There’s no doubt that surveying our congregations about ministry, church life and personal faith in the middle of a pandemic is a tricky proposition. Should big changes be no real cause for concern, or do they tell us things we need to hear – and ignore at our peril?
Churches look different and our people feel different
One thing is certain: our churches look different and our people feel different after a crisis-filled few years, so any information that helps us consider the reasons why is a welcome tool as we put the puzzle pieces together to create an updated picture of diocesan life.
Statistics are starting to flow from the 2021 National Church Life Survey, which was conducted across more than 20 denominations between November 2021 and June 2022, and there’s no doubt that COVID made its presence felt.
“We heard that COVID had disrupted the ‘rusted on’ attenders, particularly in states impacted by long lockdowns [where] long-term habits were tested,” says the director of NCLS Research, Dr Ruth Powell.
“People spoke of having a break from church life. Others spoke of visiting other churches online, from cathedrals to mega-churches overseas to small gatherings in paddocks in rural Australia. So, we tested these ideas of disruption.”
The 2021 National Church Life Survey asked people about their level of church involvement compared to 2019, before the pandemic. In the Sydney Diocese, 56 per cent of respondents said their involvement was about the same, while 25 per cent said it was greater. This compares to the national figures of 60 and 20 per cent, respectively.
In the Sydney Diocese, 56 per cent of respondents said their involvement was about the same, while 25 per cent said it was greater.
Reports to the NCLS were also stating that, by November 2021, people were attending church as often as they had done before the pandemic. That may be true but things aren’t quite the same, says the Bishop of the South Western Region, Peter Lin.
“Many people are saying that their numbers [at church] now are similar to before the pandemic, but the people who make up those numbers are different... as in, some people who were at the church beforehand are there no longer, while others have come since,” he says.
As for the figures that lean towards more involvement at church, “I know two rectors and one assistant minister in my region who’ve recently said the opposite – that they’ve found it hard to get people back to pre-pandemic levels of serving.”
Emma Collett, executive minister at the city parish of Church Hill, says its data shows levels of involvement were quite different at its two churches – St Philip’s and the Garrison Church. And the continuation of COVID didn’t help.
“Compared to 2016 there’s a downward trend in some areas,” she says. “A lot of our numbers in 2021 also went down compared to the previous year [when Church Hill commissioned its own survey by the NCLS]. People still had a strong sense of belonging and they knew what the vision was, but at the time it just felt as though momentum was low. Thankfully, we’ve seen that change in the past six months.”
Priorities for churchgoers
That being the case, it’s hardly surprising that markers showing what church members value has seen a jump in ministries providing regular support. People also want their parish to grow its feeling of community.
While many options were static or dropped in importance, the value placed on preaching and teaching in the Diocese grew from 59 per cent to 64 per cent, while the importance of Bible studies and small groups jumped from 39 per cent to 48 per cent.
The value placed on preaching and teaching in the Diocese grew from 59 per cent to 64 per cent
In addition, people’s desire to build a sense of community at their church rose from 32 per cent in 2016 to 38 per cent in 2021 – placing it only 2 per cent behind the top result, spiritual growth and direction of the church, which remained steady at 40 per cent.
Says Lin: “You can imagine some of that had to do with the pandemic, people being isolated for so long and not loving Zoom, so you want to build community and have that sense of togetherness again.
“The preaching is an interesting one. I’m only guessing, but with a screen you’ve already got one degree of separation. A preacher can be as passionate as they like onscreen and it will never have that same impact as when you’re seeing them face to face.
“The other thing about Zoom, for a lot of people, is you’re trying to listen to the word of God being preached but you’ve got kids tearing around and you’re trying to get your kids through church activities, possibly at the same time as listening to the sermon.
“There’s also something about listening together that we miss out on with Zoom... I don’t know all the psychology behind it, but I don’t think it’s dissimilar to singing. I can tell you the singing at my house on Zoom was far less enthusiastic than it is when we’re at church and you’ve got the band going!
“So, there’s some kind of dynamic that happens under God when his people are gathered shoulder to shoulder in church listening to the pastor opening up the Bible to them.”
Another possibility, given that more time was allowed for people to do the survey, it was possible to do it online at home and 27.7 per cent fewer surveys were completed across the Diocese, is that our results might show more about those already engaged at church than they do about our people as a whole.
This is the option favoured by the rector of Carlingford and North Rocks, the Rev Dr Raj Gupta, who says, “I feel this is going to be a fraught area. I’d urge people to be cautious about the way they interpret it [this year’s survey]. Maybe the most useful thing to do is to compare your particular parish to the diocesan 2021 benchmarks [rather than] comparing 2021 to 2016.
“You would imagine that those who haven’t filled it in are those who are less engaged. So, more people value the preaching and teaching and are more involved [at church] simply because the ones who have responded to the survey are more engaged.”
