More than 600 church pastors and leaders were present this week when “the good news and the bad news” was revealed by new research into the Australian Church.
“Having studied Australia’s spiritual landscape for three decades, I have both bad and good news,” said Dr Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research.
“The news is not good for churches whose response to major social change is to double down on what hasn’t been working for decades. Currently, 7 in 10 local churches are declining, and there are signs that churches are turning inward.”
The hard-hitting news was shared with delegates at Exponential Australia’s inaugural National Conference. Exponential Australia commissioned the research to be conducted by NCLS Research, which operates the largest and longest-running survey of local churches in the world and has tracked Australian church life and health for over 30 years.
“Some months ago, Ruth Powell from NCLS Research gave me some shocking news about how church planting in Australia had plunged over the five years to December 2021,” says Exponential Australia Director Tim O’Neill.
“While this period included the pandemic, it still sent me reeling. Church planting in our nation was in a much worse state than it had been. The rate of church planting was plunging instead of accelerating. The number of churches experiencing growth had dropped, and the number of churches in decline had increased,” he says.
Tim describes the research as “sobering” but says Christians must face it.
“We also cannot ignore the state of the church in Australia, with 7 out of 10 churches declining by 10% of attendance or more. Only 1% of churches were planting a new church in Australia even before COVID in 2019. That’s half the rate of planting previously.” Exponential Australia Director Tim O’Neill
“I think it’s time that we went back to the teachings of Jesus and explored the explosive church planting described in Acts. We must embrace it and be prepared to put aside the conventional wisdom and practices that aren’t working.”
Exponential Australia’s National Conference is focused on six key factors the Australian Church needs to cultivate to see its trajectory change: audacious prayer, intentional discipleship, innovative church planting, empowering leadership, and effective community engagement.
NCLS Research’s Dr Powell provided powerful insights from the research related directly to all six areas.
Dr Powell told conference delegates, “I love the church and have hope.”
“I have good news for anyone who wants to be part of God’s new thing,” she said. “Be encouraged that Australians remain spiritually aware and open.
“Currently, only two in ten describe themselves as atheist. A quarter pray at least weekly. Nearly six in ten believe in God or a higher power and are open to spiritual experiences.”
Dr Powell said nearly four in ten Australians say they will go to church if invited, plus there are another 16% who are unsure. For new attendees to find vital, healthy churches, existing churches need to be revitalised, and new churches of every shape and style need to be nurtured.
“Innovative church planting will require empowering leadership from local, denominational and network leaders. It has to be a team effort,” Dr Powell said.
“Be encouraged that new churches have more signs of health and vitality than older churches. And be encouraged that 8 in 10 churchgoers will support something new.”
To nurture new churches, Exponential and NCLS Research have announced a collaborative initiative launching today – The New Churches project designed to support investment in new gatherings that have started since 2011.
New.churches.org.au is a growing database that enables crowdsourced information about new churches and existing churches that do not fit inside a denominational structure, have a traditional format, or are otherwise flying “under the radar”.
With a shared vision to work towards seeing the Australian Church grow in strength, Exponential and NCLS Research’s partnership provides a hopeful and practical step in the right direction.
NCLS Research’s new release, Growth, Decline and Planting by Australian Churches: Results from the 2021 National Church Life Survey, will be available on Exponential Australia’s website and by request.