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Aussie Churches Win Some, Lose Some: Latest Research

Measuring church growth takes more than a head-count across the top of the pews, reports world-renowned Australian researchers at NCLS Research.

Busy preparing for another National Church Life Survey in the second half of 2006, NCLS has its eyes on the big and little pictures of congregation size, attitudes and beliefs.

A key focus will be helping churches reflect on their health and vitality. One feature is the way in which attenders flow in and out of church doors.

“Sometimes people can use church growth or decline as the only measure of church health.” explains NCLS researcher Dr Ruth Powell. “Yet, we would argue that to focus only on numbers is too limited. Sometime growth can be simply ‘religious musical pews’. ”

The NCLS Inflow Outflow model helps churches to understand whether their growth is a reflection of effectiveness in mission or whether it is being driven by other factors.

“We want to chart the moves that people make between churches as much as the gains and losses overall,” adds Dr Powell.

“Along with other measures of vitality, this tells us more about how healthy churches are, across the thousands of congregations we reach each time the survey is held.”

Charting the levels of inflow and outflow for participating denominations is the focus of a special NCLS report being released this month, titled Inflow and Outflow for Australian Churches: 1991 to 2001.

Between the 1996 and 2001 National Church Life Surveys, NCLS Research found a net gain of just one percent for Protestant congregations as a whole. This figure is the net result of church gains—newcomers, babies and denominational switchers—against the losses—deaths, switchers and those who drift away from church life entirely. (See Figure 1.)

As a sector, Protestant churches lost very few attenders to Catholic or Orthodox churches (1%). However, the adult church population has lost more people through death, than are being replaced by young adults becoming involved (7% vs 4%).

Yet this sector of church life has managed to hold its own because it managed to attract greater proportions of newcomers who were not part of congregations (10%), than the estimated proportion who drifted away and no longer attend church (6%).

NCLS Research reports that in 2001 about 760,000 people (4% of Australia’s population) were in the surveyed Protestant denominations on any single Sunday (with another 4% in Catholic churches). Almost 1 in 5 Australians (18%) had attended church at least once in a month.

The scope of the follow-up 2006 National Church Life Survey is therefore vast—estimated to include more than half a million attenders in up to 10,000 congregations. And it’s more than a headcount of the inflow and outflow of the current report, Dr Powell adds.

“We’ll be including questions to measure the core qualities of healthy churches as well as attitudes, beliefs and practices,” she explains. For more information, visit www.ncls.org.au