National Church Life Surveys

The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) is a five-yearly co-operative venture across all churches in Australia and is the largest longitudinal study of church life in the world.

National Church Life Surveys

NCLS Research runs the 5 yearly ‘National Church Life Survey’.  Involving hundreds of thousands of churchgoers and thousands of churches and leaders, across more than 20 denominations each cycle, the Australian NCLS is the largest longitudinal study of church life in the world. 

National Surveys

The mission of NCLS Research is to use credible research to identify signs of hope, to nurture life in both leadership and churches as well as to encourage the wider community to reflect upon its spiritual journey and the churches’ place within it. NCLS Research conducts empirical research support churches to use it, and encourages other researchers to use the information.

Since its inception in late 1990, NCLS Research has carried out several major survey projects. These can be divided into two groups:

Surveys of church life

NCLS Research runs the 5 yearly ‘National Church Life Survey’, held alongside the national Census in Australia in 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016. Involving hundreds of thousands of churchgoers and thousands of churches and leaders, across more than 20 denominations each cycle, the Australian NCLS is the largest longitudinal study of church life in the world.

Surveys of the Australian community

  • 1998 Australian Community Survey
  • 2003 Wellbeing and Security Survey
  • 2008 – 2010 Churches as Social Capital
  • 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes
  • 2016 Australian Community Survey
  • 2018 Australian Community Survey

In addition, smaller research projects and consultancy have been carried out, along with the provision of a range of services to congregations and denominational leadership.

National Church Life Surveys

The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) is a five-yearly co-operative venture across all churches in Australia, which has been replicated in other countries. The Australian NCLS is the largest longitudinal study of church life in the world.

It draws together the voices and aspirations of all Australian church attenders as they speak not only to each other, but to Australian society as a whole and to an international community.

What the Survey involves

Hundreds of thousands of attenders in thousands of churches across more than 20 Christian denominations have taken part in National Church Life Surveys in 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021/2.

The NCLS Research team who conduct the survey is an ecumenical body that aims to help churches connect with the wider community. The survey results provide a credible evidence-base for churches to strengthen their vitality, develop effective leadership and inform their ministry and mission, in the Australian context.

How it works

Churches that participate in the survey receive practical easy-to-use resources to get the most out of their survey results and take some action steps, as they plan for the future. Regional and denominational leaders are also equipped with overview results, for strategic and pastoral planning. Attender attitudes to various church and social issues are also canvassed, with results published in research publications.

The table shows the scope of each of the National Church Life Surveys. Together, these surveys amount to what is the largest study of church life in the world.

Table: Australian National Church Life Surveys: 1991 - 2016

Year of Survey Attenders (15+ years) Child Attenders (8 to 14 years) Leaders Local Churches
1991 * 310,000 0 3,500 6,500
1996 NCLS ** 324,000 0 4000 6,900
1996 CCLS ** 101,000 0 TBC 281
2001 449,000 10,100*** 4,300 6,700
2006 400,600 0 9,700 5,400
2011 269,000 10,000 6,600 3,200
2016 240,000 ~10,000 6,000 3,000

* The 1991 NCLS covered Anglican and Protestant churches only.

** In 1996, Catholic Churches participated in the parallel Catholic Church Life Survey (CCLS).

*** The 2001 Children Survey was completed by 10 to 14 year olds.  Later Children Surveys in 2011 and 2016 were completed by 8 to 14 year olds. 

 

A study of churches over time

The first NCLS in 1991 was planned as a ‘one-off’ project. However, the collaboration across Australian churches has now extended across more than two decades. This allows researchers to test for the robustness of research findings. It also means that it is possible to track broad trends over time, and conduct new types of analyses looking at the effects of different actions on the local church experience.

Purpose of National Church Life Surveys

For most people, a first encounter with a National Church Life Survey involves taking part in the survey, conducted in a local church. Many church leaders have seen an NCLS Profile, which contains the results of the survey for their church. Others have read the books, seen the newsletters or downloaded material from the NCLS website.

Behind these published resources is a research project designed to explore what makes churches vital and healthy. The research project has been very large, involving thousands of churches across four countries. The broad base of the research overcomes a common problem with books about church growth: these books can be based on the experiences of only one church or a small number of churches. Isolated examples of large, rapidly growing, urban churches become the model for what is successful in church life. It is assumed that the lessons learned in such churches amount to a set of universal principles that can be readily applied in other churches, in other denominations and in other countries. By contrast, underlying National Church Life Surveys is the belief that lessons are best learned from the broad mosaic of church life and are best applied with reference to the individual church context.

The Australian National Church Life Surveys arose in part as a response to a flood of church growth books from the USA and England. The survey sought to gather large data sets from across the full spectrum of denominations, church sizes and locations. Analysis of this data has confirmed, for Australia at least, which church growth principles appear to be important, which are of minor importance and which are unimportant in the Australian context. Yet this analysis has proven to be more far-reaching than simply confirming church growth theories; a range of reliable measures of church vitality has been developed that are applicable across all kinds of churches. It is no longer necessary for churches to rely on changes in attendance level as the sole measure of their vitality.

