NEARLY half the British think that religion is harmful, according to a poll carried out by YouGov. Yet more than half also believe in God “or something”.The YouGov poll commissioned by John Humphrys, the broadcaster and writer, found that 42% of the 2,200 people taking part considered religion had a harmful effect.
This report comes from today’s Sunday Times. You can read the whole thing here. To my mind this represents a very important trend that Christians need to think about very seriously. The bottom line is that Christians and other people of faith are no longer seen as ‘good’ people. At one point a Christian might have been thought of as morally upstanding and a good member of society – someone you would cheerfully lend your lawnmower too, now they are more likely to be thought of as sexist bigots. People don’t think that religion is a good thing – even if they have some sort of spiritual beliefs themselves. (Yes, I realise that this may not make sense, but since when did people make sense?)
To my mind there are a number of things that the Church needs to consider in the light of these sorts of trends. Firstly, I do think we need to rethink how it is we present the Gospel. There is all too often an unspoken assumption that Christian faith is the natural state of things in the UK and that all we need to do is to call people back to something that they have lost. All it needs is a clearer, more attractive presentation of the Gospel and people will flock back to Christ. Can I say that I believe that this is awfully naive? People in the UK have very little understanding of the meaning of Christian faith and what folk memory there is of Britain being a Christian country (whatever that means) is very small. It is a big step from the position of your average Brit to being a disciple of Christ, and we need to remember that. Not only that, but we have to remember that disciples of Christ (along with other religious people) are increasingly seen as being the bad guys! What you might see as an attractive presentation of the Gospel could easily be understood as an invitation to become a narrow minded religious bigot – not so attractive after all. The challenge of presenting the Gospel in the UK is huge.
It is often said that real Christianity is not a religion, but it is following Jesus (or words to that effect). Well, if religion is seen as a bad thing, this might help us to present following Jesus in a positive light. Except, that being a follower of Jesus looks an awful lot like a religion to me. We do lots of religious things like go to sacred buildings, sing strange songs (waits for the incoming flak after that one) and do various other things that are obviously mystic, but which are incomprehensible, or nearly so, to the average person in Britain. To my mind the negative view of religion in Britain means that we need to take a long hard look at what we are doing and to divest being a disciple of Jesus of much of it’s traditional and religious baggage. It’s not that these things are bad, but they are not always helpful and they can create real barriers to people coming to faith. Without a radical overhaul of how we express being a disciple of Jesus in our culture we may find ourselves in serious trouble.