Written by Peter Blanch
Next Sunday, November 20th, we will be conducting the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) here during our church service. The National Church Life Survey is a research project that has taken place every five years for twenty five years: 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016. In the survey, churchgoers are asked to give their thoughts, opinions and experiences of church life. The most recent survey took place from September to November 2011 when over 260,000 church attendees from more than 4500 churches took part.
Why should churches in Australia bother with this nationwide survey? We’ve just had the national census, why do we need an Australia-wide church census?
Australians were asked to participate in the National Census because: “The Census helps Australians to understand who we are, where we live and how we’re changing … the Census provides the single most accurate snapshot of Australia … Census data is the foundation for population estimates of each state, territory and local government area. … In short, Census data is used by individuals, organisations and government to make informed decisions on policy and planning issues that impact the lives of all Australians”.1 Of course there are similar reasons for churches to hold a census. It gives us very valuable resource upon which to make decisions.
But in my opinion, the crucial reason to have a census has to do with tactics, not strategy. Many of you reading this have endured planning sessions in your workplace where almost the entire time is consumed in a debate over the differences between words like ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’! It can be frustrating, but there is a crucial difference between strategy and tactics. As Phillip Jensen writes:
“Strategy is the big thinking—the overall plan and the means for getting there. Strategy is done by Prime Ministers and generals who say, “If we’re going to win World War II, we’ll have to land an invasion force in France, backed up by air support”. Tactics is more immediate thinking: it’s manoeuvring the pieces on the chessboard to achieve the smaller milestones that go together to make up the strategy. Tactics is done by colonels and captains who say, “We’ll need to land this many troops at this time and in this place, depending on the tides and the weather, in order to secure a beachhead, with this many planes running these missions in support”.
If the strategy is to win the war by invading France, then there may be a number of legitimate tactical approaches to getting that done. But these options wouldn’t include sending flowers, or running up the white flag, or deciding to land an invasion force in Greenland instead. Tactics sit under strategy, and are circumscribed by strategy.
In Christian ministry, as in war and business, we must not only have a clear understanding of what our strategy is, but how it relates to the day-to-day tactics. This is particularly important for Christians, because our strategy is not something we have to come up with at a vision-planning day. Our strategy is understood by revelation. It is God’s strategy—his cosmic plan—and his way of getting it done.” 2
This means that the National Church Life Survey has nothing to do with strategy. God’s goal of bringing himself glory by saving people into his family has already given us a clear strategy. “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-7). This is the strategy of God for gathering his people from all over the world – a strategy which involves us!
So we rejoice that God himself has set the strategy for our actions. We need to be praying, we need to be proclaiming and we need to be discipling people. These three key strategies should determine the activity of every church and Christian ministry. When we meet to think about how we are going, and to plan what we will do next, our discussion should not centre on devising a strategy, it should centre on considering how well and faithfully we are implementing God’s strategy.
Which bring us to tactics – and the usefulness of the National Church Life Survey. Tactical thinking is important and valuable, but secondary. Tactics are provisional and change constantly. They can vary from moment to moment. One tactic used to reach people in the 1960’s that was in line with Gods strategy, might not work so well in 2016. And so a new tactic that also sits under Gods strategy might need to be implemented to better reach people in our current generation. The National Church Life Survey gives us an important snapshot of church life, locally, regionally and nationally that helps all churches make tactical plans under Gods strategy.
Please make an effort to be at church this next week, so that your voice can be heard in the survey, so we might get an accurate picture of the life of our church, of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and how we contribute to the wider picture of church life across Australia.
The survey is completely anonymous, collected and collated by the NCLS organisation and the results fed back to involved churches.
If you have any questions regarding this survey, please do not hesitate to speak with me.
- Phillip D Jensen / Briefing #358-9 / July 2008