NCLS Research

NCLS releases latest estimates of church attendance

Media Release - 28th February 2004

Australia is experiencing a dramatic shift in its religious landscape with people flocking to high-energy, contemporary Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, while most traditional denominations are experiencing significant decline.
This is the clear picture presented by the latest National Church Life Survey - the nationwide 'census' of Australian church attendance.
Key findings of the changes between 1996 and 2001 include:
· Strong growth in Pentecostal and some Evangelical denominations (eg Baptist)
· Anglican and Protestant denominations grew by 1% as a sector
· Catholic mass attendance declined by an estimated 13%
· Overall, weekly church attendance in Australia declined by 7%

The latest church attendance estimates released by the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) show that the Catholic Church is the largest denomination in Australia, accounting for about half of church attenders in participating denominations (50%). They are followed by Anglican attenders (12%), the Uniting Church (8%), the Baptist Church (7%) and the Assemblies of God (7%).

The 2001 NCLS reveals dramatically varying fortunes among denominations, ranging from 42% growth to 17% decline between 1996 and 2001.  

The net growth of Anglican and Protestant denominations (1%) has not been sufficient to counterbalance large declines in Catholic mass attendance, resulting in an overall decline in weekly church attendance of 7%.

Father Brian Lucas is the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference representative on the NCLS Steering Committee. He commented, "The decline of weekly attendance at mass, for us as for other denominations, is of great concern. However, we are heartened that the national census tells us that over 5 million Australians continue to identify themselves as Catholic (27%)."

Declines in the mainstream Anglican and Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Uniting and Presbyterian) appear to have been offset by increases in attendance across some major Evangelical denominations (eg Baptist, Churches of Christ) and Pentecostal denominations (eg Assemblies of God, Christian City Church).

There were significant internal differences within the Anglican Church that point to a similar pattern. An overall decline of 2% in the Anglican Church masks significant falls in attendance in most rural dioceses. Metropolitan dioceses tended to be stable. The exception was the strongly evangelical Sydney Diocese, which grew by 9% over that period.  

Asked to comment on the result, Archbishop Peter Jensen said, "It was certainly heartening to note the growth in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The Diocese has placed a high priority on finding new ways to take the gospel out to where Australians live and work. This is reflected in the resources being allocated to starting many new Bible-centred meetings in Sydney and the Illawarra through our Mission strategies. However we need to work harder to make our churches more accessible to the many different ethnic groups within our city."

The growth and decline of churches are the result of several factors affecting both inflow and outflow.  "We were not surprised by the patterns" commented Dr Ruth Powell.  "The older age profiles of most mainstream denominations mean that older people can no longer attend and they are not being replaced in the same numbers by younger attenders."  

She added, "Growth occurs where denominations are effective in attracting newcomers to church life, while at the same time working to retain teenagers and young adults."

Among those Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that experienced high levels of growth was the Christian City Churches.

Dr Phil Pringle, founder and President of Christian City Church International, a Pentecostal denomination, commented "Our vision is to preach the gospel and plant churches, ministering to 21st Century men and women in a manner that is both biblical and relevant. This is great news".   

Dr Powell notes that, "While it will be difficult for the church to change its older age profile, the NCLS has demonstrated that even small increases in the proportions of newcomers or decreases in the proportions choosing to leave can have a large impact on future attendance trends, provided such changes can be maintained into the longer term."

A full report, NCLS Occasional Paper 3: 2001 Church Attendance Estimates, is available from March 1st on the NCLS website -

Dr Ruth Powell ( 02) 8267 4394
To interview Father Brian Lucas ring the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (02) 6201 9845
To interview Archbishop Peter Jensen ring Margaret Rodgers on 9265 1507

Table 1: Changes in Weekly Attendance, 1996-2001
Denomination 2001 Estimated Weekly Attendance % change since 1996
Anglican 177700 -2%
Apostolic 9100 20%
Assemblies of God 104600 20%
Baptist 112200 8%
Bethesda Ministries 2700 na
Christian & Missionary Alliance 4100 na
Christian City Churches 11400 42%
Christian Revival Crusade 11400 -7%
Church of the Nazarene 1600 33%
Churches of Christ 45100 7%
Lutheran 40500 -8%
Presbyterian 35000 -3%
Reformed 7100 -1%
Salvation Army 27900 -7%
Seventh-day Adventist 36600 na
Uniting 126600 -11%
Vineyard 2500 -17%
Wesleyan Methodist 3800 -7%
CATHOLIC 764800 -13%
TOTAL 1524700 -7%#
NCLS does not include Eastern Orthodox churches or non-trinitarian denominations such as Latter-day Saints.
Decline in some Pentecostal denominations appears to be mainly due to some congregations changing denominational affiliation between 1996 and 2001.  
* The total for Anglican/Protestant does not include non-participating Pentecostal and small Protestant denominations and groups. These were estimated in 1996 to total around 130,000 additional attenders.
#Percent change since 1996 excludes Bethesda, C&MA and Seventh-day Adventist.

Australian Bureau of Statistics - 4174.0 Sports Attendance, Australia  (02/12/2003)
2001 Census of Population and Housing
2001 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Catholic Count of Attendance.
2001 National Church Life Survey
2003 Well-being and Security Survey

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