Oct 4, 2023

The Strong Link Between Urban Churches & Community Engagement

Are church engagement and community investment linked? Barna’s recent study, Inside the Urban Church—created in partnership with World Impact—shows this may be the case, at least in U.S. cities.

This article takes a look at four groups of U.S. adults residing in metro areas to see how church engagement and attendance influence how people show up for their community.

Inside the Urban Church

How local congregations engage with and impact their communities

36% of Urban Church Attendees Strongly Agree They Understand Local Needs & Issues
Before we dive into the data, let’s first define what we mean when we say “urban.”

You may hear “urban” used interchangeably or conflated with various terms in conversation, but we want to be precise with how we apply it in our research and this report. Further, as not all respondents in the eight cities (more on this in the methodology) we surveyed are technically analyzed as “urban,” we hope the following definitions provide clarity for your reading:

  • “Urban” is defined by a metric used by the U.S. Census Bureau, which refers to any area that includes 425 housing units per square mile. Respondents and churches located in a zip code where housing meets this threshold are classified as “urban.”
  • “Nonurban” refers to residents or churches that do not occupy a high-density urban neighborhood in the cities surveyed.
  • At times we’ll use the term “metro” as a synonym for all respondents or churches in this study, both urban and nonurban.

Data from Inside the Urban Church shows that most city residents we surveyed feel they have a pulse on their community and its needs. Church attendees are exceptionally confident in their local knowledge and relationships. When presented with a range of statements about their familiarity and integration into the community, they are significantly more likely than unchurched adults to respond affirmatively. In fact, nearly a third of all churched adults (32%)—both urban and nonurban—strongly agree that they understand their local community and the issues affecting it.

Attendees of urban churches express greater local understanding than attendees of nonurban churches in metro areas. While two in five attendees in urban churches (36%) strongly agree they understand their local community and its needs, just one in four in nonurban churches (26%) feels the same.

Not only does church engagement link to feeling more attuned to community needs, it also accompanies feeling known. A quarter of churched metro adults (25%) strongly agrees they feel like a valuable member of their city. This confidence wanes in unchurched adults, dropping down to just 12 percent. Looking at attendees of urban and nonurban churches, we see those in urban church contexts are more likely to feel valued (27% vs. 22%).

42% of Urban Church Attendees Are Involved in a Church that Addresses Local Issues
Being aware of and plugged into the community is rarely passive; it correlates with motivation and involvement for many metro adults. This is more likely to be true of churched adults, especially if they attend an urban church.

Thirty-six percent of all metro churched adults and nearly a quarter of all unchurched metro adults (24%) feel “very motivated” to do something about injustices in their community. Nearly two in five urban church attendees (39%) say the same, as do three in 10 nonurban church attendees (30%).

Motivation doesn’t always correlate to engagement, but churchgoers are far more likely than unchurched adults to strongly agree they are actively involved in their community. While just 9 percent of unchurched metro adults strongly agree they’re actively involved in their community, roughly a quarter of churched metro adults (23%) and urban church attendees (25%) say the same.

Similarly, in the metropolitan areas included in this study, urban church congregations appear to be more locally engaged than nonurban church congregations. Urban churchgoers readily agree with the statement, “My church is addressing issues facing the local community.” Nonurban churchgoers are less likely to say this is “very true” of their churches.

Do people become more plugged-in locally due to a church’s influence and activity, or do Christians seek out a congregation that shares their communal values? In either scenario, local churches seem to be fertile soil for growing relationships and nurturing generosity.

Inside the Urban Church

How local congregations engage with and impact their communities

The picture of community engagement among city residents could be thought of in concentric circles—moving inward from less to more engagement, and from those who don’t attend church to those who are part of urban churches (typically made up of racial or ethnic minorities). We must be careful not to think of the urban Church as a means to an end—either a fix for local problems or a key to Christians’ engagement with ministry and community. Yet we should see, celebrate, and probe the strong correlations between being connected to an urban church and being drawn into service of one’s city and its people. Further, though this study cannot assess the actual on-the-ground efficacy, sustainability or impact of the services and programs these churches provide, it does clearly indicate there is both fertile ground to cultivate and rich fruit to harvest in these communities.

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 Sean Oulashin on Unsplash.

© Barna Group, 2023.

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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