2014 Christian/not-Christian comparison survey

20 May, 2014 — 23 Comments

I have surveyed 1079 people asking them to respond to thirteen statements about the church and Christians (in New Zealand). The statements are based on the results of my recent PhD research. There are striking differences between what Christian people think and those who are not Christian, but there are a couple of surprising results that break the usual comparison pattern between these two groups. I believe the information visually shown by the graphs below is of critical importance to 21st century missiology: how the church engages with society.


In an earlier post I described one way to think of communication as being the establishment of common ground in terms of shared understanding. If there is no common ground, there is an inability to reach shared understanding, which means there will be an inability to communicate effectively.

An example of common ground

If you asked two groups of people if they thought the price of milk is too expense, and 80% of one group agreed that milk is too expensive, and 79% of the other group agreed that milk is too expensive, this is an area of common ground and shared understanding between these groups.

The fictional graph below illustrates this, where the majority of both Group 1 (625 people), and Group 2 (454 people) think the price of milk is too expensive.


Assuming Group 1 and Group 2 have other things in common, such as speaking the same language and living in the same location, the two groups could fairly easily engage with one another about what they could do to lower the price of milk, for example: they might together address the political issues around the price of milk such as taxes or tariffs, or they might cooperate together by pitching in and buying their own cows.

Whatever the outcome, shared understanding and common ground would at least enable and facilitate successful communication about this particular issue.

Communication breakdown

If we ever feel there are communication problems, pondering the issues around common ground and shared understanding may help us make our communication more effective. I think this is especially important for the church when any engagement beyond the church is considered, this is because of the increasing lack of common ground between the in-house church world and wider society.

Communication research and the church

In my PhD research I undertook in-depth qualitative interviews and focus groups with 25 New Zealanders, comprising of two groups: 1) those who had never been Christianised (so never having anything to do with the church), and 2) church leaders. From the interviews I did with people outside the church and thematic analysis of the conversations, I came up with 9 Perceptions of how these people view the church.

After engaging with some church leaders about these 9 perceptions, I came up with the concept of the Disconnected Church (the title of my thesis). I suggest a disconnect exists between church and society that results from communication breakdown, including a lack of considering the communication process in the mission task of the church.

Testing the Disconnected Church theory on 1000 people (1079 to be exact)

Recently I turned the 9 perceptions into an online quantitative survey which had 1079 participants. Click here for more details about this survey. All of the participants were New Zealanders, and of the 1079 people, 939 identified themselves as either not-Christian or Christian.

In the survey they could agree, disagree, or not have an opinion about the statements derived from the 9 perceptions.

The 13 graphs below show the comparison of opinions between the two groups of not-Christian and Christian.

When thinking about common ground and shared understanding, these graphs visually tell a very important story: there is very little common ground or shared understanding when it comes to opinions about the church.

These graphs visually illustrate what I call the Disconnected Church.

These graphs visually illustrate a communication problem between the church and those not part of the church, or more specifically, between not-Christians and Christians.

Mission is communication

I consider the mission of the church to be a process of communication. In other words, whenever the church attempts mission, evangelism, being missional, being incarnational, everything we do: the process of communication needs to be considered. I don’t just mean spoken or written, but actions and everything else we do – in an earlier post I describe how considering basic communication theory needs to be considered whenever anyone inside the church tries to communicate anything outside the church.

The graphs and what they show

As you look at these graphs notice the patterns that emerge. Look especially at the eleventh graph showing the responses to the statement “some Christians do amazing good.” This is perhaps the most significant graph because it shows some common ground and shared understanding.



























Where is the common ground?

Three of the thirteen graphs show an element of shared understanding, with one of them showing a clear majority of the two groups sharing the same opinion. These common areas could be good places to begin considering any mission connection (communication) within society. The other ten graphs highlight areas where a lot of work needs to happen, and why I would suggest communication (and therefore mission) is failing.

I have lots of ideas about all of this, and my plan is to blog more about each of the areas exposed by these graphs. If you would like to follow my posts, please sign up to my email list (at the end of this post or at the top-right of this webpage).

