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.
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.