How many Australians attend church or other religious services?
Church affiliation is not the same as church attendance. Generally, more people identify with a particular denomination than regularly attend its services. We reviewed trends in church and religious service attendance* in Australia to gain an understanding of active religious practice, beyond religious affiliation.
In 2016, the percentage of Australians who were frequent attenders at religious services was estimated at 16%.
It is old news that Australian attendance at religious services has been declining for some time, yet it appears the decline in monthly attendance at religious services has slowed in recent decades.
The Figure below shows the trendline through a number of different sample surveys from 1950 to 2018.
Religious service attendance in Australia has never been practiced by the majority. Some of the highest rates of attendance were recorded in the 1950s after World War II, at the time of the baby boom (44% in 1950). There was a steep decline in attendance in the 1960s and 1970s. But since 1990 the decline has slowed. This is consistent with a pattern of exponential decay. For example, between 1950 and 1990, the decline in monthly self-reported attendance was 20 percentage points (Powell et al. 2012, p.71), compared with around 8 percentage points over the following 25 years from 1990 to 2016.
To track changes over time and in order for comparisons to be legitimate a more refined approach has been employed for data between 1990 and 2018.
We now turn to the second approach for determining estimates of attendance – the use of head counts or other similar estimates from religious organisations*. Unlike the self-reports that come from surveys of the Australian population, and may include other religious services, we aim to estimate weekly church attendance.
The NCLS Research definition of ‘weekly church attendance' is the number of people - adults and children - who attend church services of worship during an average week. Estimates of church attendance can never be exact and the task of collecting them is ongoing. At the time of publication of this article, the most reliable data available was a snapshot from 2016.
It is estimated in 2016 that 1.6 million people attend Christian church services in an average week. The proportion of the Australian population attending these services dropped from 11% in 1991 to 7% in 2016.
That is to say, the number of people in Christian churches in an average week has remained fairly stable but there has been an increase in Australia’s overall population, meaning that churches have not kept pace with general population increases.
We estimate that in 2016 between 1.9 and 2.1 million different people are at a church service in a given month. This is based on a weekly estimate adjusted by the percentages of church participants who attend at different frequencies - some weekly, some monthly, some less often, as reported in the 2016 NCLS.
These estimates of attendance are based on available data and this varies in quality for different groups. The table below shows estimates of weekly attendance rounded to the nearest one thousand for Catholic, Protestant and other churches.
Catholic attenders make up 38.7% of all weekly attenders whereas Protestant attenders, divided into three groups of similar size (Mainstream 19.8%, Pentecostal 16.6%, and Other Protestant 15.7%), comprise 52% of all weekly church attenders.
Moreover, we show a broad estimate of 150,000 to acknowledge the presence of additional attenders in other churches, including the Orthodox churches, for which we have no reliable estimates.
Among the five largest denominations there has been significant change in the order. The Catholic Church continues to have the highest number of weekly attendance. Australian Christian Churches (formerly Assemblies of God) has moved from being the fifth largest Australian denomination in 1991 to second largest in 2016.
We estimate that more than one-third (39%) of church attenders in denominations which took part in the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) were Catholic, thus making the Catholic Church the largest denomination in Australia.
Anglican attenders make up an estimate of 10% of weekly attenders. They are followed by the Baptist Church with 7% and the Uniting Church with 6% of attenders. The other denominations and movements that have been involved with the NCLS were, individually, no larger than 3% of attenders. They made up a further 17% when combined. To partly account for the independent, Orthodox and other churches, for which there are no known estimates, a broad estimate of 9% was added.
Noting the decline in religious service attendance appears to be slowing, this trend may be plateauing. The next few years will serve to confirm this. Greater numbers of Australians appear to be attending religious services less than weekly. As a pattern of attendance, church leaders may see the shape of their worship gatherings changing, with committed attenders not necessarily present each week, but rather each month.
While the Catholic Church continues to be the largest denomination in Australia, Australian Christian Churches account for 12% of attenders which, based on these estimates, means that for the first time a Pentecostal denomination is the second largest denomination in Australia.
* N.B. Technical notes regarding ascertaining levels of attendance at religious services via Sample Surveys and Head Counts is available in the Research Paper The Resilient Church: affiliation, attendance and size in Australia.
NCLS Estimates of Attendance Database
Various sample surveys of the Australian population
Overall church decline is offset by signs of growth in some churches