Big Is Beautiful (And so is small!)

Big Is Beautiful (And so is small!)

The Future Directions resolution adopted at the April session of Synod 2021 challenges the church to buck recent trends and “grow young”.  It also imagines that together we will “lead large healthy and younger congregations.”

So, why large, and what’s the difference?

Young People

What’s clear from the 2016 National Church Life Survey is that larger churches are able to engage more effectively with young people. 

When asked “What is your satisfaction with what is offered here for youth aged 12-18 years”, the percentage of all attenders who are satisfied or very satisfied is more than double in larger churches compared to small ones, (46 percent compared to 20 percent), while 15-18 year olds themselves are more satisfied in larger churches, 62 percent compared to 29 percent.


Large and small churches (and those in between) have similar percentages of current attenders who are newcomers – those who weren’t attending any church five years before the survey (at four percent – five percent)

Small churches have proportionally more long term attenders, while larger churches have more who have switched from other denominations and other Uniting Churches in last five years (33 percent higher in large congregations – 16 percent compared to 12 percent).

Getting involved

People who feel their gifts and skills are being well used are similar – 62 percent in small churches compared to 59 percent in large. More people are involved in leading worship in small churches, while more people are involved in leading youth and small groups in large churches – these are fairly logical statistics.

More people in large churches value small groups (18 percent compared to 11 percent in small congregations). The percentage of attenders who value reaching those who don’t attend church is the same, and at 11 percent, this is a worryingly low number.

Our larger churches on average have twice as many members born in a non-English speaking country and members who have at least one parent born in a non-English speaking country.

Signs of Vitality

Based on 30 years of research and analysis, the NCLS team have developed nine markers of vitality in local churches. In quick summary:

The Internal Core Qualities focus on the inner life of the local church. They reveal the extent to which a church helps attenders to:

  • have an alive and growing Faith
  • experience vital and nurturing Worship
  • feel a strong and growing sense of Belonging

The Inspirational Core Qualities focus on the leadership and direction in your church. They are the catalysts that inspire it to move forward. They reveal the extent to which attenders feel the church has:

  • a clear and owned Vision
  • inspiring and empowering Leadership
  • open and flexible Innovation

The Outward Core Qualities focus on the outward looking life of your local church. They are measures of the extent to which your attenders undertake:

  • practical and diverse Service
  • willing and effective Faith-sharing
  • intentional and welcoming Inclusion.

The results for churches of various sizes are quite similar across most of these measures, with the exception of:

  • Vision – members of larger churches have a higher sense of ownership, commitment and belief in the vision, goals and directions of their church;
  • Innovation – members of larger churches are more likely to say their church is willing to try new things and that their leaders encourage innovation;
  • Inclusion – members of smaller churches are more likely to take responsibility for seeking out those drifting away from attending church, and are also more likely to seek out and welcome people they know are new arrivals. 

So, that’s a few quick highlights about our larger and smaller churches. While this aggregated data is interesting, the data for each congregation – large and small – helps leaders focus on building up the strengths of their congregations and seeking growth in the areas that need development.

We look forward to seeing how we’ve changed when the 2021 results come out next year.

National Church Life Survey 2021

This year is the next opportunity churches around Australia have to reflect on who they are and how their members are involved in mission, and how this has changed since the last survey in 2016. This year, there will also be questions about the new ways we’ve been experiencing worship during the pandemic.

All churches in NSW and the ACT will shortly receive an invitation to participate in the NCLS later in the year. There is no cost to congregations to participating in the survey – this includes every congregation, large and small, from the bush to the city.

NCLS congregation profiles (published in about April 2022) provide local leaders with a wealth of insight and ideas for helping their congregations grow in discipleship, relationship, impact and number. Aggregated data also provides Presbyteries and Synod with vital information about the health of our church as a whole, and helps shapes their priorities and work.

David Cornford
Director – Mission Strategy, Uniting Mission and Education

(Note: All results based on analysis of 2016 NCLS. Small churches are this with regular attendance below 30, large are those over 60.)


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