The proportion of church attenders born overseas has risen over time, up to 37% in 2021. About a quarter of churchgoers speak a language other than English at home.
Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, second only to Luxembourg according to the OECD. It is also a relatively cohesive society, compared with other western nations. Community surveys show consistent and strong patterns of support for multiculturalism. Churches often form a social support network for people newly arrived in Australia offering friendship, hospitality, material aid and assistance.
What is the ethnic diversity within churches?
A note to begin with… Even though the 2021 National Church Life Survey (2021 NCLS) was provided in nine languages, we believe non-English speaking language groups and indigenous churches are under-represented.
People who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander represented 1.4% of the Australian church population, which is lower than the 3.2% within the Australian community as a whole.
As with the 2016 survey, the 2021 NCLS shows more church attenders were born overseas (37%) than in the Australian community (28%). This proportion has risen over time, from 34% in 2011 to 37% in 2021.
There is an increasing presence of church attenders born in non-English speaking countries (28%). About a quarter of churchgoers (24%) speak a language other than English at home, with most being bilingual or multilingual.
Attenders born in non-English speaking countries were:
About 9% of attenders were born in another country where English is the main language. This is the same result as the 2016 NCLS.
Some 63% of churchgoers were born in Australia (including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people).
Just under half of churchgoers are second generation migrants, with at least one parent born overseas. While there may be many other differences between church attenders, this personal and family story of the migrant experience is something that many people share.
There are denominational differences, with Catholic attenders are significantly more likely to be born in non-English speaking countries than Protestant attenders.
How do people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds cluster in churches?
Do we tend to stick with people ‘like us’?
Most Australian churches can be described as “mono-cultural Anglo”.
However, compared with other nations, Australia has a very high proportion of multicultural churches.
In 2016 around 23% of Australian churches were ‘multicultural’—where no one ethnic group accounts for 80% or more of the membership. This compared to 14% in the USA.
Around half of all Catholic parishes are multicultural churches, compared to about a quarter of Pentecostal and other Protestant churches.
The increase in the multicultural mix in Australian churches over time presents opportunities and challenges for congregations and their leaders. While Australian churches compare favourably in their multicultural mix with some overseas nations, there is always more that can be done to build community. Perhaps more can also be done within church life to acknowledge the variety of heart languages people have for worshipping God.
Watch this brief video presentation on the ethnicity of Australian churchgoers, from the webinar "Who's in the Pews?".
2021 National Church Life Survey by NCLS Research and 2021 Census of Population and Housing by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.