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Church service Australian churches

DAVID ADAMS reports on the findings of the latest national church ‘census’…

Change is in the air for the Body of Christ – and the latest survey of Australian churches show that people are increasingly happy to move with the times.

Initial results from the National Church Life Survey – Australia’s national church ‘census’ – reveal that growing numbers of church attenders believe their local church is ready to try something new (17 per cent versus 13 per cent when the survey was last done in 2001) while two-thirds agree that their local leaders encourage innovation.

Church service Australian churches

A SOLID FOUNDATION: The 2006 National Church Life Survey shows that 73 per cent of Australia’s 400,000 church attendees had a strong, growing or stable sense of belonging to the body.


Dr Ruth Powell says that while the church is increasingly diverse, “I think part of what we’re seeing is churches are getting back to their core, reclaiming their core ground and getting back to the message that they’ve always had.”

Conducted last year, the survey of 400,000 church attenders from more than 22 denominations also shows that 70 per cent of those attending churches say they are aware of the vision, goals or direction of their local church while as many as 73 per cent said they had a strong, growing or stable sense of belonging to the church body.

A quarter of attenders commended their local churches for nurturing “much growth in their faith” in the past year while greater proportions of people indicate they always experience inspiration, joy, awe or mystery and a growth in understanding of God during their church worship services.

Dr Ruth Powell, senior researcher at the National Church Life Survey, says while there could be many explanations for the positive shift in attitudes – including the possibility that people are becoming more committed to the church, she believes one of the key reasons for the change is that churches have engaged the challenges presented by the changing times and are doing so in a more effective way than five years ago.

Dr Powell says that the ways in which churches are changing has included the adoption of a greater diversity of worship styles and an acceptance that different styles are OK for different groups.

She says there’s also been a shift to greater informality in some places “which is culturally more appropriate these days” and that churches have been getting better at “engaging the whole family”.

This had led to churches undertaking, to a greater extent than in the past, activities which are about providing people with practical lifeskills, such as workshops on everything from how to communicate with teenagers to household budgeting.

“(It’s) understanding that faith and everyday life has to be walked hand-in-hand.”

Dr Powell believes that churches are also consciously providing more opportunity for people to become involved in social justice issues, particularly among the younger generations.

“It’s about transformation of individuals and transformation of society…and young people going ‘Look, I’m on a mission from God’ and ‘God has a mission in our world and wants to redeem the world and wants me to be a part of that’.”

Dr Powell says that while the church is increasingly diverse, “I think part of what we’re seeing is churches are getting back to their core, reclaiming their core ground and getting back to the message that they’ve always had.”

“Just getting a bit smarter about how to translate that into today’s language and culture.”

Figures on whether churches are growing or declining in size will be released next year once information has been gathered on those churches that didn’t take part in the survey.

Those denominations which did take part included Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, Uniting Church and Seventh Day Adventist.

The last figures, which were released in 2004 and were based on a survey taken in 2001, showed an overall decline of seven per cent in church attendance during the period from 1996 to 2001 but, when broken down, a more mixed picture.


• 60 per cent of church attenders are female.
• The average age of attenders is 53-years-old.
• 66 per cent are married.
• 18 per cent have never married.
• 27 per cent have a university degree.
• 23 per cent have a trade certificate, diploma or associate diploma.
• 48 per cent are employed.
• 32 per cent are retired.
• 22 per cent are involved in church-based community service, social justice or welfare activities and a similar percentage in community-based activities.

Source: National Church Life Survey 2006

While those attending Catholic mass, for example, had declined by an estimated 13 per cent (the Catholic Church was the largest denomination in Australia, accounting for an estimated 50 per cent of church attenders), Protestant denominations as a whole grew by one per cent with some strong growth in Pentecostal and some Evangelical denominations such as Baptist.

With an average age of 53-years-old among church attenders (up from 52-years-old in 2001), Dr Powell says that she would expect such trends to continue.

“If we project forward from what we’ve seen over the last 15 years and revival doesn’t happen, we would expect that we will continue to see decline because the mainstream denominations who are the largest have an ageing profile…” she says. “But at the same time, it’s clear that there is growth happening.”

More than a third of church attenders have been in their current church for five years or less. Of those, six per cent are newcomers with no church background.

Dr Powell says that while the data so far released is limited, she’s excited by the fact that the church seems to be “stepping up”. It remains to be seen is what this will mean for church leadership.

“It may bring with it leaders who are being more directive…so there may be emerging issues about people who are sure they know the right way to go versus those who are continuing to empower,” she says.

“We’re hearing that attenders are currently saying, not just inspire me and be inspiring but ‘I want to be part of it, I want you to use my gifts and skills’. Now the challenge will be – and I’m just starting to think about this – is I wonder whether what we will see in the next decade or two…is will leaders take the attenders’ invitation up? Will they empower and mobilise and equip or will they say ‘We’ve got to take the reins back now?’.”


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