There's good news and there's bad news
More than 600 church pastors and leaders were present when NCLS Research’s Dr Ruth Powell shared “the good news and the bad news” for the Aussie church revealed in a new report about church growth, decline and church planting.
Dr Powell told delegates at Exponential Australia’s inaugural National Conference that between 2016 and 2021 only 18% of local churches were growing and a further 13% were stable. Five years earlier, a higher proportion of churches (31%) were growing and more were stable (19%).
“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. Currently, 7 in 10 Protestant local churches are declining*, and there are signs that churches are turning inward,” she said.
Tim O’Neill is the director of Exponential Australia, an organisation that “champions healthy church multiplication” and commissioned the research. He described feeling “shocked” to learn that church planting in Australia had plunged over the five years to December 2021.
“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 said.
Tim described the research as “sobering” but said Christians must face it. “We also cannot ignore the state of the church in Australia, with 7 out of 10 churches declining by 10% of attendance or more."
Only 1 in (10%) Protestant churches had planted at least one church in Australia in the 10 years from 2012 to 2021. In a single given year between 2017 and 2019, only 1% of churches had planted a new church in Australia . "That’s half the rate of planting previously - even before COVID" noted Tim.
Dr Powell also told conference delegates, “I have good news for anyone who wants to be part of God's new thing,” she said. “Be encouraged that Australians remain spiritually aware and open.
“Currently, only two in ten describe themselves as atheist. A quarter pray at least weekly. Nearly six in ten believe in God or a higher power and are open to spiritual experiences.”
Dr Powell said nearly four in ten Australians say they will go to church if invited, plus there are another 16% who are unsure. (Even more are open to attending a Christmas service).
To nurture new churches, Exponential and NCLS Research also announced a collaborative initiative – The New Churches project designed to nurture and learn from new gatherings that have started since 2011.
New.churches.org.au is a growing database that enables crowdsourced 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”.
“Church plants, new congregations, new worship services, missional communities, micro church, simple church. No matter what label you use, new local churches are a key part of the future growth of the Church,” Dr Ruth Powell said.
* Definition of 'decline' = Between 2016 and 2021, attendance had declined by 10% or more.
Overall church decline is offset by signs of growth in some churches