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Church numbers down, spirits up

Media doomsayers have been quick to highlight the 2006 Census data showing a significant decline nationally in those who listed their religious affiliation as Uniting Church (down by 15% to 1.1 million since the Census of 1996).

The data for Queensland was more encouraging and showed less than 8% decline (to 282,103).

While the Sunday Mail was quick to stereotype Uniting Church members as silver-haired octogenarians, the Census figures do not indicate the numbers of people who actually attend Uniting Church services of worship, or what proportion of those who identify the Uniting Church as their religious affiliation are merely “nominal”.

Synod Mission Consultant Rev Dr Graham Beattie believes that the figures from the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) also held in the second half of 2006 may be more comprehensive and helpful.

For Uniting Church congregations in Queensland the 2006 NCLS data indicated an increase in the proportion of attenders who reported a growth in faith over the past year, with one-half of all attenders reporting God as the most important reality in their life.

“The interesting feature is that 42% of respondents indicated one or more specific moments of faith commitment (up from 29% in 2001),” Dr Beattie said.

“Across the Uniting Church nationally we are seeing a rising recognition of personal faith as a decisive moment, with this trend heightened in Queensland.”

An increase in the percentage of people attending a small study or prayer group was also reported as was their awareness and commitment to the vision, goals and directions of their church.

Queensland Uniting Church attenders involved regularly in community service, social justice or welfare activities connected to their congregation also increased since the previous NCLS research undertaken five years earlier.

Dr Beattie said the average age of Queensland Uniting Church attenders also increased but only by two years over the five year period, and 97% give financial support to their congregation.

“In fact, 18% of Uniting Church attenders in Queensland are regularly giving 10% or more of their net income,” Dr Beattie said.

“Uniting Church attenders in Queensland also reported attending church more frequently than they had 12 months earlier; one fifth say their attendance patterns are more regular than previously.”

Moderator of the Queensland Synod Rev Dr David Pitman said that the Uniting Church did have many relatively small and ageing congregations and that there was an increasing number of growing congregations.

“The decline in numbers in some ways is an indication that people who belong to a church now are committed.”

Dr Pitman also reported that the Uniting Church in Queensland is experiencing resurgence in the number of people training for one of the specified ministries of the church.

There are currently 31 Candidates for the various ministries of the church undertaking their preparation and training for ministry through Trinity Theological College.

Over 400 000 church attenders from 6000 local churches over more than 22 denominations were surveyed in detail about the health and vitality of their churches.

NCLS Research Director Keith Castle said the church in Australia may be moving beyond the sense of despair that has permeated its life (particularly in the mainstream churches) for possibly two decades.

“I see glimpses of a new determination to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in creative and relevant ways in this complex society in which we live.”

Dr Beattie agreed. “While there are concerns around age and decline, the church’s strong faith base, spiritual experience and devotional practice do provide the basis under sensitive, Spirit-directed leadership for outward focused growth and mission.”