There is much to celebrate about the work of the Church in the UK. Christians are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and providing much-needed companionship and friendship to the lonely. They are making a difference, locally and globally. Many see these efforts in social justice and mission as integral to Christian witness and discipleship. But are their communities taking any notice? How are local churches and the UK Church as a whole perceived by non-churchgoers?
Previously, Barna has explored faith in Scotland, Ireland and the UK. Now, in a new Barna Global report, we partnered with World Vision UK for a sweeping assessment of how the UK public views the church. The aim of this study is to equip the Church to be more effective in transforming lives for the sake of the gospel. The resulting resource, The UK Church in Action, is now available for purchase.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna, says about the new research, “The context of mission in the UK appears to be distinct from that of the US. Christianity in the US engenders more strong feelings, both positive and negative. In the UK, public perception of the church emphasizes indifference; it’s defined more by apathy than antipathy. This is certainly true of non-Christians, among whom four out of five (81%) don’t believe that Christian churches are making a positive difference in the world.
“More than that, though, Christians in the UK often display merely modest good will toward the Church. Compared to the US, Christians in the UK seem to struggle to see that their faith is making a difference. Yet, the study shows that churches are, in fact, serving a wide range of needs in the UK and around the world. Church leaders and Christians in the UK can develop more clarity and confidence that their faith is impacting their communities and the world.”
Many UK Non-Christians Don’t Know What to Think of the Church
For the most part, UK adults have ambivalent feelings about the Church’s role in society. A significant proportion (36%), particularly non-Christians (40%), says they don’t know whether the Church makes a positive difference in the world. They are even less aware of the effects of local churches in their communities (39% of all adults, 44% of non-Christians)—in fact, one-third (31%) can’t even think of a regional need that should fall under the purview of Christian churches. Though they primarily give the Church a positive assessment, even many Christians in the UK report being uncertain of the global (31%) or local (32%) significance of their religious institution.
Even those who do draw conclusions about the Church’s influence offer mixed reviews. About one in three UK adults sees the Church as a benefit to the world (33%) or their own community (35%), though not much more than the proportion who disagrees it has a positive impact (31% globally, 26% locally). Those outside the Christian faith are unsurprisingly the most skeptical of its potential, globally (41%) and locally (35%).
There is some dissonance, however: Nearly half of church leaders assume that non-Christians still celebrate the UK Church’s global impact (47% strongly + somewhat agree). The gap in perceptions grows wider when focusing locally; a large majority of church leaders (86% “strongly” + “somewhat”) agrees non-Christians welcome churches’ community presence—but, in reality, just one in five non-Christian adults (20%) says they do.
Finding Adjectives For Church
UK adults see a mixture of good and bad characteristics in the Christian Church—but some of the most common ones they select from a list of potential options aren’t too flattering. Unfortunately, it seems Christian communities strike the general public as hypocritical (24%), judgmental (23%) or anti-science (20%). On the other hand, they are rarely noted for being relevant (9%), generous (7%) or assisting people with economic needs (5%), even though about one-quarter (26%) still calls the Church “good for the community.”
Non-Christians (a category that includes those of other faiths too) feel strongly pessimistic about the Church (34% “judgmental,” 33% “hypocritical,” 30% “not compatible with science”)—which isn’t a big surprise, considering just one percent of non-Christians see the institution as personally applicable to their lives and, as the following chart details, they don’t associate the Church with being particularly hopeful or helpful. UK adults who claim no faith at all are even less likely than those of other faiths to see the bright sides of Christianity. Christians, meanwhile, have a consistently more promising take on the Church and describe a religious body that is vital, collaborative and dynamic.
Some of this antagonism toward the Church in general might be tempered, however, or at least set aside within the context of personal relationships with people of faith. For instance, a 2015 Barna study showed that the two-thirds of non-Christians in the UK (67%) who reported knowing a Christian were quick to associate these peers with positive traits like being friendly (64%) or caring (52%). Even the most commonly chosen negative quality—narrow-mindedness—was only applied by 13 percent of non- Christians who had a connection with a Christian. Non-Christians’ acceptance of individual Christians might seem at odds with a blanket aversion or indifference toward their Church, but it also speaks to the power of personal, everyday interactions that bridge faith segments.Two-thirds of non-Christians in the UK (67%) who reported knowing a Christian were quick to associate these peers with positive traits. Click To Tweet
What People Want From Churches
Despite their vague or poor perceptions of the Church, do UK adults recognize opportunities for the Church to be more involved or to help specific groups? Active Christians (UK adults who engage in at least monthly church attendance, Bible reading and prayer) see the Church playing a broad role in UK communities and offering a wide spectrum of services, from financial relief to children’s ministry. In contrast, two in five UK adults (41%) either don’t see a local role for the Church or can’t imagine what it would be. The UK adults who find some value in the Church’s leadership prefer that it be concentrated on the homeless and elderly. About three in 10 want the Church to provide events for the elderly (30%), or night shelters, food and clothes for those without a home (28%). Other services they think churches could help with include collecting meals, toys and clothes for donations (23%), youth clubs and events (23%) and community events such as groups for parents and toddlers or church cafés (20%). Non-Christians follow close behind the general public in most of these expectations.
So what is being lost in translation? Overall, UK church leaders are often liable to overestimate the public’s goodwill toward the Church, and the UK public is liable to underestimate how much good the Church can do. This is an opportunity for the Church to better present—and represent—its work to UK society. Social justice and mission are central ideas in the conversation about the Church’s contributions to society, yet Christians continue to grapple with how to balance these objectives. In The UK Church in Action, Barna researchers and UK Church leaders decipher some of the common terms and theories related to the Church’s transformative work in the UK and around the world. This new study examines the disconnect between the good work among Christians and the lack of public awareness or recognition of it, as well as the willingness of pastors to partner with capable charities and respond to society’s ills and injustices. To read more, you can purchase The UK Church in Action here.
About the Research
This study involved quantitative surveys with British adults, church leaders and active Christians. Barna interviewed 302 church leaders for this study. An online survey was conducted from 6 April 2017 to 9 May 2017, and a phone survey was conducted from 28 April 2017 to 9 May 2017. Not all questions were included in the phone version of this survey in order to shorten the length of the live interview. Barna also surveyed 2,054 British adults (18 and older, representative of the general population) and 1,170 active Christians in two separate shared polls online from 6 April 2017 to 11 April 2017.
Active Christians are UK adults who engage in at least monthly church attendance, Bible reading and prayer.
Non-Christians are do not self-identify as Christian (and includes those of other faiths).
About Barna Group
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2018