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Why don't more Australians go to church? Many express interest in spiritual issues, and there are high levels of occasional contact between the churches and the community. Yet the number of people who attend church has hit its lowest point in the post-war period, with around 20% who claim to attend worship services at least monthly.

Why People Don't Go to Church is the latest release from NCLS Research. It draws from the 1998 Australian Community Survey (ACS), a joint project of NCLS Research and Edith Cowan University, Perth.

There is no single reason that can simply explain why people do not go to church. It is, of course, a combination of issues such as individual experience, attitudes and beliefs, personal background and relationships as well as broader social and historical factors.

This article summarises some of the findings from the Australian Community Survey regarding reasons people give for not going to church and key influences on church attendance. It also looks at some says that churches are responding to the challenges.

Reasons people give for not going to church

What do people say discourages them from going to church? The ACS
put 17 statements to respondents about aspects that may discourage
them from attending church. This is only one small aspect of the research covered in the book, Why People Don't Go to Church. Table 1 shows that the most commonly stated reason given for not attending church is that worship services are too boring or unfulfilling. Some 42 per cent of infrequent and non-attenders are discouraged by this aspect, at least to some extent.

The next most important iscouragements are problems with the beliefs and moral stance of the churches (35%). Some prefer other
forms of spirituality, others reject all forms of religion. Many feel that the moral values which the churches are seen to affirm, particularly in areas such as sexuality or abortion, are not values with which they agree.

Other reasons that people give for what discourages them from attending church can be grouped into some broad categories in order
of importance:

Lack of motivation:
Rather than rejecting the churches outright, many have never
seriously considered church involvement or are more attracted by
other activities.

Bad experiences in the context of church life:
a significant minority of people report having had bad experiences in their relationships with others in the context of
the church. Others are discouraged by the reports of the bad experiences others have had. The survey found, for example, that the
reports of sexual abuse had significantly dampened people's positive
feelings about the church.

Lack of time: There is no sense of hostility, but other things are given priority.

Lack of access: This includes a lack of transport, poor health, a lack of churches nearby or a lack
of churches of the respondent's denomination. The survey shows
that is a comparatively minor issue.

One commonly held perception is that other leisure activities,
such as sport on Sundays, compete for ever-decreasing discretionary
time. Yet, the ACS found that involvement in many other leisure
activities has little or no effect on church involvement.

Key Factors in Understanding Church Attendance

There are a range of factors which contribute to an understanding
of why some people are discouraged from attending while others are
not. These factors include the following:

  1. Religious beliefs and moral values: What religious beliefs and moral values do people hold?
  2. Relationships: How many of a person's friends and family, go to church?
  3. Demographic profile: Age, gender, education and occupation all relate to levels of church attendance.
  4. A religious upbringing: Did the person go to church as a child? Do their parents go to church?

Many people reject conventional Christian beliefs. In recent
decades, religious authority has been challenged. While many
Australians admire the Christian ethic of care and concern for
others, they no longer see the churches as having a monopoly on
spiritual or moral truth.

These issues are clearly central to what the churches stand for
and in some areas of belief and morality there may be little room for
change or compromise. Yet if churches are going to be more accessible
to those now outside church life, it will be necessary to grapple
with issues of how values and beliefs are communicated as well as the
forms of public worship. However, issues of belief and practice are
only part of why people do not go to church.

People are embedded in network of relationships that has a strong
influence on their personal choices regarding activities such as
church attendance. A person is more likely to go to church if their
close friends do. Further, a person's family connections
cannot be ignored in trying to help them find a place in church life.
The impact of a spouse's attendance patterns is a strong factor
that influences whether a person goes to church or not.

To recognise and build on social connections, churches cannot
simply rely on the links provided existing close relationships that
attenders have with non-attenders. More than half of all infrequent
and non-attenders say they have no close friends involved in a

In general terms, people who are in younger generations, male,
less educated and in blue-collar occupations are less likely to be
found in church. There are many theories as to why this is so, but
the values of the churches, especially in the area of sexuality, go
some way towards explaining demographic variations in attendance.

