A growing appetite for new approaches

Strong support for new initiatives

A growing appetite for new approaches

Eight out of 10 Australian church attenders would support the development of new initiatives in ministry and mission in their local church.

This very high level of personal support of innovation is one of the findings from the 2016 National Church Life Survey.

This increasing trend in attender views is among one of the most dramatic across 25 years of surveys.

Why are new approaches important?

Do traditional established models of church life need to change to better connect with the wider Australian community? In the 2016 NCLS, seven out of ten church attenders agreed that they do.

Australians are increasingly disengaged from church life, and the role of the churches is being questioned, with only four in ten Australians who agree the Christian religion is good for society. (Four in 10 are neutral or unsure and two in 10 disagree).*

So, how do churches respond to this challenge? In different contexts around the world, some churches seek to maintain long-term traditions, while others try new approaches to build community, provide nurturing worship services, act with justice and compassion, and witness to their experience of the gospel. As the Church’s mission relies on effective engagement with the wider community through witness and service, innovative practices have always been part of seeking to make better connections.

Local churches seen as more open than previously

The word ‘innovation’ comes from the Latin word ‘novus’ or ‘new’. Defining and measuring innovation has proved difficult for researchers as it can be both the means and ends. It can be the process for introducing something new (e.g. how the church makes decisions). It is also the outcome or output, such as a new church service, mission method or way of connecting people. In our NCLS research, we have been primarily tracking ‘innovativeness’ as a feature of organisational culture. That is, when people in local churches have a shared belief that they have the capacity to do something new, they build a culture that we know is important in successful change processes.

The appetite for new approaches in local church life has grown dramatically in recent decades. The five-yearly National Church Life Surveys show that the proportion of attenders who strongly agreed that ‘this local church is always ready to try something new’ increased over the past 15 years (from 13% in 2001 to 22% in 2016), while the proportions who were neutral or unsure or who disagreed declined.

Innovativeness and church vitality go together

The NCLS Research team has been studying local churches with innovative church cultures, both through surveys and collecting stories over the past decades.

Some of the key findings have been:

  • Openness to new possibilities is a core quality of vital churches
  • Having an openness to new approaches is positively related to attracting newcomers and church growth
  • The overall health or vitality of new churches is higher than in old churches.

A shared ‘can do’ attitude is needed

Studies of organisations who want to be innovative have found that a ‘can do’ attitude is critical. When the group of people share a belief that, together, they have the capability and will be effective, they have what is described in organisational literature as ‘collective agency’ or ‘group potency’. In our Australian research of churches we've coined the term 'collective confidence'. When we find evidence of this shared sense of confidence, we also find churches doing well in a range of other areas.

Leadership is integral to innovativeness

Leaders play a critical role in influencing organisational culture and change, and they are also influenced by it. New approaches to the study of leadership have moved away from focussing on top level leaders, and focus on relational leadership, which emphasises processes of transformation and shared patterns of leadership. This 'Transformational leadership', in particular, has been shown in empirical studies to create the conditions needed for innovation, and has significantly contributed to innovation as an outcome.

In our previous National Church Life Survey analysis, when attenders were aware and committed to a vision, and experienced inspiring and empowering leadership, it was related to attracting newcomers, growth in numbers and a range of other qualities of healthy churches, such as belonging.

In the 2016 NCLS around two thirds of all attenders agreed that ‘Leaders here encourage innovation and creative thinking’ (65%). Around three in 10 were neutral or unsure and 5% disagreed.

To push this idea a bit further, a sample of attenders were asked about how responsive their leaders were to those ‘left field’ ideas. In 2016 around six out of ten (61%) attenders agreed that if they had a 'left field' or unexpected idea, they could share it with the leadership of their local church. However, again, a third were unsure or gave a neutral response to this statement.

Support for innovation provides new opportunity

The 2016 NCLS results affirm that church attenders strongly support the idea of new initiatives within their local church. Most attenders believe their local churches are ready, that their leaders are supportive and they also claim that they will personally support new approaches. When asked about various scenarios that represent significant changes, they still affirm their openness.

How church leaders respond to their attenders' openness to innovation is yet to be fully seen. An opportunity to explore new models of ministry is apparent, with a great deal of potential energy for creative approaches at church.

Ruth Powell
Data Sources:

Powell, R., Pepper, M., Hancock, N. and Sterland, S. (2017). 2016 NCLS Attender Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.

* Pepper M. and Powell, R. (2016). 2016 Australian Community Survey [Computer file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.

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