NCLS Research

Attender Beliefs and Practices

At its heart the church seeks to point people towards a living faith in God. These summary benchmarks can only be a starting place for understanding the depth of the beliefs and spiritual journeys of church attenders. See Spiritual Beliefs and Practice for more general information.

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Fast Facts

  • Faith and Everyday Life: Some 51% of attenders see God as the most important reality in their lives. A further 33% see God as more important than almost anything else in their lives. NCLS 2001)
  • Belief in God: The majority of attenders (85%) accept there is one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. NCLS 1996)
  • View of Bible: The vast majority (91%) believe the Bible is the word of God in some form. NCLS 1996)
  • Virgin Birth: 72% believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus NCLS 1996)
  • Private Devotions: Two-thirds of attenders spend time in private devotional activities NCLS 1996)

We Believe...

Each Sunday in churches across Australia words formulated more than 1,600 years ago in the Church councils of Nicaea (325), and Constantinople (381), are repeated as Christians reaffirm the tenants of their faith, saying, “We believe …” Even for non-liturgical groups such as the Salvation Army the creed of the Apostles and the creed of Nicaea form the basis for much of their doctrinal statements of faith.

What is the nature of this belief? What do Australian church attenders mean when they say, “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth...”, or “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…”? In 1996 the NCLS put this question to the Australian church. So what exactly do Australian church attenders mean when they say these things?

We believe in one God the Father, the Almighty…

Australian church attenders holds strongly to a trinitarian understanding regarding the nature of God. The majority of attenders, 85%, say that that there is One God: Father , Son and Holy Spirit. There are some areas of difference between the denominations with Catholics indicating the lowest acceptance of a trinitarian understanding of God at 72%, ranging through Uniting Church attenders at 84%, Anglicans at 88%, and Pentecostal attenders at the highest level 98%.

Few attenders surveyed held a view that actually opposed a Trinitarian understanding, and fewer still believe God does not exist. There is a foundation of belief in the wider Australian community too. Some 74% of those surveyed in the Australian Community Survey (ACS) believe that there is a God.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…

When Australian church attenders make this statement of belief, the vast majority, greater than 84%, across all denominations believe that Christ was fully God and fully human and that he physically rose from the dead.

A significant portion of the wider Australian community also holds these viewpoints. According to the ACS, 42% believe in the divinity of Jesus, and 43% believe in his resurrection.

The gulf then between the Church and the wider community may not be as wide as expected, however the question remains is the gap growing? Investigating the ACS results more closely shows that there are lower levels of orthodox belief among young people in the wider community. While 57% of those aged over 60 in the general community believe that Jesus was God in the full sense, this figure falls to just 33% for those under the age of 40.

Is this a trend that is also consistent within the churches? While this pattern is repeated for younger Catholics, the story for Anglicans and Protestant attenders under 40 is quite different. These attenders were more likely to affirm orthodox beliefs such as, that Christ was fully God and fully human and that he physically rose from the dead. The gap then between the Church and the community is growing, and growing at a significant rate.

He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary…

While 21% of all church attenders believe the Virgin Birth to be a symbolic rather than a literal event almost three-quarters (72%) believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. (Catholic 65%, Anglican 67%, Uniting 62%, Baptist 90%, and Pentecostal 95%)

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Attenders and non-attenders (including those who go less than monthly) agree that the encouraging of good morals, support for the poor, and the provision of public worship, are all high priority roles of the churches. Where they do differ, and importantly, is that frequent attenders expect the churches to provide meaning, purpose and direction. Those who are less frequent in their attendance see this role for the churches as a much lower priority.

When attenders were asked what it was that they valued the most about the church they attended, sharing the Eucharist at 33% was the most significant aspect, followed by traditional worship, 29%, and Bible teaching/preaching, 23%. This question only allowed 2 choices out of 10 possibilities, and if given scope more people may have selected other areas such as wider community care (18%) and contemporary worship (17%), however the philosophical valuing or priority emphasis is clear.

Other beliefs

The NCLS survey also asked questions that moved beyond the elements contained in the creeds to ask specific questions about other aspects of faith.

The nature of the Devil

Half of those surveyed believed that the Devil is a personal being active in the world today. Some 42% however indicated that the Devil was not a personal being but rather a symbol of evil forces in the world today.

The view of miracles

Anglican and Protestant attenders were asked 'What do you believe about stories of Jesus doing normally impossible things (eg turning water into wine?'). More than three quarters of consider the miracles of the Bible as having happened as recorded. A fifth of those surveyed consider these miracles to be symbolic or explainable in other ways.

The Catholic question in the 1996 survey was quite different, asking respondents to choose a statement which best expressed their view of miracles in the Bible. Only 41% of Catholic attenders said all of the miracles occurred just as they are described in the Bible, but another 51% said that either ‘many’ or ‘a few’ occurred as described, with the others being stories designed to teach a truth about God. A further 8% said they didn’t know, and only 1% said they didn’t believe any of the miracles actually happened.

View of the Bible

The vast majority of attenders (91%) believe the Bible is the Word of God. Based on their responses, different positions can be identified. The ‘Literalist’ group, those believing that the Bible is to be taken literally word for word comprising of 24%. The ‘Contextualist’ group, those believing that the Bible has to be interpreted in the light of its historical and cultural context accounting for 32%. The ‘Traditionalist’ group, those believing that interpretation must take place in light of the churches teachings and traditions made up 35%.

Belief and society

The ACS tells us what wider society believes about spiritual matters. More Australians believe in God (74%), the divinity of Jesus (42%), his resurrection (43%), life after death (45%), heaven (53%), hell (32%), and the devil (33%) than attend church monthly or more often (20%).

Controversy, discussion, and debate surrounded the formation of the creeds and indeed have followed them through every age. Each generation asks similar questions to the last, yet in an ever-changing context. For both the churches and the wider Australian society, age makes a difference to belief. This suggests that any residual orthodoxy within Australian society is being eroded and the distance between the beliefs of church attenders and the wider community is broadening within successive generations.

Many factors may play contributing roles to this emerging reality. Multiculturalism and multifaith through immigration, alternative spirituality made accessible through the media, rising levels of critical engagement with institutions generally, and the portrayal in the media of divergent theological viewpoints within the churches all impact. These changes have even caused some to argue for an emerging post-Christian era.

We believe … is all well and good but what is the result or impact of that belief, what connection, impact, or true response comes from this belief? The private and public expressions of faith and belief are explored elsewhere.

Sources: Taking Stock, 1999 and Initial Impressions, 2001

NCLS Research Findings on Attender Beliefs and Practices

Showing 1-8 (of 8)
Belief in God (Research Article)
Nearly all attenders agree that Christ was fully God, fully human and physically rose from the dead.
Belief in miracles (Research Article)
What do attenders believe about stories of Jesus doing normally impossible things?
Belief in the devil (Research Article)
Attenders are divided in their attitude to the devil.
The Charismatic Movement (Research Article)
One of the most far-reaching developments has been the growing impact of the charismatic movement
This paper presents views of Uniting Church attenders on homosexuality and church leadership
Most attenders engage in private devotional activities on a regular basis
Many attenders experience the presence of God in a variety of ways.
View of the Bible (Research Article)
There are some issues on which Christians hold diverse views, such as people's attitude to the Bible

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