Poll about Jesus raises questions

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Key points:

  • A poll by the Ipsos company done for the Episcopal Church produced some interesting data on how mainline Protestants and non-believers view Christianity and Jesus.
  • The most important thing Jesus did, according to 35% of mainline Protestants, was forgiving sins. 
  • A theologian from United Theological Seminary says the poll demonstrates that the teaching of who Jesus is and why he’s important has been lacking. 

Some 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 the most important activities of Jesus?
  • Do you have any doubt that Jesus was a real, historical person?

A poll released by the Ipsos polling company, commissioned by the Episcopal Church, has some interesting results to these questions and many others.

“I think what (the poll) demonstrates is that we have not done a sufficient job of teaching people who Jesus is and why he's important,”said the Rev. David F. Watson, professor of New Testament and academic dean at United Theological Seminary. “I think the absence of catechesis in a lot of the mainline traditions has now come back to haunt us.”

The poll, released earlier this year, was conducted of a nationally representative sample of 3,119 Americans ages 18 and older, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. The findings regarding the questions above are:

  • 26% of everyone polled said Christians are hypocritical and judgmental, 23% think they are self-righteous and 13% said they were arrogant. On the plus side, 47% said Christians were giving and 44% said they were loving.  
  • 67% of mainline Protestants feel comfortable talking about Jesus with friends, with 23% uncomfortable.
  • 48% of mainline Protestants consider their relationship with Jesus “private,” while 8% said it was “public” and 9% said they “have no relationship with Jesus.”
  • The most important thing Jesus did, according to mainline Protestants, was forgiving 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 mainline Protestants believe Jesus was a real person in history, leaving 10% who said they didn’t know and 2% who answered “no.” 

In addition to Watson, United Methodist News sought insight from Althea Spencer Miller, assistant professor of New Testament at Drew University, and two United Methodist pastors, the Rev. Stephanie Dodge, pastor of Glendale United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Rev. Jeff Ridenour, pastor of La Rue, Mount Victory and Ridgeway United Methodist churches in Ohio.

Miller said the term “Christian” has become so indistinct that many who answered the poll’s questions were likely responding with a narrow perception of the full spectrum of Christianity. 

“Complexity is our life, not singularity and simplicity,” Miller said. “(‘Christian’ is) just such a flat term now, that is used to represent and misrepresent such a gloriously diverse group of people.”

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Miller said many don’t think of people like her when they think of mainline Christians.

“Because I'm Black,” she said. “I am an immigrant. I am gay. And I'm a seminary professor. … I am resistant when I have to answer as if I belong to a homogenous group, when I actually don't.”

Dodge said the doubts about the historical Jesus didn’t surprise her.

“I think that doubt is a part of faith,” she said. “I would actually argue healthy churches can allow people who are doubting or not believing to be a part of their community and have that support whether or not they believe the exact same thing.”

The hesitancy to speak to friends about Jesus among mainline Protestants was not a 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 somebody,’ or that ‘They may ask me something I don't have an answer to,’” he said. “I think there's just a hesitancy to talk with even our friends about things that might divide us.”

Miller, who said she doesn’t “want to pronounce judgment on someone who thinks they need to be private about their Jesus,” thinks that avoiding discussion about faith eventually leads to too narrow a conception of it.

“While it might be helpful for a while, after a time, it becomes the least helpful way of finding yourself in the varied world that God created,” Miller said. “Jesus invites us to explore contacts with other people who don't think like ourselves. 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 bunch of individuals and say, ‘Have a personal relationship with me in your heart,’” Watson said. “He called together a community, and we call that community the church. To be a Christian properly is to participate in the life of the church.” 

The trend away from community may partially be the result of changes in the church in the 1950s, Ridenour said.

"We had a lot more accountability prior to World War II, but I think when the church really grew in the 1950s, more and more of the classical lay leadership tasks were being assigned to paid staff."

America’s ethos of the rugged individual also contradicts the concept of a community where people are accountable and supportive of one another, Watson said.

“I think we live according to a myth that we can … do things on our own,” he said. “I don't think that anybody accomplishes anything of value without the guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit. We need one another, and we also need God to provide us direction and to provide us the gifts we need to carry out what is truly good in the world.”

The results showing a notable percentage of people believe Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, self-righteous and arrogant alarmed Ridenour. 

“We could say, ‘Well hypocritical — you know that the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.’ But what's happening in these other folks that they're seeing that?”

Seeking justice and forgiveness of sins are interrelated, said Dodge and Watson.

“I think it’s hard to seek justice without also asking for forgiveness for the ways that we have explicitly or implicitly perpetuated injustice in the world,” Dodge said. “However, there is a great disconnect if we think we can ask for forgiveness and then turn around and ignore the great needs in our world.”

Ridenour said that “you can't have personal holiness without social holiness, and you can't have social holiness without personal holiness.”

“When we look at the life of Jesus, to separate out the social justice aspect, it takes away from the whole of the message,” he said. “We can't be making disciples without transforming the world.”

Although mainline Protestant denominations have been declining in membership for years, the response should not be to lower standards of beliefs or conduct, Watson said. 

“I think that the church of the future is going to have to be a much more high-demand church than we've seen in years,” he said. “For a long time, we had the tailwinds of cultural Christianity going behind us, and those are gone now.”

While many view Christianity from “a neutral or negative perspective, that doesn’t mean they look at Jesus in that way,” he said.

“Now that these cultural tailwinds are not going behind us anymore, we're going to have to get more serious about articulating the significance of our message and demonstrating the distinctiveness of our way of life. 

“Otherwise, why would anyone come to church?”

Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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