NCLS: Food for thought

NCLS: Food for thought

The results of the 2011 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) are in. LYNDAL IRONS finds out what this valuable resource has to say about spirituality in Australia, the Uniting Church in Australia and the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.

Imagine a device that could measure church life in Australia — in congregations and entire denominations; a tool that could tell us what church people valued, what engages them in worship, their demographics and trends.

What implications would this information have for church leadership and capacity building?

The 2011 NCLS survey compiles responses from more than a quarter of a million people in 3,000 congregations and 23 denominations. It has been called the most comprehensive national survey after the federal census.

It is now 20 years old and beginning to produce meaningful trend lines across decades of church life.

But statistical data is about much more than numbers. NCLS not only helps churches see what they look like at the moment, it also helps them plan for what they would like to look like in the future.

Faith in Australia

Nationally and across denominations, figures indicate that churchgoers are highly educated (34 per cent have attained a university degree) and more inclined to do good things for others when compared to the wider population.

Six-out-of-ten people in church are female. The average age of a church member is 55 but Baptists, Pentecostals and the Catholic Church are better than most at engaging and retaining young adults.

“What we can see from the results is that even though the church may be smaller than it was in previous decades, in a sense it is consolidating,” Ruth Powell told the ABC’s Religion Report.

“It’s stronger. The signs of health are greater than they were a decade ago.”

The smaller-but-stronger message is also true for the Uniting Church specifically.

In late 2011 around 12,000 people responded across the Uniting Church in the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.

The Synod commissioned five specific questions concerning what is valued about the denomination, participation in continuing education, the most important aspects of being Christian, property sharing and attitudes to change.

The figures suggest that the hard conversations pay off: 71.6 per cent across all age groups value inclusiveness of all types of people in the Uniting Church. The Uniting Church is also much clearer about its vision, goals and future directions.

Over 74 per cent within the Synod are definitely in favour or tend to favour sharing property. And church people are proud of the significant work done in the community services area.

NCLS measures church vitality by looking at core qualities: the presence of an alive and growing faith, nurturing worship, growing belonging, shared vision, leadership, innovation, and skills in faith sharing and inclusion. Here, the Uniting Church displays much strength.

“Across the Synod we listen deeply to each other,” said Uniting Mission and Education Director, the Rev. Kath Merrifield. “We build good relationships with each other, we stay on course when things get difficult and we have an ability to learn and grow from experiences. But there are some questions about how we then respond. Acting is not one of our strengths.”

For the first time, the survey included 398 children from the Synod — and responses show the 0-14 age group is very happy in a church environment.

Uniting Church children say they like singing and helping lead other children. They believe God helps them to lead a better life, 75 per cent like their leaders and 71 per cent like praying.

In the 15 and over bracket, however, numbers effectively halve as young adults opt to leave the church, 46 per cent of those leaving choosing not to attend church anywhere at all.

“I think the good news is that the people who are engaging with children are doing a really good job and that children are responding,” said Ms Merrifield.

“But our numbers are dropping. Our age profile is going where we knew it would go because we are still not taking seriously what it means to be intergenerational, what it means to engage with children and young people. In some places we are doing it really well and in others we are not doing it at all.”

The future

The most alarming news: the average age of adult attendees in the Synod is 63. Forty-five per cent of members are now 70 and over.

If nothing changes, the Synod will halve its current size in the next 25 years. It is an unpopular message among Uniting Church people but there is little point shooting or ignoring the messenger.

It is not the research but the people in a church that will determine its strength or sustainability in the future.

UME is using the statistics to identify congregations and their leaders who have either turned around or in some way resisted the less favourable implications in order to learn what works and to share those stories across the Synod.

There is also a challenge in reading the figures and interpreting what they mean.

“If 50 per cent of our congregation members are over 70 it is not surprising that 46 per cent of our people say they value traditional worship,” points out Ms Merrifield.

“The question for us is: does that mean we continue to emphasise traditional worship or do we listen to the people under 70 who are a minority but have different values?”

If it decides to try change, the majority of Uniting Church people actually support their church starting a new worship gathering in a different style.

“Really it is 1.9 per cent who would dig their heels in against it,” said Ms Merrifield.

“When we talk about changing the church and why we don’t change, quite often it is because that 2 per cent hold it back. There are things for us to think about in terms of being brave enough to give something a go when you’ve got 1-2 in your congregation who are making loud noises.”

There are other, simple ways to begin turning around statistics. There has been a 5 per cent drop-off in faith sharing and inviting people to church, which is problematic when belonging, for many, predates a later grown belief.

“I’d say one of the challenges for UME is to boost confidence in ourselves,” said Ms Merrifield. “We have a lot of good things going for us in the Uniting Church. Now we have profiles of each congregation and presbytery who took part in NCLS. We are well-placed to look at these results and think about what they’d like to celebrate and what they want to work on.”

If congregations would like assistance in looking at their profiles and planning for the future, they can contact their local presbytery resource people or contact UME, who will arrange for someone to visit them and work through the results.

For more information on NCLS, call 9701 4479 or visit ncl

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