Attending church as a child with churchgoing parents has a
significant influence on adult attendance patterns. Not only
does it impact on the current relationships a person has with other
church attenders, but it also affects beliefs, values and attitudes
towards the churches. The survey found that approximately 75 per cent
of all Australian adults have attended church frequently at some
stage or other in their lives, mostly as children. However, of all
who attended church as children, more than 50 per cent dropped out
while children or teenagers and have never attended frequently as

The research found that fewer children are attending church and of
those who do attend, the drop-out rate remains very high. Indeed, it
is likely that the current generation of teenagers will be the first
generation since white settlement in which the majority have had no
church involvement as children.

The most common point of contact that churches now have with
children is through religious education in schools. Using such
opportunities appropriately poses other challenges for the churches.
As many lack elementary knowledge about Christianity, churches are
also finding that they need to offer opportunities for people of
different ages to learn about the basics of the Christian faith.

How churches are responding

While the focus of the book Why People Don't Go to Church
is on the survey data, the book does note some of the ways churches
are seeking to offer the Christian faith as a viable alternative
within the plurality of modern society. Some are to do with
strengthening and building on what already exists and others provide
new and creative ways of engaging with society.

Cultural expression, such as popular music culture and the use of
visual imagery, has moved ahead of the churches. Some
innovative responses involve developing forms of church life that
respond to the cultural context, giving Christian meaning to
practices and creating new symbols and rituals for that culture.
Examples include cafe style churches, and ministries to the
surfing culture and to art communities.

There are many ways of providing opportunities to discuss faith
and values and to think about life's meaning. These include
one-off events, adult education courses, seminars, forums, Christian
meditation groups, internet e-groups and chat rooms. These approaches
all allow the exploration of faith without prior commitment to a

Organised by members of the Catholic Church, Spirituality in
the Pub
is about creating a forum where people can question and
challenge, share and explore issues of faith. It is a gathering in a
pub or hotel at a pre-arranged time. Two invited speakers share
briefly about some aspect of their faith. This is followed by
casual sharing time. A number of these gatherings now operate around

Some churches and groups seek connections by responding to the
interest in spirituality which has moved religion from being a
communal activity to an individual pursuit. Using art and film,
Christian meditation, experiences of nature or travel are some of the
ways that church groups are exploring spirituality.

As local communities become less central to peoples' social
and working lives, some churches are becoming more intentional
about creating community or tapping into community networks.
Ministries based around leisure and voluntary activities provide
points of contact and may become the basis of forming a new Christian

Dural is a residential growth area in Sydney. The local Baptist
Church decided that they would try to connect with the local
community by building a sports centre. Approximately 3500 people use
the centre each week, through school sports, sporting clubs, and
informal use of the centre, as well as the cafe and church
located on the site. Some who have had contact with the church
acknowledge that this would not have happened had it not been for the
sports centre.

In Conclusion

Many Australians feel that the churches are not engaging the
issues relevant to their daily lives. Many describe church
services as 'boring and unfulfilling'. This may be about
the style of worship, or it may be that they do not see the churches
as addressing aspects of life that relate to their interests and

The Australian Community Survey confirms that peoples'
religious beliefs and moral values are important predictors of
whether or not they go to church. It also reveals the important
influence of social relationships along with a range of other
factors. Each of these underlying influences provide challenges for
the churches in terms of connecting more effectively with the

Many churches are grappling with the challenges that are
presented. Some explore different styles of worship. Others work to
provide forums for exploring religious beliefs and values. Still
others focus on finding connections through creating relationships.

There are many opportunities for the churches to differentiate
themselves and to offer significant alternatives in faith and ways of
life. They can attract people by the authenticity of what they offer,
by the strength of their community life and by the meaning that is
found in relationship with God.

Ruth Powell for NCLS
For more information contact: NCLS Research: (02) 8267 4394, Fax: (02) 9267 7316


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