NCLS Research

Church attender support for innovation

Innovation in Australian church life is a key agenda for many churches. The attitudes and actions of church attenders to new initiatives in church life are being tracked by NCLS Research.

In the 2006 National Church Life Survey, a detailed survey that focused on attitudes to innovation in the church was distributed to a representative national sample of church attenders. Questions in this targeted survey included the following:

  • Is there a perceived need for new initiatives in church life?
  • How do new initiatives commence in relation to established churches?
  • What degree of personal support is there for trying new initiatives?
  • What is the perception of congregational openness to new initiatives?
  • How familiar and supportive of various models are attenders?

The analysis presented here was part of a wider study on Anglican and Protestant attenders. All results in this Fact Sheet are for Anglican and Protestant attenders only. It showed that the majority of these attenders perceive a need for new initiatives in church life; that the current established patterns of church are not sufficient to connect with the wider Australian community.

Attenders perception of the need for new initiatives:

  • Half of attenders (50%) agree or strongly agree that their non-church going friends view the Church as irrelevant. This trend is true for all ages. There are no significant differences between age groups.
  • There is a degree of personal ambivalence. 37% agree or strongly agree with the statement ‘While I remain a committed person of faith, I feel disgruntled with the established church’. Most are neutral or unsure (49%), while only 15% disagree.
  • More than seven out of ten (72%) attenders agree or strongly agree that ‘we need to develop new ways of doing church to reach non-church goers’.

The relationship of the new and the established:

  • Starting something new can impact on that which is already established, requiring a reallocation of resources, time, focus and energy. There is widespread agreement that traditional established models of church life must change to better connect with the wider Australian community (66% strongly agree or agree, only 11% disagree).

Personal support for new initiatives:

Having given theoretical support to the concept of needing new initiatives, the focus becomes personal. Are attenders personally open to trying new initiatives in their own church?

  • Only 5% claim that they would prefer not to try new initiatives in ministry and mission in their own church.
  • 82% claim that they would support the development of new initiatives in ministry and mission in their church, with 15% neutral or unsure.
table 1

Congregational support for new initiatives:

  • When asked whether ‘this congregation is always ready to try something new’, 18% strongly agree and 51% agree. A further 23% are neutral or unsure, with 8% who disagree.
  • When attenders were asked if there were people in their congregation who wish to try new initiatives in ministry and/or mission, 24% claim there are none that they are aware of, 40% say there are a few people, 27% say there are several people or groups of people and 9% believe that more than half the congregation wanted to try something new.

New Wineskins:

Innovation is not simply limited to existing churches. A range of new forms of church have developed alongside more conventional forms, including alternative worshipping communities, café churches, cell churches, church plants, network-focused churches, school-based churches, seeker churches and youth congregations.

Whilst some of these new forms of church or hybrid churches are connected with denominational institutions, many are not. One term that has gained some currency is ‘the emerging church’. When asked how familiar are you with concepts such as ‘the emerging church’ or ‘emerging missional church’ or ‘fresh expressions of church’, some 8% are very familiar, 24% are somewhat familiar, 40% are not very familiar and 28% are not familiar at all. This data will become more meaningful when compared over time.

When asked ‘how important do you believe it is for the mission of the churches in Australia to more widely establish the following kinds of churches?’, all of the proposed models gained some support (see Table 2). The most favorable were the more familiar; cell churches, non Sunday/Sabbath church, school-based and school-linked churches and church plants.

table 2


There is a perceived need for new initiatives in church life to effectively connect with the wider Australian community. While the challenges to religious vitality remain great, this study adds to other studies that show that imaginative and flexible innovation is a critical component of church vitality. They also show that the majority of church attenders not only understand the need to innovate, but claim to be motivated to support new initiatives.

It remains to be seen how successfully churches can either maintain their current vitality; revitalize by making the necessary transitions to a new stage of existence; or make space for the new to emerge – which may require the death of aspects of old institutional forms within local contexts. Rhetoric and good intention to connect more effectively with their wider communities have yet to play out in effective practical, emotional and institutional ways.

Ruth Powell with the NCLS Research team

This fact sheet is based on Occasional Paper 14: Church attenders attitudes to innovation in church life - A comparison across countries and across time. For references and further information on data sources, view at in the Research section.

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