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Australia's National Church Life Survey -

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HideAndrew West: It’s interesting to note that it’s not just in the Middle East where that belonging versus belief issue arises. The findings of the biggest study of religious practice in Australia are now in.

In late 2011, more than a quarter of a million people in more than 3,000 congregations took part in the National Church Life Survey. And the results are fascinating and a little surprising. Now to give us an overview of the National Church Life Survey, we’ve invited the director, Dr Ruth Powell, into the studio. Ruth, this survey is a major undertaking; it’s surely the biggest sample size of any poll in the country apart from perhaps the Commonwealth census. Just start by giving us a quick snapshot of what we can conclude from this data.

Ruth Powell: What we see from the results are that even though the church may be smaller than it was in previous decades, in a sense it’s consolidating. It is stronger. The signs of health are greater than they were a decade ago.

Andrew West: Yes, I think you’ve said that that fall-off in church attendance may have plateaued?

Ruth Powell: Well, we don’t know actually. We don’t have any results on numerical growth or decline at this stage. There are signs overseas that perhaps plateau has taken place. We don’t have the data in Australia yet.

Andrew West: Let’s look at some specific aspects of this now. One thing comes out very clearly: the churches are very female. The overwhelming number of people in the parishes, I think at least 60 per cent, are women.

Ruth Powell: Yes. Six out of ten people who are in church are women. Now that’s not a new trend. Women are generally more religious than men. That’s something that sociologists have found in pretty well every country and every religion.

Andrew West: Well, you’re a professor as well, do we know why that is?

Ruth Powell: There’s a few thoughts about that. One of the thoughts that we’re actually exploring is, does it change for working women? And there are some signs that working women are less likely to go to church than men.

Andrew West: But is that purely a time thing? Or is it…

Ruth Powell: I think…

Andrew West: …exposure to the…to a more secular world, or what?

Ruth Powell: Well I think it’s partly a time thing. I think it’s partly, church is a space that is often very relational. And women tend to be strong in terms of building and nurturing relationships with others. And I think that the space for exploring those issues…church communities, faith communities, facilitate that sort of relationship.

Andrew West: Does anyone in the survey—in fact I’m sure they do—comment on the fact that women are the bedrock of local congregations and yet most of the people in the pulpits are men?

Ruth Powell: (Laughs) Yes. The fact that we survey 23 denominations gives us a beautiful diversity when it comes to attitudes to women in leadership. And we have the full spectrum. And so we have many studies happening in terms of attitudes to women. But there are those who are embracing the role of women in leadership and those who have a different perspective. But what we see is, as you say, women are the bedrock of a lot of churches. They are the ones who are filling voluntary roles, not only in the churches but also in terms of the wider communities. So when you look at, sort of, the—what Robert Putnam who’s an American sociologist would talk about—social capital, you have what’s called bonding social capital, which is about how you bond together. Women do that well but there’s also bridging social capital: how do you connect with people in other groups? And church attenders are more likely to be volunteers in the wider community and they are more likely to be women.

Andrew West: Well I’m very glad you raised Robert Putnam because we had a special program with Robert Putnam earlier this year and one of the things that provoked both a lot of joy but also a bit of resentment was his assertion, his finding, that people who go to church are ‘nicer’. That is, more socially involved, even to the point of being willing to allow people to cut in, in line, in front of them. I mean, does that…does the…we joke about that as a funny little example, but does that ring true?

Ruth Powell: Well what I can tell you—and this is across all of those quarter of a million church attenders—is, when we ask them a few things about, do you do things such as care, welfare, justice? Do you do things such as write to an MP, give money to charities? You know: good acts of care, service, justice, and there is a wide range of involvement from church attenders. More than that, we find that around a quarter of church attenders are in church-based welfare or justice activities and 23 per cent are involved in wider community-based activities. And one of the findings we’ve discovered in the past is that, it’s not a case of, oh, people get busy in church, they get cut off from the wider world, you know, and they just, sort of, turn inwards. In fact we’ve found…

Andrew West: No. Far from it.

Ruth Powell: …far from it. Not only are they involved in their own church serving activities but they are the ones most likely to be in volunteering, in community activities—Meals on Wheels, Amnesty International—non-church activities, you’ll find the church attenders there. So it’s a…there is a living out of faith in action that happens and they are not cut off from community service, justice et cetera.

Andrew West: Well yes, as someone who’s spent a fair amount of his time, you know, talking at Rotary Clubs and Probus Clubs and those sorts of things, you find when you sit at the top table with the leaders of those organisations, that most of them are people of faith.

