Churchgoers are keen to build a greater sense of community after the pandemic

The change in emphasis may be due to the disruption of in-person meetings during lockdowns.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Building a strong sense of community in the local church is a top priority for Australian Christians over the next 12 months, a major survey has found.

The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) asked churchgoers their opinion of what should be given priority in their local church in the next year.

The findings represent a change in focus over previous years, being the first time nationally that 'building a strong sense of community within this local church' has come out on top among churchgoers' concerns (36%).

'Spiritual growth' was the main priority in the 2016 survey, and though it has slipped to second place this time round at 34%, it continues to be important to churchgoers.

The third most selected response was 'worship services that are nurturing to people's faith' (28%), followed by 'encouraging people's gifts' (25%).

The change in emphasis may be due to the disruption of in-person meetings during lockdowns, with the loss of valued community being felt broadly, especially in states that had longer lockdowns, according to NCLS Research.

The survey also compared priorities between the different denominations - Catholic, Pentecostal, Large Protestant (eg Baptist, Churches of Christ, Salvation Army, Seventh-day Adventist Churches), and 'Other Protestant' denominations.

Other Protestant denominations and Pentecostal churches differed in that they prioritized spiritual growth above other concerns (55% and 47% of attenders respectively).

This was followed by 'building a strong sense of community' (39% and 37% respectively,) and 'encouraging spiritual gifts' (32% and 37% respectively).

Among Catholics, building a strong sense of community was a top priority for 36%, followed by spiritual growth (26%) and nurturing worship services (24%).

Other high priorities for Catholics included increasing the number of people at Mass (23%) and starting a new programme for people who don't go to church (16%).

Mainstream Protestant churches were equally committed to building a strong sense of community (35%), followed by nurturing worship services (34%), spiritual growth (32%), and 'encouraging people's gifts' (29%).

Findings from the 2021 Australian Community Survey, also by NCLS Research and published earlier this year, show that frequent church attendance declined between 2016 and 2019. It then slumped during the pandemic in 2020 before recovering to pre-pandemic levels in late 2021.