrew Brown comments:

This is literally incredible. If true, it would mean that every single non-Christian in the country gets talked to about Jesus every six months. But when asked, non-Christians reveal that they are entirely unaware of all this evangelism. Nearly half have never had a conversation about Jesus. A third don’t think they know any Christians at all, let alone evangelicals.

David Keen adds:

Whilst Christians who share their faith feel positive about having done so, the clear majority of those on the receiving end are turned off Christian faith, and the one telling them about it, by the experience… The recommendations from the survey don’t reflect any of this. They pick up on some of the positives… but there is nothing that addresses our inability to share our faith in a helpful way in the majority of cases.

The need to convert

Andrew Brown also notes that the booklet is asking Christians to do something you wouldn’t do to a friend. Otherwise, of course, the question of whether the Christian ‘felt comfortable’ talking about Jesus would not have arisen.

Why do it at all? Societies often maintain practices that have lost their original purpose. Once, talking about Jesus was a matter of passionate concern. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries the punishments of Hell were at their most frightening, in both art and preaching. Until the Reformers whitewashed over them, the walls of countless churches depicted the punishments in store for people who believed the wrong things. Catholics and Protestants alike were genuinely terrified of eternal torture if they believed the wrong doctrines. (On 16th November in Liverpool I am giving a talk What makes Hell so much more fun than Heaven? to which the saved and the damned will be equally welcome.)

Today warning people of their eternal damnation is not socially acceptable. Some still believe in Hell, but even those who do are rarely prepared to knock on the next door neighbour’s door to explain the eternal damnation awaiting them. If they were, all this ‘talking about Jesus’ would be for real.

So what the authors have inherited is that characteristically Evangelical tradition that they ought to convert people, without the robust and logical reasons that once applied. The practice survives, and finds other justifications.

Christians believe all sorts of things. The researchers could have asked people whether they believe in God, or angels, or the immorality of adultery, or the obligation to feed the hungry; but the answers to these questions would cross the boundary between Christians and non-Christians.

What the authors wanted – this comes across very clearly – was a black-and-white distinction between Christians and the rest. So they asked questions most likely to reflect the distinction. They asked whether people believe in the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection.

But these reasons are no substitute for Hell. They never quite make sense of the determination to evangelise. Why, after all, should ordinary people hold any opinion at all about whether a unique coming-back-to-life event happened two thousand years ago? If being a Christian is all about assenting to historical statements from way back when, why be a Christian at all? Why should anyone care?

This kind of evangelising is thus a modern adaptation of something that once made sense. As it no longer makes sense – or at least, not for reasons that people openly defend – the practice has become a forced, artificial, stilted ritual.

The need to do something

David Bebbington’s excellent study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain lists four main features of British Evangelicalism. Three are the obvious ones: the Bible, the Cross and conversion. The fourth is activism.

Like Evangelicalism in general, Talking Jesus owes a great deal to Enlightenment thought: not its rationalism but its activism, its sense that those who know the answers ought to get on with improving the world. The urge to do something is unmissable.

That Enlightenment activism was based on an elitism with its own black-and-white distinction: between the enlightened activists and the unenlightened who would be acted upon.

What does that ‘collective longing for God to move in this nation’ say about the Christian’s relationship to God? It seems that the authors know what needs to be done, and somehow they must persuade God to do it.

Thereafter we hear no more about God’s laziness, but the elitism runs right through the booklet. Everyone is either a Christian or a non-Christian. The Christians have a duty to be busy, talking to the non-Christians about Jesus. The talking is one-way only. There is no suggestion of any value in Christians listening to what non-Christians have to say. We are back in the land of ‘Jesus is the answer’ regardless of the question.

Alternative evangelism

I have long suspected that the stilted activities beloved of Evangelical church leaders drive more people away from Christianity than they convert. The one good thing about Talking Jesus is that it admits as much.

Strip away that whole tradition of the fear of Hell, and its anxiety-driven activism, and what is left for evangelism? Why talk about Jesus? Here are my positive alternatives.

1) There is no black-and-white distinction between Christians and non-Christians. Christians hold all sorts of different beliefs, some of which are shared by others. So nobody has any business to presume they should do all the talking and none of the listening. We all have something to offer and something to learn. Whoever you meet tomorrow, you may learn something important from them. Even if it’s that lazy God.

2) There are good reasons for being a Christian. Hell is not one of them. Ask yourself what are your reasons for whatever you believe, Christian or not, and what difference it makes to you. Be honest with yourself – about your experiences, your emotions, your doubts, your hopes. Then, if an opportunity arises to talk about Jesus or your faith, share these honesties. If you are not sure, feel free to say you are not sure. Admitting your doubts will not let God down. What will let God down is pretending to know what you don’t know.

3) Do not put yourself on a pedestal. Do not push yourself to evangelise. If you do, you will come out with things that are stilted, inappropriate and off-putting. If you don’t like talking about Jesus or Christianity, leave it to others. I enjoy doing it, but it isn’t necessary for everyone.

The way to share your faith is by ordinary methods of communication. The time to share it is when it is an appropriate thing to say. Say what you really believe, why you think it’s true and why you think it matters. Listen to what others say in response. Remember that you have two ears but only one mouth, so expect to do twice as much listening as talking.