Let’s talk about the age profile though, because this is a challenge for the churches as your research points out, isn’t it?

Ruth Powell: Yes, it is. It’s a mixed story again. And it’s the wonderful gift of having everybody involved. What we know is that mainstream churches—and I’m talking Anglican, Uniting Church, Lutheran, Presbyterian—have an older age profile on average, than the wider community does.

Andrew West: Well what is that figure though?

Ruth Powell: The average figure is that the average age of a church attender is 55-years-old. And that is ageing. So those big mainstream denominations have more older people and partly it’s history catching up with them. In the ’60s and ’70s, the baby-boomers—those born after World War II—as we say: they voted with their feet. And they said, church is not engaging me, the institutional church is not making a connection—they left. And the church said, that’s all right, they’ll be back, they’ll have kids and they’ll come back, because that’s what’s always happened in the past—and it had. Your stage of life was the thing that affected. The problem is, that generation didn’t come back, the following generation were less there and then now, the children are less there.

Andrew West: Well, in the United States part of the reason for the decline in numbers in so-called mainline Protestant churches—Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans—has also been this question that a lot of those people were upper middle class professionals. They don’t have many children anymore. So there is…there’s no generation to pass the religion on to.

Ruth Powell: Indeed, and part of the fact that we are still seeing, I expect, that once the numbers come in, we will see a decline in some of these churches, is because they are beyond breeding age, if I can be a bit crass about it—but you have this older profile. Can I also point out though, that there are a number of denominations who are smaller who have much younger age profiles. The Baptists are much more like the wider community. The Catholics, they actually have a wide age range. And once you get to the Pentecostals, they’re over-represented when it comes to young people. The problem is, they’re not big enough to counter-balance the ageing mainstream church yet.

Andrew West: Well those Pentecostal figures are quite interesting, because I think it’s only 1 in 10 Pentecostals are over 55 or 60 isn’t it?

Ruth Powell: They certainly…we can see the ageing starting with the Pentecostals but they are still much younger even than the general Australian population and that’s an interesting story for all the churches to listen to and say, what is attractive to some young people, Australian people, that those Pentecostal churches are offering.

Andrew West: Well isn’t it part of the whole…the Pentecostal notion of religion as an experience, so this sort of emotional experience; there’s speaking in tongues, there’s lots of rock music, but you are subsumed by the experience in the moment.

Ruth Powell: I think that could be part of it. I think there is also a cultural accessibility. So whether that’s the music…but it’s things such as language, dress, informality et cetera, that means there are fewer cultural barriers for a society, say, that has become more informal. Now, I still think that there are a lot of young people who have disengaged from not only church, but from religion and spirituality generally. And that’s what we hear from the wider community. And so even though some churches are doing well at connecting, I think the message remains that there are a lot of young people for whom the churches have not yet found a way of communicating their message in an engaging or relevant way.

Andrew West: Now you mentioned the Catholic Church. How much of—and the Catholic Church hasn’t quite aged so much—how much of that is due to immigration?

Ruth Powell: Oh, it’s a significant factor for the Catholic Church, as well as other churches. But when you look at their overall…at people who’d identify as Catholic but also people who go to Catholic parishes, you see strong patterns of migration being expressed in those churches. So, there’s very large multicultural parishes across, you know, major cities and other areas that is part of who the Catholic Church is these days.

Andrew West: So the younger people in Catholic churches in Australia today, are what, most likely to be Filipino, Vietnamese, maybe South Asian? Or…

Ruth Powell: They may well be. We haven’t looked, you know, broken it down in detail but I would expect those sorts of patterns to come through.

Andrew West: Yes, that integration or intersection of immigration and religion has been a particular interest on this program this year because we’ve looked at the census figures. Let’s talk about education, and that goes into the whole socio-economic aspect of it. What do you find about the education levels of churchgoers?

Ruth Powell: Well, we know from the 2011 NCLS that 34 per cent of church attenders hold a higher education degree—they’ve got a university degree. This is much higher than the wider Australian population. So, lots of women, but highly educated as well.

Andrew West: Do we know what their occupations are, by the way?

Ruth Powell: Oh well, we do. Well, you’ve got the full spread there. But there would be, I would expect, that following previous trends, that you would find more white-collar professional people in the churches…

Andrew West: Yes, but the reason…the reason I’m digging around there Ruth though, is because, isn’t the profile of a lot of church attenders, they’re school teachers, they’re nurses, they’re people who are involved, doctors, a lot of people who are involved in, if you like, the caring professions?

