Churchgoers prioritise community

Community comes first for church attenders after disruption of COVID-19.

New results from the 2021 NCLS show that church attenders want to build a strong sense of community in their local church in the next 12 months, as top priority. This is the first time nationally, that this aspect of church life has topped the list.

Perhaps the disruption of in-person gatherings over the last few years, due to COVID-19, provides some context for this.

Spiritual growth is also a vital priority across different denominational traditions. 


What should be given priority in your local church?

In each NCLS, adult church attenders are asked for their opinion about what should be given priority by their local church in the next year. The survey question poses 12 options for priorities.

 'Building a strong sense of community within this local church' and 'Spiritual growth (e.g. spiritual direction, prayer groups)' were the most commonly selected responses in the 2021 NCLS, chosen by more than a third of churchgoers (36% and 34% respectively).

The third most common response was 'Worship services that are nurturing to people's faith', selected by 28% of churchgoers. This was closely followed by 'Encouraging people's gifts', selected by 25% of attenders.

These top priorities clearly display the discipleship commitment amongst those who attend church.  Perhaps these desires reveal the primary purpose attenders hold for going to church: to be spiritually nurtured and fed as part of a worshipping community. 

A change of emphasis between 2016 and 2021

The top priority given to 'building community' in the next 12 months represents a change of emphasis from the previous 2016 NCLS results.  While spiritual growth remains a core priority for churches, it has slipped to second place.

The 2021 NCLS was conducted in the context of a global pandemic which was highly disruptive to faith communities and households across Australia. In some states, such as Victoria and NSW, long 'lockdown' periods meant that people in local churches could not gather in person for significant periods of time. It appears that many church attenders have deeply felt the loss of valued community, due to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, and want to give this important aspect of church life purposeful attention in the coming period.


Denominational differences

We group denominations into broad categories:

  • Catholic 
  • Mainstream Protestant (e.g. Anglican, Uniting, Presbyterian and Lutheran) 
  • Pentecostals (e.g. Acts 2 Alliance, Acts Global, Australian Christian Churches, C3 Churches, CityLife Church, CRC International, International Network of Churches (INC), International Pentecostal Holiness Churches (IPHC).
  • Large Protestant (e.g. Baptist, Churches of Christ, Salvation Army, Seventh-day Adventist)
  • Other Protestant (e.g. Christian and Missionary Alliance, Christian Reformed Church, Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), Vineyard Churches.

The 2021 NCLS results show that people in Catholic parishes called for a strong sense of community as their number one priority (36% ), followed by spiritual growth (26%) , and nurturing worship services (24%).   Ministry to children and youth was also important (22%)

Catholic Mass attenders also nominated increasing the number of people at Mass (23%) and starting a new program for people who don’t go to church (16%) as priorities. Protestant interest in these options was much lower.

Among Mainstream Protestants, building community (35%) was closely followed  by other priorities including nurturing worship services (34%) and spiritual growth (32%).   Encouraging gifts and ensuring new people were included were chosen as priorities by a quarter of attenders in these denominations.

Other Protestant and Pentecostal churchgoers clearly chose spiritual growth as their number one priority for the coming year.

Further detail about denominational differences is shown in the table below. 

Table: Aspects of church needing priority in the next 12 months: denominational differences in 2021
  Denomination Type Total
Catholic Mainstream
  % % % % % %
Spiritual growth (e.g. direction) 26 32 41 55 47 34
Worship services that are nurturing 24 34 29 30 26 28
Sense of community 36 35 37 39 37 36
Clear vision for the church 18 21 17 10 13 18
Encouraging people’s gifts 19 26 29 32 37 25
Encouraging new approaches 11 14 13 12 12 12
Supporting social action and aid 18 16 13 16 13 16
Encouragement to share faith and invite 8 19 20 20 21 15
Ensuring new people are included 17 26 23 23 21 21
Ministry to children and youth 22 22 23 18 17 21
Growing into a larger local church 23 11 8 4 9 15
Starting a new church mission venture 16 2 3 4 3 9
Other 2 2 2 3 2 2
Don’t know 9 5 5 4 6 7
Attenders could select up to three options. Percentages will not add up to 100%.
Source: 2021 NCLS Attender Survey


Data Sources:

Powell, R., Sterland, S. C. Gan, F. Hourihan. (2022) 2021 NCLS Attender Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.


Related Articles

Mental health support from churches

Mental health support rated as good yet many churches unaware

Spiritually hungry

Church attenders want to be spiritually nurtured as part of a worshipping community

Pews are filled with people-helping tech-savvy professionals

People-focussed professions most common amongst church attenders