Australia: a useful laboratory for church research

Australia has proven to be a useful laboratory for research that can be replicated in other Western countries. It is a prosperous nation caught up in global changes, with a social diversity that is common to many Western nations. Like other nations, it has been greatly influenced by American culture since the Second World War. It shares a common religious heritage with both the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Like other Western countries, Australia has a Christian heritage, yet the churches need to keep adapting to a diverse and changing society. It is a country where denominations have a long history of working together, which is an important ingredient in achieving inter-denominational research.

Survey Participants

Normally research projects only collect data from a sample of the population that they are interested in. However, because Church Life Surveys aim to provide reflections of the attitudes and actions of all attenders in the results for each local church that takes part, every attender present is surveyed.

The scope of each of the National Church Life Surveys between 1991 and 2016 is listed below. Together, these surveys amount to what is the largest study of church life in the world.

1991 National Church Life Survey

The 1991 NCLS involved 312 000 attenders from 6700 congregations in 19 Anglican and Protestant denominations in Australia.

1996 National Church Life Survey

The 1996 NCLS involved 324,000 attenders from 6900 congregations in 20 Anglican and Protestant denominations. The project worked in partnerships with the Catholic Church in Australia for the 1996 Catholic Church Life Survey and the churches in New Zealand (1997 NZ-CLS).

2001 National Church Life Survey
The 2001 NCLS 2001 was held in May 2001. Over 435 000 church attenders in more than 7000 congregations from 19 Catholic, Anglican and Protestant denominations took part. 

The 2001 NCLS was conducted as part of an international partnership concerned about the mission of the church into the new millennium. These partners come from four countries - Australia, the USA, England and New Zealand - and are connected with many of the major denominations around the world.
2006 National Church Life Survey
The 2006 NCLS was held from July to November 2006. Over 400 000 church attenders in more than 5000 churches and parishes from 22 Catholic, Anglican and Protestant denominations took part.

 

2011 National Church Life Survey
Local Christian churches from 23 denominations took part in 2011 National Church Life Survey. Around 4500 local churches took part in 2011 NCLS from September to November 2011. Surveys were translated to 7 languages in addition to English: Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Tongan, Italian, Vietnamese, and Dinka (Sudanese). More than 260 000 adult attenders, ~ 9000 children attenders (aged 8 to 14), and 10 000 leaders, completed surveys. 
2016 National Church Life Survey

The 2016 NCLS was held from October to November 2016. More than 20 Christian denominations plus independent churches took part. Some 260,000 adult attenders, 10,000 child attenders (aged 8 to 14) and 6,000+ leaders completed surveys from over 3,000 local churches took part. Attender Surveys were available in 10 languages: English, Arabic, Chin (Burmese), Chinese, Dinka (Sudanese), Italian, Karen (Burmese), Korean, Tongan and Vietnamese.

2021 National Church Life Survey
The 2021 NCLS was held from November 2021 and extended into 2022, due to the global pandemic, COVID-19, which impacted on churches' patterns for meeting. More than 20 Christian denominations plus independent churches took part. Attender Surveys were available in 9 languages: English, Arabic, Chin (Burmese), Chinese, Dinka (Sudanese), Karen (Burmese), Korean, Tongan and Vietnamese.

Survey Methodology

Each church completed three main types of paper surveys:

Attender Surveys: These surveys contained questions about adult attenders’ characteristics and their views about their church. In 2001, 2011, 2016, and 2021 there was also a Child Attender Survey for younger attenders aged under15 years.

Church Census (previously Operations Survey): This survey was completed by a congregational leader and was designed to collect factual information about each church’s life and activities.

Leaders Survey: These surveys were available for all leaders, clergy and lay. They contained questions about personal background, job role, attitudes and more.

Table: Australian denominations that participated in National Church Life Surveys: 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016

  1991 1996 2001 2006 2011 2016
Anglican Church of Australia
Apostolic Church of Australia
Australian Christian Churches (AOG)
Baptist Churches
Bethesda Ministries International X
Catholic Church in Australia
Christian Brethren Assemblies
Christian and Missionary Alliance
C3 Church (was Christian City Church)
Christian Life Churches International
Christian Outreach Centre Australia
Christian Reformed Churches of Australia
CRC Churches International
Church of the nazarene
Church of Christ
Fellowship of Congregational Churches
Foursquare Church Australia
Grace Communion International
International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC)
Lutheran Church of Australia
Presbyterian Church of Australia
Seventh-day Adventist Church
The Salvation Army 

Uniting Church in Australia

Vineyard Churches Australia
Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia
Westminster Presbyterian Church of Australia
Independent Churches

* In 1996, Catholic churches participated in the parallel Catholic Church Life Survey (CCLS).
NB, Some denominations are missing from data tables (Apostolic, Brethren, Christian Missionary Alliance and Foursquare Church) because the sample of participating congregations are not sufficiently representative of the denomination.