Ruth Powell: Yes, that’s certainly…previous surveys have found that very strongly. Again it’s that strong relational bent, strong ways to live out faith or express one’s values that come out of one’s, you know, worldview as a Christian, in the whole of one’s life. So you’re quite right, that the caring professions are over-represented.

Andrew West: Yes, so your occupation affirms the tenets of your faith and vice versa.

Ruth Powell: Yes. Yes, and in fact even those, perhaps, who no longer are connected with church, if you…I would love to do a study, say of social workers et cetera some day, and just go, how many of you have in your history, or in your family history, something that has shaped your values that means, again, you’ve ended up in a caring profession? Even if you don’t have a practising personal faith now, you’ve been informed by the values of your Catholic education, your Anglican education—something that leads you to say, I want to make the world a better place, and this is what I can do to contribute.

Andrew West: What does the National Church Life Survey tell us about what people get out of church or why they go to church?

Ruth Powell: All right.

Andrew West: We…because you and I, or, you know, listeners might think that it’s self-evident, they go because they believe in God. But for some people it’s actually a lot more complex.

Ruth Powell: No, in fact we know from our…people who are new to church life, that beliefs come later. You start with belonging. You start with relationship. You start going to church because a friend says, hey, this is a place that’s helped me in my life; it’s helped, it’s…you know, they fed me when my…when we were going hungry, they’ve helped my kids, they were there when life was tough for me. You should come and check this place out. It’s a good community to be part of. Newcomers come because someone invited them.

Now when we look at just the broader spread of church attenders, why do they go? It is faith…it’s reasons of practices of faith. They’re going to explore faith, to grow in their faith, to find out about faith. And so you look…that’s what they value; they value those aspects that are the faith practices. They also value belonging. And what they…when we ask them, what do you think this church should be working on in the next 12 months—because in a sense this is a strategic planning tool for churches—and we say, all right, what can you improve on? The top thing is, we want…make this place a place where people feel they belong. Grow our sense of community and belonging because again, it’s the Putnam bonding social capital, you know. It’s in that social glue that I can grow in my faith. This is not a solo thing. I do it better with other people.

Andrew West: Some biblically conservative evangelicals around Australia might find that ever so slightly worrying, because their argument, or their hope is, that people go to church for the firm rigorous teaching. I mean, how many people go to hear a good sermon that will instruct them on the week ahead?

Ruth Powell: Well they certainly say they value the preaching and teaching. That’s certainly a part of it. And that’s part of the faith practices. But belonging and a sense of growth in faith is right up the top there.

Andrew West: The other thing that I always find fascinating—and I guess it goes to both generation, to class, to the job that you’re in—how many people find it easy to ask others to come to church? Because particularly for a lot of starchy traditional Anglicans, it’s always been…especially if you work in certain professions, it’s always been a difficult thing.

Ruth Powell: Well I think this is the key story for the churches. I think churches…if we sling back in history, you had the village church and mostly Anglican, you know: Church of England. Every village had their church and everybody in the village belonged to the village church. And that was brought out to Australia and you had the parish church and if you were in that parish, and this is how still the Catholics think, if you’re in the parish and you’re Catholic, well you belong to our parish.

Now that’s all breaking down now. And the place of church in Australian society, as in many western societies, is being renegotiated. And I think the church is probably a little bit in the wilderness at the moment and it’s going to take decades—it is taking decades—to find their role and their place. And partly, the churches are needing to discover what it is to be in mission, to be a sent people again, and to actually work out how to speak of the message that they believe they have, to a society that is saying, you are not relevant, you are not useful, I do not trust you. And so inviting becomes to relationship and you need to invite. And churches…people who go to church, if church is to survive, people will need to have to work out how to share in an authentic way what it is that their faith community offers them and why they would encourage others authentically to experience that same…

Andrew West: Well I think that’s a terrific place to end.

Dr Ruth Powell, the director of the National Church Life Survey, also professor at the Australian Catholic University, thanks for being on the Religion and Ethics Report.

Ruth Powell: Thank you.

Andrew West: And there’s a link to the National Church Life Survey on our homepage at the RN website where you can go for all of today’s stories, which you can download or podcast. Leave a comment or follow us on Twitter @abcreligion.

Thanks this week to producer Mark Franklin and technical producer, Paul Gough. That’s the Religion and Ethics Report for this week. I hope you’ll come back next week.

Dr Ruth Powell
Director, National Church Life Survey
Producer Mark Franklin Comments (0)