Understanding data to find new pathways

The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) and Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census data provide a wealth of information to the community, which churches can use to help guide them in strategic decisions.

Rev David Kriel, Mission Planner for the Uniting Church WA, and Rev Dr Elizabeth Raine, a past member of the NCLS Board of Governors and the NCLS Research Committee, will lead two  workshops in October: Understanding your congregation using NCLS data and Understanding your community using Census data.

Elizabeth said that NCLS data is a great tool for congregations  to understand their gifts and how to use them to connect with their local community. Not only can NCLS provide congregation profiles, but they can also provide information that is specific to the community around them.

“It’s well researched, it’s credible and it’s done by people who are highly skilled in the area,” she said. “They’ve also done community surveys as well, which has been useful because that’s allowed churches to actually place themselves in the greater secular context. Do they believe in God, do they have a spiritual practice, how often do they attend church?

“So that way you can sight yourself within secular society in a broad sense.”

David explained that each congregation needs to reflect on a number of questions before they can decide on their own strategic mission.

“In mission planning there’s three essential questions you have to address in the process,” he said. “Who are you, the congregation? If you can’t answer that you’ll get nowhere.

“The second question is: who are my neighbours, my community?

“And then you ask yourself: what has God called us to do in our community?”

To answer the third question, you must first address the two before it, which is where understanding NCLS data is helpful.

Elizabeth and David are realistic about the challenges of a declining church, and are passionate about using NCLS and ABS data to help members of congregations tackle how they will move forward. Many churches have been facing incremental decline, but unfortunately wait too long to act. While it becomes harder to change the longer it is ignored, this doesn’t mean there is no hope.

Elizabeth said understanding the Stockdale Paradox is a useful concept for declining congregations to help them decide what to do next. The Stockdale Paradox invites us to reflect honestly and    realistically about the situation we might find ourselves in, no matter how painful, without losing hope that we will get through it.

“The Stockdale Paradox says that congregations have to realise there is tough stuff you’ve got to face,” Elizabeth said. “There will be elephants in the room, you are declining, you are aging; but it’s  not stopping at that.

“Yes, we’re aging and declining, but as people of faith, as a resurrection people, we can believe that if we apply ourselves and we have hope, we can find a way forward.”

Using the NCLS and Census data, David said congregations can be more confident in finding new pathways or mission activities.

“Most activities of the church don’t cost a lot of money,” he said. “If you’ve got the passion for something, the resources follow.”

Elizabeth agreed, adding that Christians are called to take risks.

“When you’re prepared to put your neck out and risk something, that’s when you grow, that’s when you learn. That’s the Gospel she said.

“Jesus never said ‘sit down, have a nice pew and have a comfortable life.’ Jesus said ‘pick up your cross and take this risky path. Stick your neck out in faith.’

“It’s always good to acknowledge there’s a lot more you can learn and by doing something new you learn a lot about yourself. Relationships flourish and the world is a better place.”


The Understanding your Congregation and Community workshops will be held on Saturday 14 and 28 October, 9.30am–4.30pm, at Willetton Uniting Church. Cost is $50 per workshop. Bring your NCLS profiles with you to the workshops, as these will be used to reflect on.

For more information and to book, contact Kerry George on 9260 9800 or email pa.education@wa.uca.org.au. For more information on the National Church Life Survey visit ncls.org.au.

Heather Dowling

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