Around four in ten Australians are open to being invited to church
Many churchgoers invite their friends and family along to church, particularly during the Christmas season.
So what would Australians say to such an invitation? What factors influence their decision to come along to church?
Using results from the 2020 Australian Community Survey, by NCLS Research, we see that around four in ten Australians are open to being invited to church. Other recent findings show that the importance of the person inviting them is a crucial factor; and that scandals are the biggest barrier to Australians attending church.
According to the 2020 ACS, around four in ten Australians (37%), would likely accept an invitation to attend a church service if asked by close friends or family. The sample of Australians surveyed includes a range of backgrounds, from those who already attend a church service regularly, to those who are recorded as not having any close friends or family attending church.
The strength of certainty of response waivers slightly, with some 18% saying they are fairly certain they would accept an invitation and some 19% saying they would probably accept the invitation to church. Some 15% are unsure.
This rate of openness to being invited to church is similar to 2019, where four in ten were open to an invitation in a pre-pandemic world. Local churches can be encouraged that as COVID-19 restrictions ease and face-to-face worship service gatherings are more easily facilitated, that inviting their local community to church can be an opportunity to explore.
Australians are influenced by the importance of acceptance to the invitee.
According to the 2019 ACS, by far the most influential factor increasing the acceptance of an invitation to church, is the perceived importance of accepting the invitation, to the inviting friend or family member.
"If it was important to the inviter that I accept the invitation" was the most commonly selected response (by 44% of the respondents). Those aged 65 and over are more highly influenced by this factor, with 60% stating they will more likely accept the invitation, if it is important to the person who invites them.
The next most commonly selected factors include whether the church is perceived as doing good work in the community (19%); and if the person is confident of feeling welcome in the church (18%). Being made to feel welcome is a more important factor to Australians who describe themselves as moderately religious or spiritual.
Findings from the 2019 ACS show that for nearly four in ten Australians surveyed (38%), a scandal in the wider church, such as child abuse, strongly discourages their acceptance of an invitation to church.
Nearly a quarter of Australians surveyed (24%) say that the church's stance on issues e.g. same-sex marriage, is a deterring factor.
For non-attending Christians, scandals, stances on certain issues and fear of being asked for an ongoing commitment, are the biggest deterrents to accepting an invitation to attend. Those who are spiritual but not religious are most deterred by similar things, scandals and stances on certain issues.
Discomfort around talking about religion or being in a church environment do not appear to be major discouragements (listed by only 6% of respondents).
The 2019 ACS reveals that a small proportion of Australians (13%) say they have gone to a Christian church in the last five years, open to getting involved, but then decided not to.
However, of those Australians who describe themselves as spiritual or religious, that proportion rises to nearly three in ten (28%) saying they have tried to get involved in a church in the last five years.
From these results it appears that there is a moderate openness amongst Australians to accepting an invitation to church. This presents an opportunity for local churches to extend a hand of inclusion and invitation. When considering those to invite to church, starting with people for whom faith and spirituality form some common ground, might be worth exploring.
The strongest barriers to church attendance involves institutional trust. Addressing issues of mistrust and the accountability of power, is an important element as local churches seek to relate to those around them (as well as their regular attenders). Fostering trust-building, relational connections between churches and communities might go some way to address the concerns and hesitations from non-churchgoers. Other findings by NCLS Research suggests that mistrust exits in lesser measure towards individual people following their Christian faith, than towards the institutional Church. As such, face-to-face personal relationships between local churchgoers and their local community members are of value.
Interestingly, discomfort around talking about religion or feeling uneasy in a church environment do not appear to be major discouragements (listed by only 6% of respondents). It seems people are prepared to discuss religious matters and navigate religious ceremonies such as a worship service, whether that is a formal liturgical or casual contemporary style, at a local church.
Realising that some Australians are not only open to be invited, but have themselves actively tried to become involved in a church recently, is a revealing finding here. This research raises the question of 'why' didn't 13% of Australians find a more permanent place of belonging in the church they tried to get involved in?
Welcoming visitors and newcomers to church; ensuring they experience hospitality and belonging; and building trustworthiness and integrity; could be helpful actions for churches to take, in light of these research results on Australians' attitudes to being invited to church.
Finally, the findings reinforce the importance of relationship. People are willing to accept an invitation based on a relationship with a family member or friend. Making and keeping friendships, inviting people to church, and welcoming visitors are central themes emerging from this research.
More information about Australian spirituality in the year of crisis 2020, as well as Stressors, isolation and support amongst Australians in 2020 and Spiritual practices that appeal to Australians are available.
* N.B. Age of respondents quoted in this article were stated at the time of the survey in Nov 2019.
Taken from the keynote address by Dr Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research, at the APTO Virtual Conference, December 2020. These results are from the 2020 Australian Community Survey run by NCLS Research. Videos include:
Powell, R. Sterland, S. and Pepper, M. (2020). 2020 Australian Community Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.