Different skills, different results
At Mt Druitt, rector the Rev Craig Hooper has a different issue. He notes that, on any given Sunday, there would be up to 80 adults at his church but only 35 filled out the survey. One look at the data from his parish tells him it doesn’t match well with his people.
“It says 32 per cent have a university degree and that’s just not reality,” he says. “I think the NCLS is skewed towards the demographic of people who have reading as a strength and that’s not our demographic! They have strengths in other areas.
I think the NCLS is skewed towards the demographic of people who have reading as a strength and that’s not our demographic
“Only about half the folk in church have access to the internet – so those that have it, have done the survey, and those who can read have done it, which automatically skews the results to those people. Also, even for some that have done it, we gave them the option to sit with others to help work through the survey.
“So, it’s not straightforward and, on the whole, the results don’t give an indication of where the church is at.”
One result that doesn’t surprise him, however, is church involvement. It shows a much higher proportion of his people – 36 per cent – say they are more involved post-COVID than the diocesan average of 25 per cent. In addition, as there is no equipment for livestreaming at Mt Druitt, when lockdowns lifted almost everyone came back to church straight away.
“People love the in-person community,” Hooper says.
"And the Lord’s been bringing new people along – there have been a lot of newcomers this year.”
That’s good news because, whichever way you look at it, the general newcomer results across the Diocese are not encouraging. The NCLS regards newcomers as those without a church background, and the numbers have been reducing over at least the past 15 years – from 11 per cent in 2006 to 5 per cent in 2021.
In addition, while 32 per cent of people had invited someone to church in the previous 12 months, that’s another figure that’s continuing to drop. It was 39 per cent in 2016, and previous results were in the 40s.
One can argue that there were fewer newcomers because of the pandemic, and Peter Lin agrees there is bound to have been “some kind of COVID impact”. However, he adds, “my gut feeling is that the number would be lower anyway, even without COVID. I’d need a good reason to think it was starting to trend upwards again.
“I think that’s our biggest worry. It’s an indication – not the whole story but at least an indicator – of how our evangelism is going. The [survey] question ‘Have you invited anyone to church?’, well, that’s been difficult because of lockdown and so on... But how many people haven’t shared the gospel with anyone? How is our personal evangelism going?
“It’s probably a complex thing like most of these stats are. I talk to churches all the time and they’re working hard on evangelism. But if there aren’t newcomers coming in and the kingdom of God growing, then, as the saying goes, we are just ‘circulating the saints’... We need to see more people coming under the sound of the gospel and turning to Jesus in repentance and faith.”
We need to see more people coming under the sound of the gospel and turning to Jesus in repentance and faith
Looking at Church Hill’s data, Collett has also noticed a dip in people involved with evangelism and outreach activities – a disappointing result when the parish has held regular evangelism training with John Dickson as well as a number of linked outreach events.
“It feels like there’s been a concerted effort to make evangelistic opportunities accessible, although some of these were online because of COVID,” she says. “Newcomers have got to be the number one priority for us – to welcome the lost.”
So, what now?
We love our Lord and we love our church families, so we want others to experience the joy and certainty we have. But it’s not always easy to get the message across.
The latest McCrindle report, The changing faith landscape of Australia, surveyed people of all faiths and none, and some of the results are very illuminating.
One question asked what attracted (or repelled) people with regard to faith and religion, and two-thirds of respondents said a personal trauma or life change would prompt them to investigate further. For 64 per cent, it was a first-hand experience of people who lived out a genuine faith.
Next on the list, surprisingly, was philosophical discussion and the debating of ideas.
Says Raj Gupta: “In so many ways that’s what’s there in the Bible – that it’s when people go through trauma and difficulty that they’re particularly open to spirituality or the gospel. That’s just all through – particularly the Old Testament”.
He was pleasantly surprised by the data about discussion and debate, noting that “we tend to say less and not want to offend... [but] this is a great encouragement for Christians to just get out there, as there are a lot of people who do want to engage, particularly through conversation”.
As to where we engage with people if we aren’t doing it in person, the report suggests social media is key. It might seem an unlikely place for people to seek help in the growth of their spiritual life, but on a weekly basis 28 per cent of Australians turn to Facebook, and 27 per cent to YouTube, to do just that – and for Gen Z and Gen Y the proportions are significantly higher.
Interestingly, our online natives are even more keen to seek spiritual growth on Instagram (44 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively), and for Gen Z the most favoured platform of all to help their spiritual lives is TikTok (46 per cent).
“I was really interested in these results,” Gupta says. “Social media has a very negative rap but there are opportunities to engage on social media to help point people to Christ, particularly for younger generations. This could be controversial for some but, I think, in a good way.”