I realise 1079 people is not a massive number. It is, however, a survey sample size we are used to seeing in New Zealand with many surveys presented in newspapers and television having similar (or often smaller) sample sizes. This survey is enough to show significant patterns. The content which forms the basis of this survey comes from a very thorough qualitative methodology.

What’s your reaction to this information?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, and feel free to share this on Facebook or twitter to broaden the conversation.

Images: Queen Street Auckland, Mike Crudge 2014. All graphs: Mike Crudge 2014.

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  • Chris

    Hi Mike. Another thoughtful post! I’d like to hear more about the “very thorough qualitative methodology” so that I can understand the line of questioning. Has the angle of the questioning influenced the results? Might the outcome be more or less favourable depending on the angle? For instance, “Most churches would improve if they could” or “Christianity is a great idea but is not well executed”… these might get lots of agreement!

    • Thanks Chris
      To get the 9 perceptions that the 13 survey statements were based on, there wasn’t an “angle of the questioning” as such, but rather an hour-long conversation with each of the interviewed people, where I simply asked “what do you know about the Christian church?” and then let them talk and talk… Through thematic analysis of individual interviews and across the whole group, the 9 perceptions emerged, what I would say are truths for people I interviewed who are not Christianised.

      One purpose of this larger quantitative survey was to see if particular people-groups (not-Christian and Christian) agreed or disagreed with how my qualitative sample of people who haven’t been Christianised view the church and Christians. The graphs support my earlier qualitative findings which lead to what I define as the Disconnected Church.

      From a communication (mission) perspective I’m interested in how people outside the church view the church. I had no basis to ask the questions you suggest because they didn’t emerge from the interviews with the people who have not been Christianised. However, I also did focus groups with church leaders to see how they reacted to the 9 perceptions, and the kind of questions you have suggested here fit within the response from church leaders. What you are suggesting “might get lots of agreement”, I would suggest would get agreement from church leaders and other Christians, but people outside the church probably couldn’t care less if churches would improve if they could, etc.

      I HAVE A QUESTION FOR YOU: Putting aside your valid concerns about research method, lets imagine the data in the graphs do represent the opinions of Christians and not-Christians, what do you think is the significance of this information for you in your context?

      • Tim Bulkeley

        As well as looking for existing common ground as you suggest, it would
        also be helpful to know more about where the “church is manipulative and
        oppressive” ideas come from. E.g. do the respondents have ex-church
        friends who have expressed this, is it a perception gained from TV
        coverage, meeting JWs at the door of their home… Clearly if someone
        perceives the church as manipulative and oppressive they are not likely
        to hear any “gospel”.

        • Hi Tim. You’ve just summed it all up! With any of these negative perceptions people are not likely to hear any “gospel”, or at least it will be harder or less likely to be heard.

          From a survey like this I didn’t glean any specifics about why people might think the church is manipulative and oppressive, but I have information from my earlier interviews that illuminate this a bit. I’ll do a post on this soon…

          • Stu

            I think ultimately that this means we all need to start asking people and listening and asking them why they think these ways… Having said that, I am looking forward to getting more of the “Why” detail in further posts.

            Chris, I think there is no such thing as a “neutral” question, however these questions directly face off some of the things I have heard from people outside the church over the years. I think they were as valid as any other questions to ask. Perhaps they could be perceived as “negative” questions, but to me they are only reflections of questions I have sometimes heard around me, and maybe to some extent many of us have. Asking these questions is valid missiology. As we wade into any culture we always start with “How do people perceive us?” Then we ask the question “Why do people perceive us that way?……” I think this study appears to have started off midway through “How do people perceive us?” with some assumptions that some people perceive us poorly. Which seems to have been valid given the study results…

          • Hi Stu – yeah, I think we in the NZ church need to start looking at the way we do ‘mission’ with similar considerations to those doing cross-cultural work overseas.

      • Jordan Jones

        Thanks Mike for going further into this. When I looked at some of the graph titles I was wondering whether there were leading questions effects operating. But now that you’ve explained that you used thematic analysis the titles make more sense.

  • Stu

    Mike. This is super helpful. Did your study go deeper into the ‘Why?’ people answered as they did?

