A recent study into the overall Australian Church is reporting good and bad news. The survey by NCLS Research formerly known as the National Church Life Survey was commissioned by Exponential Australia which champions the cause of ‘healthy church multiplication.’
It was shocked to find that the rate of church planting had plunged across the nation over the five years to 2021. Only one percent of Australian churches were planting new churches. The survey discovered an increase in the number of churches in decline, and fewer churches growing their membership.
“The news is not good for churches whose response to major social change is to double down on what hasn’t been working for decades,” said Dr. Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research. She added that: “Currently, seven out of 10 local churches are declining, and there are signs that churches are turning inward.”
On the positive side, the study found Australians remain spiritually aware and open. Only 20% described themselves as atheists, while a quarter prayed at least once a week. Nearly 60% believed in God or a higher power
Exponential Australia Director Tim O’Neill admitted being shocked by the findings. “While this period included the pandemic, it still sent me reeling. Church planting in our nation was in a much worse state than it had been. The rate of church planting was plunging instead of accelerating. The number of churches experiencing growth had dropped, and the number of churches in decline had increased,” he summarised..
Pastor O’Neill described the research as “sobering” but says Christians must face it. He estimates that 5% of churches close each year, meaning the number of churches in Australia seems to be decreasing by 4% each year. He’s convinced that Australia “needs more, not fewer, healthy churches that will take the good news and love of Jesus to people who don’t know him. More men and women need to be raised up as workers for the harvest to plant more new churches.”
He concedes that times have changed pointing out that changing work conditions, generational change, financial pressures and new technologies make this “a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” not only for churches, but for ministries, businesses and people around the country.
“We must be open to change too. If the church in our nation is not only to survive, but thrive, we must seek out different ways of doing church and planting. I think it’s time that we went back to the teachings of Jesus and explored the explosive church planting described in Acts. We must embrace it and be prepared to put aside the conventional wisdom and practices that aren’t working,” he asserted.
Exponential Australia’s National Conference focused on several key factors the Australian Church needs to cultivate to see its trajectory change: audacious prayer, intentional discipleship, innovative church planting, empowering leadership, and effective community engagement.
NCLS Research’s Dr Powell provided insights from the research related directly to all those areas. “I love the church and have hope. Innovative church planting will require empowering leadership from local, denominational and network leaders. It has to be a team effort. Be encouraged that new churches have more signs of health and vitality than older churches. And be encouraged that 8 in 10 churchgoers will support something new.”
To nurture new churches, Exponential and NCLS Research have announced a collaborative initiative – The New Churches project designed to support investment in new gatherings that have started since 2011. New.churches.org.au is a growing database that enables crowd-sourced information about new churches and existing churches that do not fit inside a denominational structure, have a traditional format, or are otherwise flying “under the radar”.