NCLS Research

Who goes to church?

Results from the 2006 National Church Life Survey

Data from the 2011 Census will soon be available, as will the results from the 2011 National Church Life Survey. NCLS Research has been tracking who goes to church, and just as importantly, who doesn’t. As we wait to see what picture the newest statistics paint for us, it is timely to revisit what we know from the last survey wave in 2006.

There are marked differences between the demographics of church attenders and of the Australian population at large:

  • Church attenders are older than the general population and men are under-represented
  • A higher proportion of church attenders is born overseas
  • Church attenders are highly educated

Church attenders are older than the general population and men are under-represented

The age structure of the Australian population has increased dramatically in recent decades, which is due to increasing life expectancy and sustained low fertility. In 1971, the mean age of the population was 27, and by 2010 it had increased to 37. In 2006, the average age of church attenders was 53 years, although with marked differences across denominations. The Anglican and Uniting Churches were the denominations with the oldest profile, with an average age of 55 and 61 respectively. In contrast, the mean age of Baptists was 47 and of Pentecostals was 39. On the whole, there has been an ageing trend across the churches. From 1996 to 2006, the proportion of people in churches aged under 40 had decreased from 29% to 25%, and the proportion of people aged 60 and over increased from 34% to 42%. Overall, younger generations are significantly underrepresented in Australian churches, and an ongoing challenge is for churches to respond to the distinctive approaches to life and faith of different age groups.

Figure 1: The age structure of the adult population (aged 15 and over) for the Australian church and population in 2006

age graph of church attendance and general population

Source: 2006 National Church Life Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics National Census 2006

In 2010, the sex ratio of the Australian population was 99.2 males per 100 females. The ratio at birth is 105 to 100, higher mortality rates in the 30-64 age group result in the ratio being close to parity, and for the cohort above 65 years of age the ratio reduces markedly due to female longevity. In Australia’s churches in 2006, there were 67 men for every 100 women.

Question for 2011: Will we continue to see ageing in the churches, and what will be the pattern across denominations?

A higher proportion of church attenders is born overseas

In 2009, 24% of Australia’s population was born overseas (a slight increase from 23% in 1996), with the most prominent countries of birth being the United Kingdom, followed by New Zealand, China and India. In examining the figures for church attenders, it is important to note that the proportion of overseas-born people is likely to be an underestimate, due to non-participation of some non-English language churches in the National Church Life Survey. Nonetheless, of all church attenders that completed the survey in 2006, 28% were not born in Australia, which is higher than the proportion in the Australian population. While the church attender results are similar to that of the nation in terms of those born in English-speaking countries (10% versus 9%), 18% of attenders were born in non-English speaking countries, compared with 15% of all Australians. A major contributing factor to this is the particularly high proportion (26%) of Catholic attenders born in non English-speaking countries.

Figure 2: The proportion of overseas-born in the adult population (aged 15 and over) for the Australian population and church

 graph of overseas english speakers and non-english speakers for overseas born Australians in the general population and in the church

Source: 2006 National Church Life Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics National Census 1996, 2001 & 2006

For Christians, churches play a significant role of stabilisation and support for first generation migrants, providing a source of integration into Australian society and contacts from their homeland. However the continuing challenge is retaining the second generation, where ethno-specific churches face the challenge of operating within a different surrounding culture.

NCLS Research is committed to providing options for non-English language churches to participate in the National Church Life Survey. In 2011, we provided survey forms in eight languages, including in Dinka and Arabic for the first time. We look forward to returning survey results to all of our participating language groups.

Church attenders are relatively highly educated

Australia is becoming increasingly educated. In 2006, 84% of 16 year olds were attending school, in comparison to 48% in 1971. Each successive generation is more likely than the last to have completed school, and to have a tertiary qualification, with Generations X and Y being the most highly educated generations on record. The proportion of people over 20 years of age with a university degree had almost doubled between 1991 (10%) and 2006 (19%).

Church attenders are highly educated and becoming even more so. In 2006, the proportion of people aged 15 and over who had a university degree was 27%, up from 23% in 2001. When the age profile of churches is taken into account, the differences between the church and broader population appear even more marked. Younger people are more highly educated than older people, and yet younger people are under-represented in churches. The suggestion is that, in general, Australia’s churches are not connecting with people with less formal education, although this is not true across the board. Of the major denominational groupings that NCLS Research has surveyed, only Salvation Army attenders had lower levels of formal education than the broader Australian population.

Figure 3: Highest educational qualification of the adult population (aged 15 and over) for the Australian church and population in 2006

graph of education levels in the church

Source: 2006 National Church Life Survey, Australian Bureau of Statistics National Census 2006

Question for 2011: Will the trend towards increasing levels of education in Australian churches continue, even against the trend of ageing membership?

Data source:
2006 National Church Life Survey, Attender Surveys
2001 National Church Life Survey, Attender Surveys
Australian Bureau of Statistics National Census of Population and Housing (1901-2006) – www.abs.gov.au
Australian Bureau of Statistics website – www.abs.gov.au/ausstats

Bibliography:
NCLS Research (2011) The Demographics of a Nation: Australia and the Church. Research Partners Topic Paper 10.
Powell, R (2011) The Demographics of a Nation: Australia and the Church. Pointers, March 2011, Christian Research Association, pp.15-16.


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