Jan 10, 2024

What Role Does the Local Church Have in Its City?

When envisioning a local church nestled in the heart of a bustling city, images of congregants offering services and aid to the surrounding community might come to mind.

But recent Barna research shows that, except for one major area of concern, adults residing in metro areas don’t see the church as responsible for addressing community issues.

This article shares data from Inside the Urban Church—a Barna report created in partnership with World Impact—to further explore what role the church has in the city.

Inside the Urban Church

How local congregations engage with and impact their communities

Of the Many Issues Churches Could Address in the City, Churched & Unchurched Agree on Loneliness
While metro residents see much of the good work done by local churches, they don’t feel that churches should solely or even primarily carry the burden of helping their communities. The Church is seen as one piece of the puzzle.

Indeed, respondents expect a lot from other institutions that they feel should do the heavy lifting of addressing local issues. They name city council members, the mayor, community residents and community groups as entities that should do the bulk of the work. The majority in these areas looks to their local government to create meaningful change in the community.

Furthermore, they say ordinary citizens, such as “myself” and community families, should be more responsible than religious leaders, Christian leaders or Christian churches when it comes to addressing local concerns or leading meaningful change.

Depending on the issue at hand, adults in cities may see different institutions as having precedence. For example, they expect local government to address issues such as crime (65%), community building (52%) and homelessness (46%). Respondents expect the national government to have a leading role for addressing poverty (38%), health care (54%) and racism (39%).

Across the board, Christian churches and religious organizations are not the first groups that city dwellers think of as well suited to address a range of issues. While churched adults are slightly more inclined to feel churches and religious organizations could create meaningful change or tackle key concerns, they still favor the experience and leadership of other political or civil bodies.

One standout, however, is that metro residents both inside and outside the Church think Christian churches are well positioned to address the problem of loneliness. This finding is notable, both for highlighting the top issue locals entrust to churches and as a sign of common ground in perceptions among the churched and unchurched.

Urban churches and their leaders can expect to encounter the most goodwill and trust from the community members who have the greatest proximity and familiarity with their ministries. And they should assume that the bulk of community concerns (from poverty and homelessness to community building and crime) are not seen as the Church’s domain.

But this doesn’t negate the obligation and calling of local churches to be representatives of justice and compassion. Further, urban churches that are willing to address the modern epidemic of loneliness may find this effort is welcomed by their neighbors and may build the connections and credibility needed to play a broader role in the community.

About the Research

To capture a modern-day picture of the urban Church’s relationship and engagement with its surrounding neighborhood and community, Barna directed research in eight major U.S.  metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Georgia; Los Angeles, California; Portland, Oregon; Phoenix, Arizona; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Houston, Texas. Barna selected these metros to be geographically representative of the U.S. as well as representative of various dynamics of urban life, such as city size, racial composition, economic legacy and structures of the built environment. In these places, a comprehensive qualitative assessment was conducted that featured 10 pastor interviews, five community leader interviews, five civic leader interviews and eight focus groups, totaling 40 unchurched participants.

Care was taken to hear from pastors and leaders from various backgrounds and walks of life. Some pastors held doctorates while others had little formal education. Some unchurched participants were well-off while others had experienced periods of homelessness and poverty. Some leaders worked in education while others worked in criminal justice.

Additionally, across these same metro areas, Barna administered a quantitative online survey to 2,000 U.S. adults—1,000 churched (have attended a church service in the past six months) and 1,000 unchurched (have not attended a church service in the past six months).

For this survey, researchers used an online panel for data collection and observed a quota random sampling methodology. Quotas were set to obtain a minimum readable sample by a variety of demographic factors and samples were weighted by city, ethnicity, education, age and gender to reflect their natural presence in the American population (using U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison). The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level for both the churched and unchurched segments.

Photo by Megan Nixon on Unsplash.

© Barna Group, 2024.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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