03 The UK Church: A Current Portrait

The UK Church: A Current Portrait


At a Glance


Accordingly, church leaders say their churches are ‘very’ involved in helping the poor (47%) or vulnerable (32%) in the UK.


Their interest in global poverty assistance exceeds church leaders’ (53% vs. 40%) and two-thirds (65%) say global and local efforts should be given equal attention.


Churches commonly offer pastoral care, host events for the elderly, donate food and other goods or work in local schools.


Youth gatherings, homeless services and short-term trips are some of the ministries more prevalent among larger congregations.


The UK Church: A Current Portrait

It’s clear that UK adults have some vision of what they’d like to see Christians doing for the world—even though they don’t always have the familiarity or confidence to count on the Church for these things. But Barna’s survey shows their ideas track pretty closely with the ministry priorities of church leaders, and churches are actually already engaging in these (and many other) movements. This perhaps further illustrates that ambivalence toward the UK Church is not a result of a lack of good work among Christians, but rather a lack of public awareness or recognition of it. Even when the Church’s generosity does make headlines—such as the estimated £3 billion worth of hours that religious groups contribute to social projects, like food banks and drop-in centres in the UK—this kind of coverage does not seem to register in UK adults’ perceptions of the Church’s work.3

Consider this chapter one way of helping churches get the word out: In the following pages, Barna’s study turns to insiders of the UK Church for an updated account of its aims and activities.


Connecting Priorities and Ministries

UK church leaders were presented with a list of possible functions of a typical ministry and were asked to identify: 1) any activities their church engages in, and 2) activities that would fall into their top five mission priorities. There are some inconsistencies between priority and action, but, overall, church leaders tend to offer a picture of ministries that follow through, engaging at least somewhat with their ambitions. Additionally, you’ll recall from chapter one that many of these existing projects and ministries address community needs the public hopes churches might meet.

UK Churches' Engagement Often Exceeds Their Priorities

By far the most popular way that UK churches serve people, according to church leaders, is through general pastoral care, which typically includes duties such as visitation or counselling for bereavement (92%). Accordingly, a majority of church leaders—almost six in 10 (58%)—lists this as a top priority for their church. Roughly three-quarters of church leaders say their churches also offer a children’s ministry (79%), collect items such as food, toys and clothes for donation (77%), host events for the elderly (76%) and work in local schools (76%).

Larger churches of at least 100 people typically have more willing hands and physical resources than smaller churches for common activities like youth gatherings (78% and 51%, respectively), practical assistance in the community (61% and 37%, respectively) or homeless services (55% and 32%, respectively), as well as rare offerings, like short-term trips (46% and 22%, respectively), workplace ministries (28% and 18%, respectively) or church planting (25% and 12%, respectively).

The age of a church leader has some connection to the types of activities his or her church engages in. Here, church leaders younger than 45 years old demonstrate more of an evangelistic emphasis. In this case, they report greater involvement in outreach events (75%, compared to 63% of older church leaders), church planting (23%, compared to 16% of older church leaders) or short-term mission trips (41%, compared to 31% of older church leaders)—all projects that mesh well with young pastors’ reported interest in producing conversions. Elsewhere, church leaders over and under age 45 track closely in their engagement decisions, though older leaders stand out in higher reports of charity fundraising (74%, compared to 63% of younger church leaders).


The Global Reach of the UK Church

When it comes to the parameters of the UK Church’s social justice and mission work, two-thirds of active Christians (65%) believe global and local efforts should be given equal attention. This conviction deepens among older Christians (70% of those over age 45). Knowing that older UK adults have greater representation among active Christians, this means churches are likely made up of individuals hoping for opportunities to reach people within their own neighbourhoods and around the world. This approach might already seem clear, but it stands in contrast to church leaders’ (53%) and younger active Christians’ (40%) common opinion that local work takes precedence. A number of Barna studies indicate a trend of younger Christians favouring local initiatives, possibly because growing up in a virtual, digital world makes tangible, personal efforts feel even more impactful.

What's the Ideal Balance Between Global and Local Mission?

Beyond the UK, churches are most involved in Europe (63%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (53%), according to church leaders. More than a third (35%) contributes to work in the Middle East and North Africa. Church leaders, however, believe it is more important to support a specific cause than to support a specific region (23% ‘strongly’ + 44% ‘somewhat’ agree).

Where UK Churches Focus on Supporting Mission


A Vision for Social Justice

When it comes to issues that could generally be categorised as social justice concerns, the UK Church’s leaders and members mostly agree on what they want to support, as congregations or as individuals. In the local church, many Christians should expect to find some like-minded leadership and chances to channel their altruism into relevant programmes and campaigns.

Active Christians are most interested in giving or volunteering to alleviate forms of poverty (53% global, 50% local). There are some notable age differences when looking at the relatively political concerns that active Christians see as important to support. For example, those under age 45 are more likely than their elders to select the refugee crisis (29% vs. 22% of active Christians age 65+) or racial reconciliation (12% vs. 6% of active Christians age 65+), while the oldest age grouping ranks religious freedom higher (33% of active Christians age 65+ vs. 20% of active Christians under age 45).

How Should the UK Church Support Social Justice

Church leaders especially feel their churches should help the poor locally (60%), though they lag behind churchgoers in emphasis on international needs like global poverty assistance (40% vs. 53%) or child rights (10% vs. 19%). Other Barna studies have also shown church leaders are most rooted in their own region—not an unexpected tendency, considering that their influence is often required or sought out in local needs, which may present themselves more frequently and immediately than global ones. But that doesn’t mean other broader concerns aren’t on their radar: While church leaders likely want to prove effective locally where they are planted, they agree with active Christians that it’s important to do what they can to help vulnerable populations (35% active Christians, 34% church leaders), victims of international disasters (38% active Christians, 35% church leaders) and refugees (23% active Christians, 26% church leaders).

Likely because of professional ties and implications, church leaders have a vested interest in contributing funds and time to support religious freedom or the persecuted Church (45%), which is much less of a priority among active Christians (25%).

UK Churches Investment in Social Justice

Barna also asked church leaders to describe their church’s actual level of involvement in each of these social justice causes, and, again, they seem to be making good on good intentions. Specifically, church leaders prove their local focus in saying their churches are deeply involved in helping the UK’s poor (47% ‘very’) or vulnerable (32% ‘very’).

Some of the gaps between priority and activity could outline social justice projects and campaigns for which churches might consider a charity partnership—relationships we’ll observe at length in the following chapter.

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