Australian Baptists – The Good, The Not So Good & The Not Good Enough

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Australian Baptists are a movement of almost 1000 churches.

In late 2011, 111,774 adults from 331 Australian Baptist churches completed the National Church Life Survey.  What does the NCLS reveal? This world class research provides valuable insights into the Church in Australia. It allows us to look above our narrow perspectives to take an objective look at what is really happening, and not happening, in Australian Baptist Churches.  

General Demographics

The NCLS gives a snapshot of our churches:

  • The average age is 48 years 6 months (compared to 46 years 9 months  in 2006);
  • 56% are women;
  • 35% say they give 10% or more of their income to the church;
  • the percentage of attenders involved in leadership roles at church is falling (from 52.2% in 2001 to 47.3%);
  • of those involved in ministry/leadership 24% are involved in the worship services, 17% in children and youth, 15% in group leadership, 12% in admin or committees and 7% in pastoral care;
  • 12.5% said that if they had the opportunity, they would support and/or become an active participant in the planting of a new church;
  • 34.9% have not been directly involved in helping any non-Christians explore questions about faith at all in the last 12 months;
  • 26.8% would use social networks on the internet (e.g. Facebook, Twitter etc) every/most days;
  • 19% were born in a non-English speaking country (up from 11% in 2006);
  • 19% switched from another denomination in the last 5 years;
  • 12% transferred from another Baptist church in the last 5 years;
  • 6.8% are “Newcomers” (people who have joined their church in the last five years and were not previously attending a church – we would call them converts) down from 8.8% in 2001.

The Core Qualities

The NCLS has identified nine facets of church life (their “Core Qualities”) which are indicative of Church vitality. In other words the research has identified that when churches do well in these areas they are also likely to demonstrate numerical growth, spiritual growth in the survey respondents and high levels newcomers.

These qualities are:

  1. Faith – I have experienced much growth in faith at my church
  2. Worship – I always/usually experience inspiration during the service here
  3. Belonging – I have a strong & growing sense of belonging here
  4. Vision – I am strongly committed to the vision, goals & direction here
  5. Leadership – Our leaders encourage us to a great extent to use our gifts here
  6. Innovation – I strongly agree our church is always ready to try new things
  7. Service – I have helped others informally in at least three of named ways
  8. Faith-Sharing – I invited someone to church here in the last year
  9. Inclusion – I am certain I would follow up someone drifting away from church

Some individual Australian Baptist churches are doing extremely well in these areas and as result they are seeing strong numerical growth, spiritual growth and high levels of “Newcomers.” Other churches are not doing so well.

The scores for most of the Core Qualities have stayed about the same in the 2001, 2006 and 2011 surveys. However, some interesting trends are apparent. On the whole worship services in Baptist churches are more inspirational than they were 10 years ago. This could reflect  the ongoing influence of charismatic movement with its emphasis on the experience of God in corporate worship services. Potentially, this greater experience of God will lead to transformed lives and a more powerful Church.

Australian Baptists are also increasingly likely to be involved in acts of service. The percentage indicating that they have informally helped others is steadily increasing (55.0% in 2001 to 60.2%). This reflects a growing compassion amongst Australian Baptists possibly reflecting an increasing awareness of poverty and its related issues. Possibly related to this is the increased is the increased inclination to “follow up someone drifting away from church” – up from 7.3% in 2001 to 12.3%. Australian Baptist churches are increasingly caring communities.

However, there are two trends in Australian Baptist churches which are of concern. The first is in regard to leadership. The percentage of Australian Baptists who say: “Our leaders encourage us to a great extent to use our gifts here,” is falling (from 27.4% in 2001 to 20.2% in 2006 and 2011). The average percentage for Pentecostal churches was 45% and for the Salvation Army it was 26%. This response indicates that less than one in four Australian Baptists feel greatly encouraged to use their gifts. Additionally, when asked what should be given greater attention in the next 12 months, the top response amongst Australian Baptists (36%) was “Encouraging the people here to discover/use their gifts.”

This Core Quality is strongly linked to church vitality. If the role of pastors is to “equip the saints for the works of service” (Eph. 4:12) they are often failing. Our church members desire to have more help identifying and using their gifts, and it is crucial for church vitality, yet many would seem to feel under-developed. Clearly Australian Baptist church leaders need to work harder at identifying, developing and utilising the gifts of their church members.

The second trend is even more disturbing. The percentage indicating that “I invited someone to church here in the last year,” has fallen from 43.6% in 2001 to 36.0% in 2011. Although this is better than most other denominations (although the Pentecostals scored 57% on the same question) the trend is very serious. Although people may be involved in personal evangelism through their own networks, invitation to church remains a key step in the conversion process. If Baptists are to pride themselves on their missional focus, we need to take deliberate steps to reverse this worrying trend. We need to create a culture of invitation.

Values and Concerns

The NCLS has two questions which provide valuable insight into the heart of Australian Baptists. The first is, “Which of the following aspects of this congregation do you personally most value?” In line with our Baptist heritage the top response was “Sermons, preaching or Bible teaching” (48%). However, this was down from 53% in 2001. Other highly valued aspects included small prayer, discussion or Bible study groups (28%),  praying for one another (27%), and a “contemporary style of worship or music.” Interestingly, worship style is becoming less important, falling from 35% in 2001 to 26% in 2011. Given that respondents have a growing sense of inspiration from worship services (see above) this is puzzling. It could be that with the winding down of the “worship wars” in many churches people are not passionately clinging to contemporary worship.

As mentioned above, the thing that most Australian Baptists indicated should be given greater attention in their church in the next 12 months was “Encouraging the people here to discover/use their gifts” (36%).  Other preferred priorities were spiritual growth (e.g. spiritual direction, prayer groups) (35%), building a strong sense of community within the congregation (33%) and ensuring new people are included well in church life (29%). Some have predicted the decline of church small groups, but these responses indicate that attenders still want them to play a significant role in their church life. Involvement in small prayer, discussion or Bible study groups has grown slightly (54%) since 2001, yet people clearly desire what small groups may offer them.

Conclusions

Australian Baptist churches are clearly a good place to be. Look at your congregation on Sunday and note that on average, a third (31%) of those gathered have switched in from another church in the last five years. Australian Baptist churches are increasingly inspirational where people care for one another and those outside the church. The preaching of the word of God continues to be the major focus of church life.

However, there is an increasing reluctance to invite others to experience church. And there is a sense of frustration. Although desiring to use and develop their gifts in service, many feel that the leaders are not helping them with their gifts. Although they desire to grow spiritually, they do not feel that there is enough being done in this area either. This information presents an exciting challenge for local church leaders.

Rev Dr Ian Hussey is a Lecturer at Malyon College and coordinator of the Doctor of Ministry program. He did his PhD on the NCLS research. He is available to help local churches understand and use their NCLS results or to arrange for them to take the survey.