Risks and challenges to new approaches at church

Taking risks on new ideas

Resource Type: Article

Topics: News Jan 2017 innovation

New ideas and approaches take resources: money, time and effort. It is one thing to believe that there is a general sense of openness to consider new possibilities, and another thing to take steps to make changes.

When asked if their local church was ‘willing to risk resources on new ideas’, 58% agreed (14% strongly agreed and 44% agreed) and only 6% disagreed. The remaining group were neutral or unsure (36%).

As is often said, when you say ‘yes’ to something, sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to something else.

Really? But what do they mean by new approaches?

What do church attenders mean when they claim to be open to something new? While we cannot know without doing a further in-depth listening exercise, we can probably assume that they are considering changes within the context of their local church, as this is how the survey was framed.

To test the scope of their openness to change as far as possible, NCLS researchers posed a few different, more significant scenarios, such as sharing property and supporting a new church. These scenarios are both innovative, but also disruptive.
• Would you be in favour of your church sharing its property with a new but separate church or faith community (e.g. a migrant ethnic church, church of young families)?
• Would you be in favour of your local church supporting a new church (e.g. a 'church plant') with financial and people resources?

The Figure  shows that even given a highly disruptive scenario, such as sharing the building, 57% of church attenders favour sharing their property with a new, but separate church, and only 20% tend not to favour this idea (7% definitely do not favour it). Around a quarter do not know what they think.

What about a major venture such as starting a new church community? Similar proportions would definitely favour their local church supporting a new church (e.g. a 'church plant') with financial and people resources (25%) and 30% would tend to favour this initiative. Only 11% would tend not to favour this and 6% would definitely not favour it. Again, around a quarter of attenders (28%) do not know what they think about this idea when presented in the context of a survey.


Lack of funding and time are greatest challenges to innovation

So, what stops new initiatives? Any entrepreneur can easily list all the challenges to those who seek to innovate. It is rarely a shortage of ideas, but tends to be things like a lack of money, time, and people resources that hinder.

Is the story the same for churches? When a random representative sample of church attenders were asked what their local church's key challenges to adopting innovations were, the most common things mentioned were lack of funding (33%) and lack of staff time (23%), followed by resistance/disinterest from church members (13%). All other options attracted fewer than 10% of responses. It is perhaps, not surprising that a large proportion of attenders did not feel they knew what the challenges were (43%).

Start with the open attitude…then do the hard work…

The evidence from the 2016 NCLS is that church attenders strongly affirm the idea of new initiatives within local church life. Most believe their local churches are ready, that their leaders are supportive and they also claim that they will personally support new approaches. They believe that their churches are also ready to risk resources on new ideas. When pushed with various scenarios that represent significant changes, they still affirm their openness. The main challenges to innovativeness are money and staff time.

When NCLS researchers outline results about attender attitudes to new initiatives, the most common response from listeners is one of disbelief. Yet, we would encourage church leaders to take their church attenders at their word, and accept that the majority believe that they are open to something new.

There is no question that for a church community to decide what to do next is complex. Change is hard work, even if we are committed to it. Yet, these trends in attender views are among some of the most dramatic across 25 years of surveys. The appetite for something new is on the rise.

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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