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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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||Denominations|
|1996 NCLS **||324,000||0||4000||6,900||18|
|1996 CCLS **||101,000||0||TBC||281||1|
* 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
|Anglican Church of Australia||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Apostolic Church of Australia||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|Australian Christian Churches (AOG)||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|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||✓||✗||✗||✗||✗||✗|
* 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.
Following two National Church Life Surveys in 1991 and 1996 in Australia, the NCLS Research team supported New Zealand churches as they conducted the Church Life Survey-New Zealand. The Australian methodology and resources were replicated for this project. New Zealand results confirmed the emerging idea of the Australian team about how healthy churches work.
At the time of the 2001 NCLS, parallel projects were launched in the USA (USCLS), England (CLS-UK) and New Zealand (CLS-NZ), under the banner of the International Congregational Life Survey. These projects also used the Australian National Church Life Survey as the foundational model.
Since 2001, New Zealand has conducted a simplified variation of the CLS-NZ in 2007 and in 2011. Wave 2 of the USCLS was also conducted by the USA project team in 2008 and 2009.
Following pilot projects, wider application of the Australian-born National Church Life Survey model has also taken place in South Africa and in the Netherlands.