Mind The [Perception] Gap

Rhiannon McAleer, Head of Research for the Bible Society, shares her thoughts on The UK Church In Action and what the church can do to learn from the study.

It’s an exciting time to be working as a researcher in a faith-based organisation. In the past years we’ve been gifted a number of valuable research reports which together build us an increasingly vivid picture of faith and religion in the UK today. The UK Church in Action is a welcome addition to this growing body of literature, and it’s great World Vision and Barna have shared this provocative and wide ranging data set.

While the story of Christianity in the contemporary UK is often presented as one of inevitable decline, The UK Church in Action shows us much of the Church is lively, ambitious, and active in both the local and global community. However, it also alerts us to some considerable challenges and questions to answer. I wish I could offer solutions to these challenges here, and in time together as a community perhaps we will find them, but for now, here’s the top three insights that stood out to me from the report, with some brief thoughts on how we might move forward.

  1. Mind the (perception) gap

When reading the report I was struck by the quite distinct gap between what churches are doing, and the perception of this work from the general UK population, particularly non-church goers. While church leaders report high engagement in their local communities, just 20% of non-Christians believe local churches are making a positive difference in their local communities. 35% disagree and 44% say they don’t know. In contrast, 86% of church leaders agree to some extent that non-Christians believe the church is having a positive impact in their local community.

Non-Christians show similar feelings for the church globally: 19% believe the church is making a positive difference at this scale, while 41% disagree and 40% say they don’t know. Intriguingly, church leaders are less sure non-Christians will see impact here: only 47% think they will, significantly lower than the impact they expect to see locally. Yet, for non-Christians, the distance is all but the same. In fact, only 9% of the adult population describe the church as relevant to them – a figure not far off regular church attendance.

Also notable is that one in three Christians say they don’t know if churches are having a positive impact in their local community, while 16% disagree they are. The data does not allow us to determine whether there is a difference between practicing and non-practicing Christians, but nonetheless, discontent and lack of confidence from those who identify with the Christian community at such high levels deserves further consideration.

Moving forward: let’s build a foundation of confidence. In her reflection, Dr Paula Gooder gets to the heart of the issue in addressing the perception gap when she argues ‘there are many Christians engaged in a wide variety of activities within their communities who are either unaware or unable to articulate that what they are going relates to their faith in Jesus Christ. We need to become much more confident in declaring simply and clearly why we do what we do.’ At Bible Society, I believe our particular contribution to building this confidence is in empowering Christians by helping them grow in confidence with Bible. We’re at the start of journey which seeks to help us understand why many Christians find the Bible anything but empowering, and what we can do to overcome this. We’ve got a long way to go but I hope our work can support this much bigger picture.

  1. Latent hostility? Or do they just not know us?

One of the most challenging findings in The UK Church in Action, at least to me, concerns perception of the Church. While again significant mental distance is seen from the 29% of adults who couldn’t find a way of describing the Church, a sobering 24% describe the church as hypocritical, 23% judgmental, and 20% incompatible with science. Even more challenging is that these negative perceptions seem to coincide with a distrust of the church. The majority of non-Christians see little role for the church in public life, even in spheres where Christians are already working well. While non-Christians do see a space for churches to work with those on the margins, they are much more reluctant when it comes to working with children, advocating or campaigning, or instilling/teaching moral values. A huge 47% of non-Christians say they wouldn’t support any churches activity or campaign.

Moving forward: let’s listen well. Figures like these could suggest many non-Christians don’t know enough about the work of church to envision what role churches may play in society. Alternatively, they may suggest a distrust which has been received from others or their own personal experience. In any case, if we wish to offer an alternative vision of the church we must be prepared to meet people where they are, including in their perceptions. Perception change is possible, but it’s all but impossible to do without cultivating a deep understanding of what lies behind. And this means listening slowly, humbly, and genuinely, to the hopes, fears, and experiences of people throughout our communities.

  1. Therefore encourage one another…

It’s good to finish on a positive note, and there are a number of encouraging findings in the report to choose from. Particularly encouraging for me was to hear about the various mission objectives church leaders regularly track in relation to their mission goals. The top measure, tracked by 62% of church leaders, was equipping church members to share the gospel with others in their everyday life as an objective related to mission. At Bible Society, our own research reveals that there is often a confidence gap between applying the Bible to private personal life and the public space, so it’s really positive that it ranks so highly for church leaders as a priority.

Moving forward: let’s learn from each other. Objective setting, intentionality, and monitoring, are powerful tools to help us grow in confidence in our efficacy and planning for the future. They are most powerful, however, when used for reflection and learning. What didn’t work and why is often as powerful as understanding what did and why. Too often though, we are afraid to share failings, or not confident enough in our successes to tell others, resulting in missed opportunities for learning and growth. For those of us who seek to empower others through research and reflection, I can’t help thinking that in addition to methodology and research questions we should consider the spaces where we share knowledge and learning, and how to make these as welcoming and open as possible.

Research like the UK Church in Action shouldn’t be read and discussed at publication, only to sit on the shelf afterwards; it should be tested, wrestled with and built upon in our local contexts. Go forth and wrestle!