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Source from 2011 NCLS attender denominational surveys
Source: 2011 NCLS attender denominational surveys

We’re all in this together: What the latest data says about the Uniting Church

National Church Life Survey analysis is highlighting some encouraging trends in Uniting Church congregations, reports Dianne Jensen.

Do you feel settled at your local church, yet sense that your gifts are not being fully used? You’ll support outreach initiatives (if they don’t clash with your volunteer work) but would prefer not to personally invite people to church.

Growing confidence and openness to change within mainstream congregations is one of the key trends emerging from the most recent National Church Life Survey (NCLS), alongside a decline in the number of people who feel encouraged to use their gifts and ongoing reluctance to talk about faith.

The 2011 survey included over 3000 churches and 23 denominations, and researchers are now delving deeper into the data and tracking trends over the 20 years since the first NCLS survey.

Director Dr Ruth Powell says there is some encouraging news for churches.

“What we see is the exciting trend that people are speaking more positively than they were 10 years ago about the internal health and life of their church. You get more people saying they have experienced growth in their faith because of their church.”

While this attests to the possibility that disgruntled members have voted with their feet, Dr Powell says that researchers are picking up on a related trend which gives a more positive perspective.

“There are much higher proportions of people who say, ‘I am aware of our church’s vision for the future and I am strongly committed to it’,” she says.

“There is a sense of consolidation and strengthening, of clarification. It’s a good picture of the church responding well to the change in context.”

Exploding the myths

While the Uniting Church data generally reflects mainstream trends, there are some interesting twists.
Our congregations were used to pilot some exploratory questions in the 2011 survey around the issue of openness to change and innovation, and the responses “really blew open some of the myths about openness to change,” says Dr Powell.

In response to the statement: “This congregation is always ready to try something new”, 55 per cent of people expressed agreement, with a further 13 per cent expressing strong agreement.

Asked whether they would be in favour of their church starting a new worship gathering of a different style, 31.7 per cent were definitely in favour, with a further 34.8 per cent tending to favour the concept.

And while we may crave more internal unity, most members of the Uniting Church value the wide embrace and the open door for which we are renowned. When asked what they liked most about the Uniting Church, 71.6 per cent of people nominated “inclusiveness”, followed by “community service” (25.4 per cent).

We’re here to help

NCLS data confirms that the Uniting Church does indeed have the oldest age profile of any denomination in the survey, but these folks are pure gold for both our congregations and our community.

Sixty-seven per cent of Uniting Church members are regularly involved in some form of community group activity beyond the church, and 58 per cent reported informally helping others in a number of ways.

“One thing that the Uniting Church is extremely good at is community services and volunteer service,” says Dr Powell. “Church attenders in general have higher levels of volunteerism than the wider community, and it is a real strength in the Uniting Church. It is the strength of the older age profile as well, because it’s older attenders who are providing that service.”

Silent witness

But while Uniting Church congregations are demonstrating their faith through their deeds with commendable energy, there has been a decline in our willingness to talk about our faith and to invite others to church, says Dr Powell.

“We’re feeling good about who we are, we’re getting a strong sense of where we are meant to be going, we’re building bridges with our community, but we’re not quite there in terms of knowing how to speak about our faith communities in authentic ways.”

And sharing our experience of church is perhaps the most powerful act we can make. NCLS has a new research project underway in which 2000 people were asked specific questions about how they chose their church and why they decided to stay.

“We haven’t done that research in detail yet, but a couple of things we know are that newcomers come because someone invited them, and they invited them over and over again,” says Dr Powell.

In spite of the ambivalence of many towards joining any organisation, including churches, there is a hunger for community, she adds.

“Social capital is the sociological term for this social glue, and churches have it in spades. You are bonded to each other, and there are networks which you would never have in other settings because you are mixing with such diverse people.”

Sustainable leadership

While there are many theories about why churches flourish, NCLS researchers believe that the key factors are relatively simple. Their findings, echoed in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and USA research, suggest that healthy and growing churches are driven by the underlying factors of individual commitment and collective confidence working in tandem.

“What we mean by individual commitment is that no matter what is happening at your church, you are someone who is going to turn up. As an individual you are committed in your faith journey, and you are investing in your church in a number of ways,” says Dr Powell.

“Collective confidence is about ‘I trust our church community. I trust the integrity of it. I believe it’s going to be able to move forward’.

“You can have lots of people who are individually committed, but do you have collective efficacy;
do we think we can be effective together?”

Leadership is a critical ingredient for healthy churches, she adds, and NCLS has recently launched a range of resources on the subject.

“We have two strands at the moment to our leadership work: effective leadership and sustainable leadership. Effective leadership is this idea of finding and releasing the leadership strengths that exist amongst you, perhaps in unexpected places. Sustainable leadership is the challenge to thrive, and not just survive—how to be resilient for the long haul.”

Church life surveys are available for local churches at any time. To find out about NCLS research visit ncls.org.au

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