Imagine a single woman in her mid 30s who has attended church for only three months. Let’s call her Nerida. Nerida used to attend Sunday School as a child with her mother. Having not attended church since she was 14 years old, Nerida has returned to church, following a relationship breakdown, at the invitation of her mum. She is not sure about where she stands on orthodox Christian beliefs at the moment, but has appreciated the singing and message, time for prayer as well as the chance to share this experience with others. She is a newcomer to church life and is critical to the future of the Church.
Nerida’s story is the combined story of real people. She could be described as a ‘classic newcomer’. Her perspective is important as newcomers measure the relevance of church beyond its own walls. Does Nerida remind you of anyone you know? What can we learn from Nerida and other newcomers to church life?
The 2001 International Congregational Life Survey (ICLS) provided a unique opportunity to gain a profile of newcomers across different countries. The ICLS was a collaborative effort of four countries: Australia, England, New Zealand and United States. It built on earlier work in Australia in 1991 and 1996. The 2001 survey involved more than 11,000 congregations and 850,000 attenders aged 15 years or over.
A profile of newcomers
Nerida is defined as a newcomer because she has attended her present congregation for less than five years and was previously not attending church regularly elsewhere. There are two types of newcomers: ‘first-timers’ who are attending church for the first time, and the more common ‘returnee’, such as Nerida, who is returning to church life after an absence of years. The level of newcomers is quite similar across all four nations, ranging from 6% to 8%. (New Zealand 6%, Australia 7%, United States 8%).
As a female in her early 30s, Nerida shares some of the common characteristics of newcomers. In all countries newcomers, like other attenders, are more likely to be women than men. Newcomers are also younger than other attenders, although there are significant variations between countries. For newcomers in Australia, 37% are aged 15 to 34, in the US 33%, in New Zealand 29%, and in England 24%. It seems that every country has a different story to tell. Yet despite this interesting variation between countries, in each case, the proportion of newcomers aged 15 to 34 is about double that of non-newcomers.
In all four countries newcomers are more likely to have never married, which is likely to be related to their younger age. It is also significant that the proportions of newcomers who have been divorced, separated, remarried after divorce or who are living in a de facto relationship are dramatically higher in each of the countries compared with other attenders. When Nerida’s relationship broke down, she was devastated.
She felt that everything she understood no longer seemed to make sense. All her social networks were also disrupted. She wasn’t quite sure how, but thought that going to church might be a help.
Newcomers’ connecting with church
As a child, Nerida regularly attended Sunday School. Her mum was the one that encouraged her to come again. While Nerida has some experience of church, there is still a lot to get used to and some things have changed! Many newcomers have experienced church life at some time in their upbringing. When comparing countries, it appears that newcomers in the USA are much more likely to have gone to Sunday school as a child (66%), than in Australia (48%) or England (36%).
The most important catalyst for Australian newcomers to come to church is an invitation from friends or family. They were also much higher than other attenders to say this was the key reason (28% vs 11%). Personal contact is clearly very important, with other influential catalysts for newcomers including invitation from a spouse, contact with the minister. Other catalysts that are more important for newcomers compared with other attenders are contact via activities of the church, rites of passage (such as weddings) and proximity to home.
Newcomers are more likely than other attenders to invite people to church. Close to half of all newcomers say that they invited someone to church. Some 52% of newcomers in the US had invited someone to church in the past year, whereas English newcomers were more reserved with 38% extending an invitation. This may in part be explained by the fact that church attendance rates are generally higher in the USA and that church involvement would thus be seen as a more part of mainstream culture than in other countries.
Newcomers’ experience of church
When Australian and American attenders were asked what contributes to a meaningful worship experience, the things that stand out for all attenders include prayer, congregational singing, the sermon or homily, Communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper and reading of Scriptures. Leaders seeking to connect with newcomers should note that while these things were important, newcomers in these two countries were also much more likely than others to mention two other things: contemporary worship and the opportunity to share the worship experience with others.
