What roles should churches play in society?

Australians nominate three main roles for churches: performing rites of passage, encouraging good morals, and supporting the poor.

Depending on who you speak with, the church’s impact on society is either good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. 

The team at NCLS Research regularly explore what Australians think about religion and the role of religious organisations in society, including churches. We also ask Australians for their opinions on the kinds of things churches should be doing in the community.


Is religion good for society?

In the 2021 Australian Community Survey (2021 ACS), held in November 2021,  NCLS Research canvassed a representative group of Australians.

The 2021 ACS results reveal that more than four in ten Australians (44%) agree religion is good for society, while 19% disagree that religion is good for society. Some 38% remain neutral.

It’s worth noting that less than half of our country agree that religion is good for society. Yet, as Dr Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research, explains: "while 44% is a fairly low figure, this was a higher percentage than recorded for the same question in previous years. In 2018, when only 33% felt religion was good for society, the context needed to be considered. It was the year of the same sex marriage debate and when the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was released. By 2021, this had risen again to 44%," she said. 



Roles of churches

We also wanted to know what roles Australians think religious organisations, such as churches, should fulfil.

About half our respondents in the 2021 ACS nominated three main functions: 

  • Rites of passage, like baptisms, weddings, funerals, 
  • Encourage good morals, and 
  • Support the poor.



Lower levels of preference was expressed to more 'up-front' public roles of religious organisations. Only 11 to 16% of Australians agreed that religious groups should lead at public events such as Anzac Day, convert others to the faith, or give public comment on current issues.


The place of church in a changing society 

It’s interesting that in 2021, less than half of our country agreed that religion was good for society. This figure has fluctuated in recent years, dropping to its lowest in 2018 to 33% and rising again by 2021 to 44%.

The most recent 2021 national Census results also reveal a decline in religious affiliation amongst Australians, and an increase in people stating 'no religion' on their Census form. This continues a trend where Australians don't necessarily align with a religious denomination as part of their identity, yet may still have religious or spiritual beliefs and practices. More information on this can be found in our article No religion’ part of ongoing trend, but not whole story.

When considering the roles churches should play in communities, the 2021 ACS also showed a diversity in Australians' opinions on the role of religious groups. Preference is given to sacred rites of passage such as weddings and funerals, and more implicit or serving roles, such as encouraging good morals and helping the poor. Less preference is expressed to roles involving a more explicit public profile, including leading at public events, converting others to faith, or providing public comment on issues.  

While churches are navigating changes in society, these results highlight some of the most recent attitudes and opinions of Australians, both to religion and religious organisations including churches.

Data Sources:

2021 Australian Community Survey, by NCLS Research

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