New research reveals people have stayed connected and involved in church and their community amid the changes and challenges of the pandemic.
NCLS Research runs the ‘National Church Life Survey’ every five years. Involving hundreds of thousands of churchgoers and thousands of churches and leaders, across more than 20 denominations each cycle, the Australian NCLS is the largest longitudinal study of local church life in the
“This could be the most important NCLS ever” said NCLS Research Director Dr Ruth Powell.
“Even though it was very challenging to conduct a national survey during a pandemic, we persisted because church leaders told us how critical it was to have greater insight into what was going on so they could respond in informed, helpful ways.”
Fewer newcomers through the doors of Protestant churches
Latest results from Protestant churches found that only 33% of attenders had invited others to church, a drop from 41% in 2016. Just 5.7% of all Protestant attenders were newcomers without a church background. This was a decline from a stable 8-9% over the previous 20 years. At the same time, the proportion of Protestant attenders who not only feel at ease but look for opportunities to share faith has remained stable across 20 years since 2001 at around 18 to 20%.
Dr Ruth Powell believes the lower level of newcomers and invitations is likely to be related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Attendance change is the measure of whether the Australian church is growing or declining,” Dr Powell said.
“The lower inflow of newcomers combined with the older age profile in churches suggests further decline in numbers may be ahead.”
Shifts in church attendance and involvement
The 2021 NCLS results found that 74% of Protestant attenders go to only one church. However, 26% of Protestants told us they also attended elsewhere. Some 15% attend elsewhere in person and 15% attend online services.
When asked if their church involvement had changed when compared to 2019 (before COVID), 25% of Protestant attenders are now more involved than previously, whereas 18% are less involved in their church.
This means around 6 in ten (57%) attenders have not changed their level of involvement in their local church since the pandemic.
Personal growth is down but small group attendance is increasing
The Survey asked church attenders if they had grown in faith in the past year due to their local church, and found a downward trend. Compared to 33% in 2016, only 25% of Protestant church attenders in 2021 said they had grown in faith because of their local church.
However, three-quarters of all church attenders continued with private devotional practices at least a few times a week. Further, more than half (54%) said they participate in small prayer, discussion or Bible study groups at their local church, an increase from 49% in 2016.
“This may reflect how church attenders responded to the pandemic, maintaining small group gatherings for spiritual and personal support,” said Dr Powell.
Community service on the rise
The results from the 2021 NCLS found a substantial increase in Protestant church attenders involved in church-based service groups. Twenty years earlier in 2001 it was 25%, but has risen to 33% of survey participants in 2021. Involvement in community-based service groups has been relatively stable over the past 20 years with around 23% of Protestant attenders participating.
“Jesus calls us to love our neighbour and help others in practical ways,” Dr Powell said.
“Australian society continues to benefit from the church which provides an extraordinary, yet largely unheralded, voluntary social welfare safety net made up of hundreds of thousands of individuals who give in various ways.”
For more information, please contact NCLS Research.
Feature Image: Hannah Busing on Unsplash