Church attendance declines much slower than census faith figures

As attendance figures stabilise, census changes possibly reflects “nominals”

It is old news that Australian attendance at religious services has been declining for some time. However, a new study by National Church Life Survey (NCLS) researchers stretching from 1950 to 2016 has found that the decline in monthly attendance at religious services has slowed in recent decades.

This is a major finding in a series of studies by the NCLS Research team that tracks trends in church attendance.

After a steep decline in religious service attendance, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the decline has slowed since 1990.

Religious service attendance in Australia has never been an activity practised by the majority of the population. Some of the highest rates of attendance were recorded in the 1950s after World War II at the time of the baby boom (e.g., 44 per cent in 1950). After a steep decline in religious service attendance, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the decline has slowed since 1990.

For example, in the 40 years from 1950 to 1990, the decline in monthly self-reported attendance was about 22 percentage points compared with about 5 percentage points over the following 25 years from 1990 to 2016.

The data used for this study was drawn from sample surveys of the Australian population where people self-report their levels of attendance at religious services of worship. When compiling the 2016 Australian Community Survey, NCLS Research took care to use surveys that were representative of Australians on the electoral roll and where the survey questions were comparable. While the majority of responses in these surveys were about Christian church attendance, a small proportion would have attended services in other faiths.

A world leader

The National Church Life Survey is the largest, longest-running survey of its kind in the world and is the largest nationwide survey after the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Census. The survey has been held every five years since 1991, most recently from October to November 2016. About 3000 local churches from more than 20 denominations took part in ten languages.

Churches received an online Summary Profile of results in April as a taster of the Church Life Pack in the coming months. The pack includes a full Church Life Profile showing their unique results plus supporting resources to help churches to build vitality and health in mission and ministry, effectiveness and sustainability in leadership, and stronger connections with local communities.

The 2016 NCLS results are based on 240,000 adult attender surveys (adult church attenders aged 15+); 10,000 child surveys (church attenders aged 8-14) and 7000 leader surveys.

In addition to the usual paper surveys, attender and leader surveys were available online for the first time in 2016.