Listening to Agnostics

Mark Greene, September 2003

At the Jubilee Centre we hold a commitment to evangelism at the centre of our concern for social reform. ‘Shalom’ involves the restoration and enjoyment of all of our relationships including, of course, our relationship with God. Mark Greene here reports on an important piece of listening research that helps us reach those who have, on the whole, decided not to listen to us.

‘Humble listening’, John Stott once wrote, ‘is indispensable to relevant preaching.’ Humble listening is also indispensable to good relationships and therefore to effective evangelism. But it is precisely because humble listening is so rare that it is so prized. As David Augsburger put it: ‘Being heard is so close to being loved as to be almost indistinguishable.’

So, as the Church seeks to communicate with a population that apparently finds our services, programmes, teachings and saviour increasingly irrelevant, have we listened to them? Do we understand the culture we are trying to reach with the Gospel – or do we simply think that we do? Do we know why so many people choose to identify themselves as Christians on a census form but are so antipathetic to the Church? Do we know what prevents people who are interested in spirituality from exploring a relationship with Christ? And even if we know what the barriers are, do we have a sense of what the bridges might be?

You probably have your hunches – you work or study or drink coffee with scores of people who are in all practical matters agnostics, as indeed are a huge percentage of the UK population. Certainly, we too at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), had our hunches, and we’d seen the quantitative data. But there is a world of difference between examining statistics and listening to people say what they really think. So Nick Spencer who, as you may know, splits his time between the Jubilee Centre and LICC, led a qualitative study of 40 non-religious agnostics. We wanted to understand their attitudes to religion, Christianity and the Church, their belief systems and the major barriers and potential bridges to faith.

Nick’s report – Beyond Belief – brims with insight and rich quotations, guiding us through the material about barriers and bridges under four overall headings: cultural, personal, ecclesiastical and intellectual. There is no shrinking back from the scale of the issues facing us but there is also no denying the persistence of the desire for the ‘spiritual’, for meaning, for a better way. On the one hand, we hear the intellectual resistance to the very possibility of a transcendent God, and on the other the heartfelt yearning for the transcendent: ‘My head tells me there isn’t a God but my heart wants me to believe it.’

Encouraging too was just how positive people’s experience of real Christians actually was. Certainly, the prevailing cultural stereotypes of a boring, self-centred, after-your-money church were there, but the perception of Christians that people knew was much, much more positive.

Importantly, many of the issues that respondents cited as barriers to faith are in reality not hugely difficult to address – the perceived unreliability of the Bible, the apparent tension between scientific revelation and biblical revelation, the multiplicity of faiths and roads to salvation. Indeed, many of the apologetic issues that some Christian commentators have dismissed as irrelevant to the post-modern mind remain important – not perhaps critical determinants of faith, but certainly barriers to be cleared.

Beyond Belief also revealed that it was very rare for agnostics to have any developed conception of Christianity as a living, revitalising faith that liberates the believer to become who they really are and launches them on an adventure of faith in God’s epic and eternal purposes. Part of the reason may well be that many Christians would say exactly the same thing – that much of our message in the last hundred years has been a message about life after death, rather than abundant life in Christ, now and forever.

As such, the research presents us not only with a challenge to be able to answer agnostics’ questions, but also to model ways of living that are more than merely moral and polite, that point to a vibrant and vigorous source for abundant and purposeful life today. Indeed, the research highlights the continued relevance of the Gospel, not its irrelevance. It highlights how little people know about the enormously effective contribution that Christians are already making in so many areas of public and community life; it highlights how little they understand of who Jesus is and what he offers; and it will, I think, help individuals and Church communities see how they can respond more fruitfully.

Mark Greene is Executive Director of LICC.

Nick Spencer’s Beyond Belief? Barriers and Bridges to Faith Today is available at £5.50 inc. p&p from LICC, St Peter’s, Vere St, London W1G 0DQ Tel: 0207 3999 555. To find out more about LICC or to receive free bi-weekly e-mails, ‘Word for the Week’ and ‘Connecting with Culture’, contact mail@licc.org.uk or www.licc.org.uk

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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2003

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