Research Agenda

Credible empirical research into church life, church leadership and wider spirituality.

NCLS Research conducts research in a range of areas, internally as well as in partnership with other researchers and institutions.

Overview of research programs

  1. Describing the Australian churches
  2. Fostering healthy churches
  3. Diversity in church life
  4. Exploring church and community intersection
  5. Spirituality and personal wellbeing
  6. Church and a pandemic (COVID-19)
  7. Denominational Commissions
  8. Other Commissions

Research Program A. Describing the Australian churches

Estimates of church attendance:   We estimate how many people attend church and which parts of the Church are growing, stable or declining.

Profiling church attenders: We describe the demographic and other characteristics of those who attend activities of local congregations. This includes variations across denominations and changes over time.

Profiling church leaders: We describe the demographic and other characteristics of those who lead local churches.

Profiling local churches: We count the number of congregations, their size, and identify the types of contexts in which they are located (urban, regional, rural).

Research Program B. Fostering healthy churches

This project focusses on leadership and church vitality or health in Christian churches. The National Church Life Survey (1991 to 2021) datasets provide a longitudinal study of thousands of local churches.  We locate this work within the discipline of organizational effectiveness, which is also of interest to business and non-profit organizations. We adopt a multidimensional, multi-stakeholder model.

Vital churches: We measure effectiveness or ‘vitality’, investigate best practice or ‘lighthouse’ churches, social capital, and innovative or entrepreneurial activity. 

Effective leadership: We also investigate effective leadership, in terms of structures, styles and role of leaders and leadership teams. We review how relational processes relate to effectiveness. 

Research Program C. Diversity in church life

Whether or not the church embraces diversity, in its many forms, will shape the Australian church landscape into the future.  Demographic factors will have a particular impact.

Ethnic diversity: Increasing ethnic and cultural diversity, both within Australian society as well as in local churches is an important driver for churches. Churches play a critical role in the social capital of migrant communities and their integration in Australia.  We review attitudes about migrants and connections by churches. We evaluate multi-ethnic groups and mono-ethnic groups.

Generational diversity: Another key challenge for the church is how it church navigates its ageing profile, with a focus on engaging children and young people. As younger people disengage from organised religion, we are interested in attitudes and experiences regarding spirituality and church life.

Indigenous and non-indigenous relations: We are interested in how we can contribute to the ongoing work of learning about Indigenous and non-indigenous relations.

Other forms of diversity: As new agendas arise they may be included e.g. diverse worldviews, values, faith identities etc.

Research Program D. Exploring church and community intersection

Churches are renegotiating their place and role in contemporary Australian society.   This program maps the interplay between churches and the wider community.    At the macro level, we look at changes in the social and cultural context and the role of churches in providing local faith communities, church schools and church-based community services. How do church attenders share beliefs and values?  We evaluate the impact by churches in public policy areas such as advocacy on social issues, or on environmental attitudes and behaviours. 

Research Program E. Spirituality and personal wellbeing

This program focuses on individual differences, drawing from the discipline of psychology.  

Spirituality:  We describe the spiritual profile of church attenders, church leaders as well as the wider Australian community.  This will cover the various dimensions of religiousness including beliefs, practices, experiences, and knowledge.

Wellbeing:  We assess the personal wellbeing of church leaders, with a focus on sustainable leadership, which refers to both resilience and wellbeing of individual leaders.   We aim to identify factors that help individuals to thrive and guard against burnout.

Research Program F. Church and a pandemic (COVID-19)

COVID-19: The 2021 NCLS was be conducted in the context of a global pandemic – COVID-19.  All research agendas and questions are influenced by this fact.   An over-arching research program is to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on the life of the Australian Church.

Research Program G. Denominational Commissions

Within the National Church Life Surveys, denominations are given the opportunity to commission specific questions for attenders in their congregations.  Results from these questions are included in the reports that are given to local churches.  

Research Program H. Other Commissions

Other groups also commission research to meet their own needs.