Peter Sammons reflects on TFM’s recent personal beliefs survey
Background to the TFM Standard Survey
As part of its mission activity over nearly three decades, Through Faith Missions (TFM) has used a street survey on personal beliefs. The survey questionnaire itself has changed little over that time. If you want to see the survey form, then scroll down this link: https://tfm.uk.endis.com/Articles/663507/Wolverhampton_Mission_2023.aspx
The Survey purpose, as its name suggests, is to uncover what people think about God generally, and about Jesus specifically. As a questionnaire used in a broadly evangelistic setting, TFM has acquired a unique insight into “where people are at” spiritually, and how some things have changed in the past two decades, yet others have remained broadly consistent.
In TFM’s 2023 local church facilitated “mission” in Wolverhampton the responses to the Survey were found to be broadly consistent with responses elsewhere. This article is only a very brief review. It’s possible we may do a fuller write-up on each question and responses in the future. (Tell us if you’d like to see more on this!).
One purpose of the Survey is to encourage conversation, albeit TFM missioners do not exhaustively discuss and explore each question – that’s not the purpose of the Survey. If nothing else it would mean completion of each survey would consume at least half an hour, and this is hardly ideal – albeit it does occasionally happen! TFM missioners are led by what people want. Generally we expect the Survey to take about 5 minutes in total.
The Survey’s final question asks people whether, if they could know God personally, would they in fact be interested? Responses to this question provide an opportunity for people to expand the conversation more widely if they want to. TFM missioners aim to have available a copy of the useful little booklet “Knowing God Personally” (published by Agape) and are happy to leave it with people who’d like it, or even use it as a basis for further immediate discussion.
Five questions – myriad answers!
Overall, people seem to like and appreciate the Survey as it helps crystalize thoughts (and sometimes encourage respondents to reconsider) about the eternally transcendent. More prosaically, it helps them think about what they truly believe about Jesus.
Sometimes sponsoring churches will use local Survey results as part of their subsequent preaching and teaching programme. This provides a great local link of high relevance, and an opportunity just to explore what people are actually saying.
The standard questions and Wolverhampton 2023 responses are summarized here:
|Personal Beliefs Survey – Results|
|1. What do you believe about God?|
|a||Just a force||5|
|b||a distant being||12|
|c||a personal God||48|
|2. What do you believe happens at the end of our lives?|
|a||we die and that’s it||11|
|b||we return to earth in another form or as another person||18|
|c||we all go to heaven||15|
|d||some people go to heaven and others not||34|
|3. What do you believe about Jesus?|
|a||he didn’t exist at all||6|
|b||he was an ordinary man and nothing more||8|
|c||he was a prophet and a messenger from God||30|
|d||he is the only Son of God||41|
|4. Have you ever had a spiritual experience or prayed about something?|
|5. If you could know God personally, would you be interested?|
So what can we learn from all this? A few ‘obvious’ conclusions can be drawn, albeit some are surprising. To the first question ‘what do you think about God’ nearly half still understand God as being a personal God. Now what in turn they mean by that will differ from person to person, but broadly – in discussion – it appears that folk hold on to the generic view that God does indeed exist and that He desires to know us, individually, and to befriend us. If you add Q1 responses (b) and (c) fully sixty percent accept the concept of “God”. But again what that may mean may differ markedly from person to person.
What might we conclude tentatively from this? We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26-27) and so broadly ‘mankind’ knows that there is a transcendent dimension and a transcendent Person. What they do with that knowledge is variable, but they do know ……. To deny God ultimately is foolish (Psalm 14:1) – not a mark of superiority, but actually a mark of sheer foolishness. To that extent atheist Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) still has his work cut out. In Wolverhampton only 14 per cent state that God does not exist, and (from personal experience) the people who say that are largely older, white, and middle class. In that sense they do not represent the future …….
End of life?
Responses to the second question indicate variability of ‘beliefs’. The Eastern idea of reincarnation has seeped into people’s consciousness and this may reflect inwards migration and the advance of Buddhism and Hinduism as cultural forces in the UK. I doubt the number would have been more than 2% just one hundred years ago, yet today it stands at 18%.