When considering how culturally different Australia and the USA are (especially in matters of religion), it was surprising how similar the responses were when it came to orthodox Christian beliefs. For example 81% of Australian and American newcomers believe that Jesus was both human and divine and around 86% believe Jesus rose from the dead. However, while these levels are high, they are significantly lower than other attenders in Australia and the USA, where some 93% hold these views.
Conversion or a moment of faith commitment is also a common experience with newcomers in all countries. Only 27% of newcomers in Australia, England and USA and 24% in New Zealand say they have had faith all their life. (This compares to 37% to 51% of other attenders).
Congregations that attract newcomers
The characteristics of churches that have high levels of newcomers were also analysed and compared across the countries. This study found that features of local congregational life have a far greater relationship with the level of newcomers, than either the faith identity of a church (eg Catholic, Charismatic, Evangelical) or local context. These results were very similar for each country.
This study found that across all four countries there are some characteristics that appear consistently in congregations with higher levels of newcomers. Listed in order of strength, these congregations have higher proportions of attenders who have:
• A strong and growing sense of belonging
• Inviting others to church
• Perception that the church is moving in new directions
• Leadership that encourages attenders’ gifts and skills
• Clear vision to which attenders are committed
• Growth in faith as a result of this church
• Contemporary and uplifting services
It is possible to see how these factors work together. Churches have many ways of contacting people, yet when attenders invite others, this remains, by far, the most successful of them. It also seems that a growing sense of community for all attenders is an important factor that helps new people decide to stay.
Newcomers are more likely to be found in churches where attenders felt that the church is moving in new directions. Similarly, having a clear vision to which attenders are committed is also important. There may be several factors at work here. A church with an intentional statement of vision may have more success attracting newcomers because of its level of planning and care in its programs. It is also possible that confidence among attenders is the important issue. For example, if there is a clear sense of direction for the church, and evidence that people are committed to it, newcomers may have greater confidence to stay and all attenders may have greater confidence to invite others.
Churches that have higher levels of newcomers also tend to encourage the gifts and skills of attenders. It seems reasonable that people who feel empowered at their place of worship are more likely to have confidence in inviting others. But it also makes sense that a church where many of the attenders are freed to contribute to the work of the church is likely to have more success in achieving all kinds of aims, over a church where a handful of staff (or even a lone minister) tackle tasks and attenders are more like passive spectators.
Across all four countries congregations with higher levels of newcomers also have higher proportions of people who informally help others. Such helping includes visiting people in hospital, lending or giving money or possessions and offering emotional support in times of crisis. Perhaps these churches simply have more contacts with people who are open to attending church.
Another discovery was that churches with higher percentages of people beyond their first marriage (separated, divorced, widowed, remarried) or in a de facto relationship were significantly more likely to have a higher percentage of newcomers. This is partly a case of like attracting like. Some people no doubt move in to church attendance in the wake of a relationship ending because of care and support they might find at the church at that time. If other attenders are also in these relational situations, they may be more open and tolerant; this would manifest in a variety of ways.
This study confirms the vital role of the local church in helping newcomers feel welcome, to find a place to belong and to be part of future directions. Do you have any newcomers in your church? If so, they hold clues about how they found your church, what helped them to grow in their faith and to become involved.
Listen carefully to what they have to say.
- Dr Ruth Powell
This article is based on the Research Paper, “Attracting and Integrating Newcomers – An Analysis across Four Countries” by Sam Sterland, Phillip Escott and Keith Castle. It was first presented at the annual conference for the Institute for Social and Socio-Religious Research (ISSR), held in Turin in July 2003. The full research paper can be found on the NCLS website – www.ncls.org.au
The 2001 International Congregational Life Survey (ICLS) was a collaborative effort of four countries: Australia, England, New Zealand and United States. It built on earlier work in Australia in 1991 and 1996. The 2001 survey involved more than 11,000 congregations and 850,000 attenders. In Australia, NCLS Research is a joint project of the Uniting Church NSW Board of Mission, ANGLICARE (Diocese of Sydney) and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
For more information contact: Dr Ruth Powell, NCLS Research: (02) 8267 4394, Fax: (02) 9267 7316, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ncls.org.au