Researchers say numbers not the only measure of church health
NCLS Research - the national body funded by Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church bodies - has said that focusing on congregation size along is "too limited".
The NSW Uniting Church publication Insights reports that NCLS is busy preparing for another National Church Life Survey in the second half of 2006. This year, it has its eyes on the "big and little pictures of congregation size, attitudes and beliefs".
A key focus will be helping churches reflect on their health and vitality. One feature is the way in which attenders flow in and out of church doors.
"Sometimes people can use church growth or decline as the only measure of church health," explains NCLS researcher Dr Ruth Powell. "Yet, we would argue that to focus only on numbers is too limited. Sometime growth can be simply 'religious musical pews'".
The NCLS Inflow Outflow model helps churches to understand whether their growth is a reflection of effectiveness in mission or whether it is being driven by other factors.
"We want to chart the moves that people make between churches as much as the gains and losses overall," adds Dr Powell.
"Along with other measures of vitality, this tells us more about how healthy churches are, across the thousands of congregations we reach each time the survey is held."
Charting the levels of inflow and outflow for participating denominations is the focus of a special NCLS report being released this month, titled Inflow and Outflow for Australian Churches: 1991 to 2001.
Between the 1996 and 2001 National Church Life Surveys, NCLS Research found a net gain of just 1% for Protestant congregations as a whole. This figure is the net result of church gains-newcomers, babies and denominational switchers-against the losses-deaths, switchers and those who drift away from church life entirely.
As a sector, Protestant churches lost very few attenders to Catholic or Orthodox churches (1%). However, the adult church population has lost more people through death, than are being replaced by young adults becoming involved (7% vs 4%).
Yet this sector of church life has managed to hold its own because it managed to attract greater proportions of newcomers who were not part of congregations (10%), than the estimated proportion who drifted away and no longer attend church (6%).
NCLS Research reports that in 2001 about 760,000 people (4% of Australia's population) were in the surveyed Protestant denominations on any single Sunday (with another 4% in Catholic churches). Almost 1 in 5 Australians (18%) had attended church at least once in a month.
Aussie churches win some, lose some: latest research (Insights 20/2/06)
LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
NCLS Research | NCLS 2006
Aussies wary about trusting their neighbour (CathNews 21/10/05)
Research body to map new expressions of "church" (CathNews 29/3/05)
Bishops reaffirm support for National Church Life Survey (CathNews 28/2/05)
Survey body pinpoints link between mission activities and more newcomers (CathNews 1/11/04)
NCLS to probe 'I'm spiritual not religious' sentiment (CathNews 10/2/04)
Jesus Christ "better known as a profanity than a deity" (CathNews 10/11/03)
Important book on church attendance wins recognition (CathNews 15/10/03)
Adelaide Vicar-General says Church must seek opinion of faithful (CathNews 20/5/02)
21 Feb 2006