The most popular response is that some go to heaven and others to hell, at 34%. Perhaps surprisingly, still fully 15% evince ‘universalism’ (everyone goes to ‘heaven’) which remains a popular, if rather sentimentalized, answer to the ‘problem’ of the eternal destiny of the determined God-opponent. Incidentally Christian Comment looked last year at a recent popular book promoting universalism:
What remains remarkable perhaps is that so many still understand, in some sense, the need for and the reality of, judgment – at 34%. Almost instinctively people still know there is a final reckoning to come. Instinctively people perceive that a holy and just God cannot be overruled by rebellious humans. We are made in the image of God …….
Question 3. From personal recollection it was mainly middle aged white folk who claim “he didn’t exist at all”, again suggesting this cohort has backed itself into a spiritual and intellectual corner from which it cannot emerge unscathed. Yet this view remains very much a minority one at just 6%. Of far more interest, by adding the percentages for sub-questions (c) and (d) we find a commanding 71% who recognize in Jesus something spiritually dramatic and dynamic, with still today 41% understanding Jesus to be “the only Son of God”. What they import by that statement remains open to considerable conjecture. This must range from a true normative Christian insight, to some folk-memory of our grandparents’ beliefs. Yet in this decidedly post-Christian and supposedly “secular” Western society, that 41% hold this belief is undoubtedly encouraging to genuine Christians.
Everyone prays sometimes
Question 4. A very simple question which encourages folk to share if they want to: have you ever had a spiritual experience or prayed about something? Again in our supposedly ‘secular’ world, that fully 72% acknowledge prayer may be surprising. Within our UK population, taken in aggregate, perhaps five percent (author’s unscientific guesstimate) have a true saving faith in Jesus, a faith that would enable them to say they are “born again”. So a figure of 72% acknowledging prayer is perhaps surprising – and possibly it is encouraging, too. It may suggest again a folk memory, and perhaps also the pull of the human soul made in the image of God …..
What people pray about – and to whom they pray – are of course indeterminate factors. I recall on one TFM mission an out-and-out atheist acknowledging – somewhat sheepishly – “well, everyone prays sometimes, don’t they?!” This is almost certainly true, but we need to remind people that the prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16), and that God is not obligated to answer, or even to ‘hear’, the prayer of the determined atheist – the impenitent sinner. That He graciously does so, on occasions, speaks greatly of His mercy and of His philial love to all mankind. Answered prayer is a mercy, not a right .
Are you interested?
Question 5. If you could know God personally, would you be interested? That 16% answered “no” surely reflects the broad atheism of our society. Remember, an atheist is not so much someone who does not believe (albeit this is a part of his problem), a true atheist is someone who hates and opposes God. It was the author’s impression that those who most readily opted for this answer were likely to be older, white and middle class – perhaps a self-satisfied cohort that thinks it has “made it” in this life and has lived successfully without God thus far. They forget too easily that the RMS Titanic made it four fifths across the Atlantic, “safely thus far”, until its fateful encounter with a sharp piece of ice ………
That 40% state they would be interested remains encouraging for any Christian and certainly for those engaged in broad evangelism. Quite often in Wolverhampton TFM missioners were able to give out their little “Knowing God Personally” booklet. What most people make of these booklets is difficult to say; we trust (and pray) that they take time to read them and to respond by seeking God. A few were happy to pray with missioners ‘on the street’ to receive Jesus as Lord and as Saviour. Wonderful stuff! Others were happy to receive interceding prayer of other questions – at TFM we are always happy to engage “where people are at”, and where they feel their needs are.
Yet still 28% remain unsure. Whilst this might seem surprising (surely everyone might recognise they have an a-priori personal interest in knowing God) yet the figure is also encouraging in suggesting that a big slice of our population would be willing to seek God if only someone would show them how, and help them take what might seem (and of course genuinely is) a very big step.
The good folk of Wolverhampton are surely representative of the broader UK population. In countrified areas, as opposed to large conurbations, it might just be that sentiments and life experiences are sufficiently distinct to make a minor difference to Survey responses. But in reality the numbers revealed above speak accurately enough for the whole UK. So for Christians there remains much work to be done, but overall sentiments out there “on the street” are not as hostile as one might imagine. People still want to know about God, but are unsure the right steps to take.
Peter Sammons is a trustee with Through Faith Missions: https://tfm.uk.endis.com/
Peter’s 2009 book “The Empty Promise of Godism” (about the interfaith, multifaith agenda) is freely available as a PDF here: http://www.christian-publications-int.com/default-65.html