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Australia’s largest Christian survey checks the pulse of the local church

Eternity #69 May 2016

What do Australian Christians have that our brothers and sisters in other countries wish they had? An unexpected but true answer is the National Church Life Survey. Most other countries (the United States is a good example) have “guestimates”, but Australia has good statistics of who goes to church, how often, how many newcomers and a host of other statistics.

All Christian churches in Australia have been invited to join the 2016 National Church Life Survey (2016 NCLS) in October. Every local church has been sent an invitation pack, encouraging them to take part.

“This national venture, held every five years since 1991, alongside the national census, is only possible with the involvement of thousands of church leaders. It is testimony to the visionary leadership and trust that forms the basis of this church life research,” said Dr Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research.

Strong commendations have been received from Catholic and Anglican archbishops and bishops, as well as national and state leaders of Evangelical, Pentecostal and mainstream denominations and movements.

NCLS Research works with denominational leaders on survey design and resource delivery to best suit churches. Some denominations integrate the NCLS with their own strategic plans and some subsidise the costs for local churches. International and national researchers are also being consulted on wide-ranging research topics.

“This national venture, held every five years since 1991, alongside the national census, is only possible with the involvement of thousands of church leaders.”

“I am gratified to hear of denominations that plan to encourage high participation of their local churches, including financial support. They are embracing the full opportunities the NCLS offers to inform strategic leadership,” said Powell.

Every local church is welcome to take part in the 2016 NCLS – whether or not their region is fully involved. Survey orders are now open. Churches are encouraged to contact their NCLS regional coordinator to check administrative arrangements for their region or denomination. Churches can sign up by ordering surveys, either through their regional coordinator via a printed order form or online.

Baptist pastor Craig Corkill says the NCLS is a vital part of planning. He is the senior pastor at Narara Valley Baptist Church, a church of about 500 on the NSW Central Coast, about an hour north of Sydney. NVBC have been doing a Church Life Survey every year for the past five years.

NCLS: Why do the NCLS?

Craig: Before becoming a pastor I was a researcher for a government department, preparing reports for management and planning, etc. And so I know the value of having good data and taking the time to analyse it. I’m a big fan of Bill Hybels’ axiom: “The facts are your friends.”

NCLS: How do you make use of it at your church?

Craig: Normally we receive the results right before our October pastors and staff retreat and we’ll spend a few hours just going over them. The data provides a gauge to assess whether the goals we set in the preceding year had been achieved. We then prayerfully look at goals for the forthcoming year, with the NCLS information forming an integral part of our strategic planning.

NCLS: What do you do about areas of challenge, places where the results have gone down?

“If we know about it we can do something about it, in God’s strength.”

Craig: Bad news can be tough but it’s better than putting your head in the sand. For me the stakes are too high. And I think sometimes people don’t like doing this sort of stuff because they’re afraid it will actually show up that there’s a problem here. But if we know about it we can do something about it, in God’s strength.

NCLS: You’ve mentioned setting goals a lot – is that the first step for you?

Craig: The first thing for us on retreat is a guided meditation time, where we lay all our ministry before God. Then we go through the data, asking “how did we go with goals from the last year?” because we’ve been doing this repeatedly and we are in a pattern now. What are the high-five moments? But it can’t always be only that. What did we not reach? Were goals stupidly high? Were we kidding ourselves? Or did the strategies we put in place just not work? Why?

NCLS: So, for example, you’ll look at the results for Vision from last time and this time – I had a goal; did I reach it?

Craig: More – “did we reach it?” Our overall vision at NVBC doesn’t change. We learned the hard way that if the vision is too complex people don’t get it. Ours is simple (“Desperate for God, Passionate for People”), mentioned all the time, and continually incorporated into what we say and do, as are the principles for how we aim to realise that vision.

We encourage our leaders to begin their planning with “what do you sense God is calling you to do in the next 12 months?” What is the vision first, before moving to strategy and events. Then our planning will focus on strategy, with specifics. We’ll ask “what’s our focus for the next 12 months?” In light of that focus for the next year, what’s the key data that we need to focus on within the NCLS survey for the next 12 months?

So, for example, we’ll look at faith sharing. We’ll look at percentage of youth in the church, newcomers, etc. We’ll also take into account what people have told us they want us to focus on, but we will put that together with what we sense before God, and the overall direction we think we should be going in.

NCLS: So, are you going to keep using the survey for planning?

Craig: You get a really good snapshot of where your church is at. NCLS helps me to gauge whether we’re reaching our redemptive potential as a church. I don’t want to be pastoring a church where we think we “might” be being effective for the kingdom – I want to know! And if we’re not, let’s change some things so that we can be.

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