    • Hi Stu. This particular survey didn’t go into the “why”, but my qualitative interviews and focus groups help explain these opinions. I’ll create more posts soon about the “why”…

  • Greg

    Well done Mike. This is about as clear as it can be. I think the fact that you asked the same question to both groups guards you against bias here. Very helpful indeed. Thanks!

  • Andrew Reyngoud

    That is some great information Mike – well done. There are some very significant trends and great information.

    Like all data there is some that I would be question marks around. For example the people who self identify as Christian yet say that “Christianity is not relevant or necessary” – perhaps those data points can be ignored?

    As each person is an individual and there is a binary aspect to their personally responses, I also wonder about whether there are some subsets within the data . That is, if there are those who are overwhelmingly negative (or positive) and those that fluctuate depending on the questions.

    I do find the trend of Not Christians rating the individual higher than the institution compared to Christians rating the institution higher than the individual to be interesting, although it may not be statistically significant.

    It is good to see the points of similarity, along with the main issues that Not Christians say that they have. If people have a strong impression that church
    is an emotionally manipulative place, that is stuck in the past and oppressive it
    is likely to be a place that they will avoid. The data suggests that these are
    stronger factors than the draw of a spiritual place and the knowledge of some
    Christians who do amazing good.

    • Hi Andrew
      Yeah, this kind of social research is not like conducting tests in a sterile science laboratory. Like the example you give, it’s hard to imagine that 2.03% of “Christians” would disagree that “some Christians do amazing good”! It’s highly likely some people rushed through the survey clicking randomly just to enter the draw for the iTunes voucher. We need to look at this info as broad brush strokes, adding to the picture my other research is creating, while asking what it might mean in our local contexts…

      • Andrew Reyngoud

        My suggestion would be to identify the obvious anomalous data (and most of the data looks really good). Then create a copy of the data set with those respondents being ignored and rerun the graphs to see if anything changes. This is similar process to identifying outliers and handling them. My suspicion is that very little will change.

      • Mark

        Hi Mike
        I’ve read your thesis (mostly) right through – be encouraged that someone random has read it!! Much like you I’ve had concerns/interest for a long time as to why “church” is becoming less popular and I think your research, if nothing else, is an excellent starting point for discussion about what church means or has become at this point in history.

        I also think Andrew has hit on a significant point, although it may or may not be statistically significant, and that is that individual Christians are “rated” higher than the church by not Christians. After reading your thesis and adding the stats to the mix I wonder if the biggest problem with Christianity is the institution that “church” has become. And in my experience I think that applies to all the many and varied expressions of church in NZ.

        I also wonder if the sole point of agreement between the not Christian and Christian groups highlights where the church needs to turn it’s focus. Throughout your thesis you use the phrases “being Christian” and “doing church” and I think that ties in perfectly with the responses to the statement of “Some Christians do amazing good” as this, perhaps, indicates that people being Christian is an expression of the Christian faith we profess. Perhaps the church should direct it’s time, effort and resources to being Christian rather than being, doing and sustaining church as we know it?

        I’ve thought long and hard about what church is and am beginning to convince myself that we need to deconstruct church as we know it and turn it into the community (not commune!!) that it should be. I think you would probably refer to this as the “faith community”.

        I have a lot of thoughts going through my mind but won’t take up time and space here. Thanks for getting the discussion started – it needed to be done!!

        • Hi Mark – and wow!! It always surprises me when I hear someone has read my thesis. Thank you for taking the time, and for now starting to engage with it.

          I reckon what you’re saying here about church as institution and that being a problem has a bit to do with the Christendom/post-Christendom paradigm change illustration I use in my thesis to show that something is different now – and you can see something is different now. The people who are thinking about and trying to imagine and experiment with how post-Christendom church could be are trying to address the problem.

          I totally agree with your thoughts about ‘being’ and how a focus like that could make a massive difference – and that is the challenge! And one way to start addressing the challenge for people like us having discussions about this stuff within our own local faith communities.

          I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how church could be to address this problem – if you’re ever in Christchurch lets met up for a drink.

