NCLS Research

Education and occupation profile of attenders

Education is another area where church attenders do not reflect the community as a whole. Some 23% of attenders have a university or postgraduate degree, compared to 13% of the Australian population.

There is good news that the education gap between the church and community is closing, but the bad news is that it is closing, at least in part, because of the absence of young adults.

Anglicans (28%) and Baptists (28%) are among the larger denominations with the highest levels of university-educated attenders and the Salvation Army (12%) the lowest. There are also higher than average levels of university-educated people among Catholic attenders (22%). While the percentage of all Pentecostal attenders who are university educated is 19%, it should be noted that some of the newer Pentecostal denominations have among the highest levels of university educated attenders (eg Christian City Churches and Vineyard Fellowship).

Employment status: Around half of church attenders are employed: 28% are employed full-time, 14% are part-time and 9% are self employed. Some 30% are retired, reflecting the older age profiles of attenders at many denominations. Around 15% indicate that they are performing full-time home duties or family responsibilities and 9% are students. Around 3% are unemployed.

The highest proportions of full-time employees are to be found among Baptist (33%) and Pentecostal attenders (35%). Higher proportions of Pentecostal (6%) and Salvation Army attenders (5%) are unemployed.The highest proportions of retirees are to be found among Uniting (44%), Anglican (37%) and Presbyterian (36%) attenders.

Pentecostals have the highest proportions of tradespeople, labourers and the unemployed, suggesting that they are connecting better with people from a working-class background than are the other denominations. Pentecostals also have the highest proportion of attenders living in public housing. The Catholic Church also has above-average proportions of people employed in clerical work, in sales or as labourers.


There has been a range of theories put forward to explain the relative lack of church involvement among people from lower socioeconomic groups, especially in some Anglican and Protestant denominations, many of which are outlined in Who Goes Where? (Kaldor, 1987). These are summarised here.

Historical identification of the churches with the ruling classes. Historical sources suggest that the working class was always under-represented in the Anglican and Protestant churches, a situation inherited from England. The churches made considerable efforts to bridge the gap, spawning missions such as the Salvation Army and many charitable institutions. However, while the poor and the working class were prepared to accept assistance, this relationship with a church did not widely translate into an active church involvement.

By contrast, the Catholic Church in Australia always had close connections to the working class. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church had strong links with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party.

The use of abstract thinking alienates the less educated. One theory ties socioeconomic status to differing approaches to thinking. Universitytrained people are comfortable dealing with abstract ideas. Further, those raised in 'white-collar' households are more likely to have been taught to think in terms of principles of behavior.

Much of church liturgy, preaching and small-group life, particularly in the larger mainstream denominations, involves abstract thinking. The abstract-thinking approach is underpinned by the educational requirements for clergy and the use of formal structures and methods of church decision making. The argument follows that Australian churches today, therefore, automatically favour white-collar and educated people.

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

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