01 What Good is the Church?

What Good is the Church?


How do UK adults feel about the Church?

For the most part … well, they are unsure.

A significant proportion of UK adults (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.

It seems that the Church in the UK doesn’t make a strong impression. Further, 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 sceptical of its potential, globally (41%) and locally (35%).

Churches Positive Difference in the World

If you’re a church leader in the UK who is surprised to read of these unfavourable opinions of the Church, you’re not alone: This Barna study shows that 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.

Where does this dissonance originate? Why are so many people oblivious to the ways in which the UK Church blesses individuals, neighbourhoods and nations? And why are so many church leaders oblivious to the indifferent, and at times adverse, attitudes toward their ministries?

To clarify—and hopefully improve—the Church’s reputation in the UK, it’s helpful to first understand how the public presently describes it.


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%), being generous (7%) or assisting people with economic needs (5%), even though about a quarter of people (26%) still calls the Church ‘good for the community’. Continuing the trend of disconnection from the Church, three in 10 select none of the adjectives or ‘don’t know’, implying they either have no opinion or another one in mind—positive or negative—about the Church.

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.


A Window into the UK Church

How does the general public describe the Christian Church? Though more than a quarter still feels it’s good for their community, some of the most common opinions are negative ones. Three in 10 British adults don’t know or don’t choose any adjectives for the Church.

A Window into the UK Church


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 nonChristians who had a connection with a Christian.1 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.

Opinions of the Christian Church by Faith


Christians, meanwhile, have a consistently more promising take on the Church and describe a religious body that is vital, collaborative and dynamic. One in four praises the UK Church for focusing on community needs (24%) and offering hope for the future (24%). Roughly one-fifth believes the Church is a positive presence in schools (19%) and a promoter of social issues (18%). Interestingly, though non-Christians don’t perceive this same level of civil engagement (8% say it promotes social issues), they are also more likely to believe Christians are already too involved in political issues (14%, compared to 9% of Christians).

An adult’s generation seems to be connected to their perceptions of the Church. Different age groups hold a peculiar combination of good and bad assumptions of the Church. For instance, those who are younger than 45 are significantly less likely than adults 45 and older to say the Church is good for the community (18% vs. 32%), even though they are slightly more willing to describe it as generous (10% vs. 6%).

A main reason for some of these generational differences is that Christians are an aging population, with much greater representation among older adults in the UK. For instance, two-thirds of those age 65 and older (67%) self-identify as Christian, compared to about one-quarter of those between ages 18 and 34 (26%). It makes sense then that, with less exposure to the Church or belief in Christianity, the younger the adult, the more likely they are to say they ‘don’t know’ what the Church is like; this is a top response from this younger cohort (21%), another 14 percent of whom select none of the descriptors. In contrast, just 11 percent of adults aged 65 and older say they lack familiarity with the Church. Due to this correlation of youth and non-affiliation, regression analysis reveals that faith, rather than age alone, is a primary factor in many of these generational gaps in perceptions of the Church.

Ethnic minorities in the UK are another demographic segment with a lower rate of Christianity (23%)—though, in their case, this affiliation doesn’t seem to hinder a relatively welcoming posture toward the work of the Church. Non-white adults, many of whom adhere to other religions, still regularly deem the Church as good for the community (33%) and attuned to public needs (20%). One in four (24%) believes the Church offers hope for the future, and roughly one in five says it collaborates with other Christian organisations (19%) and helps people with their well-being (18%). Meanwhile, smaller proportions of ethnic minorities see the faith as judgmental (17%), hypocritical (11%), simplistic (10%) or at odds with science (8%).

Proportion of Each Age Group the Identifies as Christian


What People Want From Churches

Despite their vague or poor perceptions of the Church, do UK adults recognise 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. These active Christians, primarily affiliated with the Church of England (43%), stand out from the general population overall in their regular engagement with the local church—nearly all (96%) report attending a service about weekly or more often—as well as their higher expectations of the UK Church as a whole.

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. Fittingly, the respondents who do not report that the Church makes a positive difference in their community also identify fewer opportunities for the Church to do so. This suggests that they don’t see value in the Church because of presuppositions about its nature or capability, rather than its level of effort.

Just How Engaged are Active Christians?

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, though, as mentioned earlier, they are especially likely to not know of or not offer a suggestion for the Church’s local involvement.

Most UK Adults See Some Role for the ChurchWhat do UK Adults Feel Christian Churches Could Provide for the Community?

The pattern among active Christians is much more zealous when discussing any of the above options (63% choose elderly events, 35% choose homeless services, 45% choose collection and donation of goods, 54% choose community and family events), as well as work in local schools (54%), spiritual guidance (53%) and children’s activities such as holiday clubs (51%).

When asked to identify what they think the top priorities of their church should be, active Christians emphasise experiences associated with church attendance, like worship (55%) and discipleship (58%). It’s noteworthy that engaged Christians see the principal role of the Church as being spiritual and personal, rather than outward-focused. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want their church to look beyond its own walls. In fact, active Christians are even more likely than their leaders to prioritise serving those in need (47% and 35%, respectively)—which is close to the lowest priority for church leaders, producing the largest gap among congregants’ and leaders’ reported goals. Meanwhile, church leaders are more concerned with one of their central weekly tasks; half believe teaching and preaching should be a top priority (50%, compared to 40% of active Christians).

General Ministry Priorities

Age also seems to impact these overall priorities. For example, older Christians are more likely to choose worship (62%), which is important to only a minority of Christians younger than 45 (39%). These generational divides in both community and ministry priorities set the stage for tensions in churches with age diversity—or may reveal blind spots for churches who have a more generationally homogenous congregation.

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. What is being lost in translation?

In the next chapter, we’ll decipher some of the common terms and theories related to the Church’s transformative work in the UK and around the world.

Why We Do What We Do

A Q&A with Dr. Paula Gooder

Dr. Gooder is a writer and lecturer in biblical studies. Her research areas focus on the writings of Paul the Apostle, with a particular focus on 2 Corinthians and on Paul’s understanding of the Church Body. Her passion is to ignite people’s enthusiasm for reading the Bible today by presenting the best of biblical scholarship in an accessible and interesting way. Gooder works full-time for the Church of England as the director of mission learning and development in the Birmingham Diocese.

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