  • Anita

    Did you define ‘church’ for your participants? The definition would alter my answers. Also perhaps there is more common ground than you think. Did you survey each group as to their perception of the other groups perception? I wonder how close is each groups thoughts of what the other group thinks, to actually what the other group thinks? If we understand what the other group thinks, then there is some common ground. And just out of curiosity, what did participants get to do when they had an opinion, but it was to neither agree or disagree?

    • Hi Anita – good questions.
      If a participant neither agreed or disagreed, there was a central “no opinion” option (there were actually 5 options to choose from: strongly disagree, disagree, no opinion, agree, strongly agree). Details of the actual survey are here:

      I didn’t define “church” and this was intentional. The 13 statements in this survey come from the 9 perceptions from my qualitative interview analysis, where I talked to people who were not Christianised (never having any Christian or church upbringing, etc). In each of the hour-long conversations I had with these people, it was clear that when they used the word “church” it meant different things at different times, including often lumping all the different types and expressions of church together, and not differentiating between a church building and a group of people. In my experience it is mostly Christian people who want a definition of what church is, and in the survey, in the comments section, about 5 people mentioned this – kindof like you have here.

      I think you’re onto another communication issue, which I think some Christian people have tried to address by calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than “Christians” because they want to disassociate themselves from the existing image, or they want to reinvent that image, or create a new image. Inside the church we know there are many ways to define “church”, I think there is less concern outside.

      In my original research I looked into how church leaders perceive the perceptions of those not part of the church. I used some social identity theory to show what I ended up calling a disconnect – and I plan to post about that here in the future!…

  • Carol

    As a Methodist, my response would very much follow the majority Christian opinion.
    I am interested in what leads people to hold the opinions they do. Are there subsets of non-Christian within this survey, such as Jewish people, Muslims, Budhists and atheists, or agnostics? Does this affect their perceptions of the Church? What experience do the survey responders have of Church?
    Personally, I have attended several different ‘flavours’ of Christian Church (and read many publications on Spirituality, Budhism, Islam); I respect them all for the value they bring to their congregations, and to their communities. We often don’t tell our communities about the work that we do.
    Does the church need a PR machine? Or does humility better serve our nature? Maybe I have missed the point of your blog.

    • Hi Carol, and thanks for engaging with this.
      The point of this blog post is to show how two groups of people: 1) those who identify as “Christian”, and 2) those who identify as “not Christian”, have quite different opinions about church and Christians.
      Within the church I don’t think these differences are appreciated enough as we try to engage outside of the church.
      I plan to do more posts in the future unpacking some of what I think is behind these perceptions.

      In terms of this survey, the “not Christian” group self-defined as either “not religious or spiritual”, or “spiritual but not Christian”. So the kind of info you’re interested in wasn’t something I was after. I was looking to see if a broader group of people affirmed some of the perceptions I found in my earlier qualitative research interviewing people who had never had any church or Christian experience. This survey generally shows my earlier research wasn’t totally off-track – or that I didn’t by chance interview people who were not ‘mainstream’! (which is encouraging).

      I don’t think the church needs a PR machine, but I think we need to consider carefully our public relations.

  • Clare Knowles

    Hi Mike, this is fascinating (and concerning) stuff! I’m just curious as to how participants were selected? Is it possible that those who took part did so because they had particularly strong opinions about the church (in whichever direction)? If that is the case then we might expect all of NZ society to less polarised than this. Keen to hear from you on this. Thanks for serving the church in this way!

    • Hi Clare
      Participants were targeted through Facebook advertising – I’ve put some nuts-and-bolts details about the survey on a separate page here:

      The most clicked on ad was the one promoting it as a 2-minute survey with a chance to enter the draw for a $20 iTunes voucher. Problems you suggest around polarisation could exist, and surveys are blunt tools, so I’m thinking of these graphs as adding to the picture I’m trying to create alongside other research I’ve done, as well as other research and literature from others. I agree: it is fascinating and concerning!

  • manwithbowloffreshfruitonhead

    Christian or non-Christian everybody must face exclusion and autonomy on the way to finding their true self. What a mighty saviour we have in Jesus who walks with us as believers and with great tenderness helps us to make this journey. What a master spiritual guide we have. Not only that but we also experience deep empathies of exclusion with fellow believers and the ineffable sweetness of the Holy Spirit.