Older returnees to church study

A research project into older people returning to faith and church after a long absence

In a joint partnership with researchers from the University of South Australia, NCLS Research is undertaking a study of older people who are returning to church life after an absence of some years.

NCLS Research is taking responsibility for a quantitative analysis in this mixed-methods study, based on responses to the 2016 National Church Life Survey.



The stated purpose of the project is to explore the reasons and experiences given by older people for re-engaging with faith communities (Christian churches) after many (10+) years absence.



Increased life expectancy is a key feature and achievement of the 20th century (WHO 2018). Increased longevity has implications for the time that people have post-employment years to engage in a range of pursuits. These pursuits can include established activities or engagements: things they have been doing that they can continue to do more of; new activities and engagements including the proverbial “bucket list” (Dupuis and Alzheimer 2013), and they may also return to leisure activities and engagement that they pursued when younger (Lamb 2011). Our project focuses on the latter area of engagement – specifically the returning to active church engagement by older people after many (10+) years away from the church community.

The spur for undertaking this research is that the returnee phenomenon is not a well-recognised or researched leisure area. A small collection of publications exists looking at this phenomenon in the areas of population aging (Silverstein and Bengtson 2018) social science (Hayward and Krause 2014) and theology (Lamb 2011). Church attendees in Australia are more likely to be aged over 60 (48%) than the population at large (26%) (NCLS 2016) yet it is commonly presumed that this profile is an indication of continuity of engagement rather than a return to older patterns of activities.

It is important to explore why older people might reengage in faith communities as it is part of the rich map of engagements that has been shown to enhance the quality of older lives (Dupuis & Alzheimer 2013). At present there is no ‘targeted’ response or awareness of these people, hence the opportunity to respond in innovative ways is high.

Research questions include:

  • Why they (older people) left churches when younger
  • Why they have returned (spiritual, community or other drivers)
  • What keeps them engaged when they return
  • What is different now (compared to when they left)
  • What could churches do to attract more people like them?



Quantitative Research by NCLS Research

In this mixed-methods study, NCLS Research is taking responsibility for a quantitative analysis. NCLS Research holds a large dataset of church attenders from the 2016 National Church Life Survey. We plan to conduct an analysis of characteristics such as demographics and religious faith and practices of the 'older returnee' group of churchgoers, including comparisons with other older churchgoers and other younger returnees. We will also explore whether some types of churches are more likely than others to attract older returnees.

Related information

About NCLS Research

NCLS Research is a world leader in research focused on connecting churches and their communities. Decades of rigorous and thoughtful research has focussed on well-being, spirituality and church health. Cooperating denominations, including Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, are a network for sharing practical resources to help churches and communities.

Our Research Services

NCLS Research provides social research and organisational evaluations of the highest calibre to our clients. Our research services, from highly skilled and experienced professionals, are gaining world renown. Led by Associate Professor Ruth Powell, our research team has decades of experience in social sector research and includes academics with particular expertise in the areas of sociology, psychology and religious studies.

Our Research Projects

NCLS Research carries out many research projects, the most well known being the five-yearly National Church Life Survey, which has had millions of participants. Internationally, Church Life Surveys have been held in South Africa and the Netherlands in 2019. Commissioned research projects are regularly undertaken for organisations, including academics and universities; church leadership, at national, denominational, diocesan and state levels; community service agencies; not-for-profit organisations; as well as consultants.

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