New personas for UK evangelical Christians
By Laura Treneer
Anyone who works in communications will know that before you can really connect with your audience, you need to understand who they are. Enter the world of personas – personality profiles that inform the way we speak, the references we use and the messages we convey.
For Christian organisations this is particularly important, such is the variation in attitudes within the church. So the Evangelical Alliance has recently attempted to define the different personas of UK church goers. Developed as part of the Being Human initiative, which “aims to inspire and equip everyday Christians to understand, articulate and participate in the biblical vision of humanity”, these new personas were discussed at an Ekklesia roundtable in May.
First, a bit of context. For those outside the Christian world, Evangelical Christians have sometimes been seen as a homogenised group. The associations are not always positive or accurate. Gavin Calver, CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, wrote in The Times: “British evangelicals became associated with a form of [American] Christianity thousands of miles away, a Christianity that we have no influence over and limited engagement with. I can find myself tweeting about a food bank serving in Bradford, only for someone on the other side of the world to lambast me for being a Trump supporter. How did it come to this? Why has the word evangelical been so politicised?"
Even beyond the stark differences of culture and politics, there is an enormous breadth within the Christian evangelical world. Yes, there are the mainline ‘traditional’ denominations that are more familiar to the wider public: Church of England, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal. There are also the newer denominations and networks, many of which came out of house church movements: Vineyard, New Frontiers, Pioneer and others.
Then there are the congregations with international roots, who have ‘planted’ into the UK, often with great success: New Testament Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy and, the fastest growing of them all, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG). Every year RCCG fill the ExCel centre with around 40,000 people for an all-night prayer event, the Festival of Life. Last month’s event is online, featuring Pastor Agu, who was part of the procession of faith leaders at the Coronation.
Churches Together in England count 52 denominations; Peter Brierley, the don of church statistics, counted 228 in his 2021 report. The nuances of difference between them – theology, culture, structure – are both historic and constantly shifting.
new church goer personas
The UK church personas as suggested by the Evangelical Alliance take a different approach. They centre on approach to religious practice and community. Complete with pen portraits, examples and profiles, they fall into six types:
- Grounded Authentics: “Faith doesn’t need to have all the answers to be real”
- Passionate Convictionists: “The Bible is the foundation of my faith”
- Cultural Realists: “The church needs to change to keep up with a progressive society”
- Principled Empathetics: “Faith is not either/or – it’s both/and”
- Individual Moralists: “Faith is important to me, but it’s ultimately a private matter”
- Loyal Belongers: “The church is part of my heritage and my community”
The differences are indicated by continuums in six areas:
- On propensity to change: from certainty to doubt
- On relationships: from justice to compassion
- On faith influences: from church to the world
- On observable universe: from local to global
- On conceptual thinking: from simple to complex
- On evangelical alignment: from low to high
For example, Passionate Convictionists would sit towards the end of certainty, justice, church, and high evangelical alignment, whereas Cultural Realists would be closer on the spectrum to doubt, compassion, world, global, complex and low alignment. There is plenty of evidence of both personas on Christian Twitter, unfortunately often clashing with each other.
Charity volunteers may be Grounded Authentics: “They tend to be servant-minded, helpful and accepting and want a diverse church, tolerant of many viewpoints.” Principled Empathetics could perhaps be characterised as the bridge-builders: “They are compassionate and balance their biblically orthodox opinions with the need to hear and understand other people. They are intentional with their words, often choosing not to speak if they think it could be received negatively, or by selecting unifying or uplifting language.”
Considerate use of language
This “unifying and uplifting language” is enormously important when working with churches and Christian organisations – and isn’t always straightforward. As Jo Frost, Director of Communications and Engagement at the Evangelical Alliance, said in the webinar, “People are sometimes looking and listening for those ‘shibboleths’ – those little passwords. Are you saying this right? Are you acceptable? Are you safe to come into my world? But as soon as you hear them, one group says you’re in and the other group says you're out. It's the same word but has a completely opposing effect.”
Other work with different denominations has found that the least polemic words also tend to be the oldest: Jesus, prayer, the Holy Spirit. These words are the focus of a global campaign this May, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which seeks to reach Christians of many groups.
Using personas wisely
In the discussion around the personas, Jo pointed out a truth that we know about all personas and personality tests: “You won’t find anybody that sits perfectly within any of these boxes.
“They are communication tools, a helpful way of understanding the generality of motivations and understandings and worldviews. We need to make sure that we use them wisely and keep them in their proper place. I can't talk to everybody, so our primary question is who am I trying to engage with? Who am I trying to talk to in this moment?”
These are absolutely the right questions. They enable us to listen well, whether to churches, Christian organisations or any charity. For the Christian world, it’s really helpful to have a new tool that recognises the complexity and makes it recognisably clear.
Find out more: eauk.org/personas
ABOUT LAURA TRENEER
Laura Treneer is a communications strategy consultant. She started her career as a brand manager in educational publishing, developed networks for The Prince’s Trust and is the former CEO of communications charity CPO, where she published a series of books on church communications for BRF. Recently Laura has provided research, strategy insight and training for a wide range of charities in the Christian sector.
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