NCLS Research

Ethnicity of church attenders

Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world and has a good record of living with a diversity of cultures. Around three-quarters of attenders (75%) were born in Australia with a further 8% born in another English-speaking country and 17% in a non-English speaking country.

The estimation of those born in a non-English speaking country is likely to be conservative, in view of the absence of many single-ethnic congregations and groups from the survey. The distribution of attenders from a non-English speaking background is very uneven across the denominations; the Anglican and Uniting churches are among the most Anglo-celtic in composition while the Catholic Church has some of the highest proportions of people born in non-English speaking countries. This is partly related to patterns of migration and denominational history. It should also be noted that Orthodox churches and Oriental Christian denominations did not take part in the survey.

The Australian Community Survey (ACS) shows that people born overseas in non-English-speaking countries are more likely to be churchgoers than those born in Australia. Around 19% of people born in Australia claim to attend services frequently compared to 17% of those born in another English-speaking country and 31% born in non-English-speaking countries.

There have been strong historical links between church attendance and ethnicity. For some groups, church involvement forms a part of their identity and sense of community. For others, the churches have provided support in the process of becoming part of the Australian community. Denominations have adopted different strategies for dealing with ethnic diversity. Some have fostered the development of congregations which serve one specific ethnic group; these congregations may share facilities with existing Anglo-Australian congregations/parishes or have their own premises. While they may be effective among migrants, such congregations can face problems where the children of migrants seek to differentiate themselves from their original ethnic identity. Lower levels of involvement among second-generation immigrants have been documented (Bentley, Blombery & Hughes, 1992). Other congregations have developed dual-ethnic or multi-ethnic identities, worshipping in English as a common language but sometimes providing translation or activities in a range of languages.

While much work has already been done, there is an urgent ongoing need for all denominations to relate more effectively to people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and to discover which congregational models are most effective. This task is important in view of the diversity of backgrounds and cultures which now comprise Australia.

Source: Initial Impressions, 2001 NCLS and Taking Stock, 1999

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