More than 90 per cent of Australian churchgoers believe Christians have a responsibility to actively care for the environment while more than half say they feel a “moral duty” to do something about climate change.

The findings  - among preliminary results from Australia’s latest National Church Life Survey released late last week – come as Christian leaders join government and NGO representatives in Bonn, Germany, for the UN’s COP23 climate conference where they are advocating for greater action on climate change in the wake of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Care of earth infographic

The largest survey of its kind in the world, the NCLS sought the views of some 260,000 church attenders in more than 3,000 churches across the country.

As well as showing that 93 per cent of those attending church believe Christians have a responsibility to actively care for the environment and that 56 per cent feel a “moral duty” to do something about climate change, the survey also revealed that one in five church attenders has taken part in an event like Earth Hour in the last five years.

Some 19 per cent said they voted in a government election on an environmental issue in the same period and 17 per cent have given money to a group that aims to protect the environment while three per cent said they had taken part in a protest or demonstration to protect the environment in the past five years.

In terms of action around the home, 59 per cent of churchgoers said they have reduced the amount of water they use to help minimise their environmental impact, 52 per cent said they had reduced energy consumption, 29 per cent have installed a solar hot water system or solar panels on their home and 28 per cent said they had changed their diet to have less impact.

Dr Powell says while the figures show there is much more engagement taking place on the issue among Christians generally, “there’s more work to be done, I think, in terms of local church leadership” teaching and encouraging people to look at the issue.

While questions on the environment have been previously included in the survey (the nationwide poll is conducted once every five years), Ruth Powell, director of NCLS Research, says in 2016 the scope of how survey addressed the issue was extended because “you can’t do a national survey and not address one of the key issues of our time”. “We’re doing a lot more around that because it’s so important," she says.

Dr Powell says while the figures show there is much more engagement taking place on the issue among Christians generally, “there’s more work to be done, I think, in terms of local church leadership” teaching and encouraging people to look at the issue.

Environment preaching

The data shows that while almost all senior church leaders believe Christians have a responsibility to actively care for the environment, only six per cent said they often touched on the subject of caring for the environment in their preaching, with 21 per cent saying they only do so sometimes and 45 per cent saying they rarely or never do.

Meanwhile, only 16 per cent of churches celebrated a day or a season based around an environmental theme in the past two years, six per cent of local churches worked on an environmental project or activity in their local community over the same period and only three per cent participated in an environmental advocacy campaign. Just two per cent of churches had a “church environment team” that did research or organised activities in the past two years.

Conducted in October and November last year, the survey took a snapshot of the make-up of the Australian church. It found that, 60 per cent of church-goers were female, almost half were employed, 37 per cent held a university degree, and, of those aged 15 years or older, more that 60 per cent were aged over 49-years-old.

“We do have an aging church,” says Dr Powell. “In a sense, it’s the same pattern we’ve seen over the last 25 years, it’s just the next version of it.”

The survey shows that while some large traditional churches – such as the Uniting, Lutheran and Anglican churches – have aging profiles at a national level while Pentecostal, Churches of Christ, Baptist and Presbyterian churches have the highest proportions of younger congregants.

Age profile

The Catholic Church – Australia’s largest church demonination – has a large number of first and second generation migrants, who tend to be younger members of society, which has at least partly offset the aging profile.

“We are seeing a playing out of what is decades-long pattern now,” says Dr Powell, adding that while the Australian population generally is aging generally, it is doing so at a more rapid rate among churches.

“It probably started in the 1960s. In the late Sixties, the church attending population looked like the whole of Australia – it was the same, there was no difference. And so it’s really since then, since the Baby Boom generation left the churches and didn’t return when they had their kids. It’s a generational erosion, effectively, that is happening.”

Dr Powell says one of the big challenges many churches face is how to continue operating as they are when those “faithful older members” who are doing those “practical day-to-day things” that support congregational life are no longer around.

“Already in many places, they are having to be creative and think differently about what will happen next,” she says. “And maybe there’s a gift in that, in that the church will have to look different, and will have to embrace, and is already embracing, in fact, partnerships with each other, working in collaboration with each other, trying different models, to face [that] reality…”

“Already in many places, they are having to be creative and think differently about what will happen next. And maybe there’s a gift in that, in that the church will have to look different, and will have to embrace, and is already embracing, in fact, partnerships with each other, working in collaboration with each other, trying different models, to face [that] reality…”

- Dr Ruth Powell

The survey also shows that multi-cultural mix of churches is on the rise – what Dr Powell calls “quite a significant jump” – with the data showing that 36 per cent of people attending church were born overseas (compared to 22 per cent among the general population) and 27 per cent in a non-English speaking country – up from 18 per cent in 2006.

Noting that not all non-English speaking churches take part in the survey, Dr Powell says the number of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds is likely to be even higher than the survey shows.

“Australia is one of most multi-cultural nations in the world and it is encouraging to see that so many of our churches are also multi-cultural, not only single groups – such as the Korean churches or Chinese churches – but churches that have mixed cultural diversity,” she says. “That’s exciting because I think the church…can give leadership to the rest of Australia and beyond to say ‘This is how we can live together well in our cultural diversity’. We can model it.”

On another encouraging note, the survey also reveals that 46 per cent of churchgoers said they had “much growth in their faith” in the year prior while 40 per cent reported “some growth”. Some 85 per cent feel a strong sense of belonging to their local church while 72 per cent agreed their leaders had encouraged them to use their gifts and skills.

“Local churches can be encouraged – in a time when, sometimes, being religious can feel a bit tough…in the local living out of faith together, people are giving a really positive affirmation…of the development of their spiritual life. All of our church leaders should be really encouraged by this real vote of appreciation and thanks…” says Dr Powell.

Try something new

The survey also confirmed the ongoing trend for people to want to try something new with regards to church life with seven in 10 agreeing their church was always ready to do so and eight out of 10 saying they would support the development of new initiatives.

"More of them are saying it than have ever said it before so you just have to listen to that," says Dr Powell. "The work of what does that look like on the ground is hard, really hard, but [there is a] willingness to have the conversation about what next and that something needs to be different..."

Further releases of data are expected in the coming months.