A census-style survey of more than two million churchgoers in four countries will provide Christians with an unprecedented snapshot of the faith, and a "mission resource" to help church leaders plan for the future, according to the chair of the survey's international steering committee and president-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia, Dean Drayton.

The International Church Life Survey is being distributed in New Zealand, England, the United States, and Australia. The core survey consists of about 50 questions seeking basic information such as age, background and denomination. Critical questions include attitudes to women's role in the church, sexuality, indigenous issues, and understanding of the role of the Bible.

Church members are asked how far they live from their congregation, whether they believe they are growing in their faith, how they have shared their faith with others and how they relate to their church community. Individual congregations and denominations may add questions of their own to the core survey.

The survey was distributed on Sunday, April 29, to about half-a-million respondents in the U.S., and to similar numbers in England. About 850,000 Australians will receive the forms on Sunday, May 20. Between 250,000 and 300,000 New Zealanders will receive their surveys at about the same time.

A total of 17,300 congregations from more than 18 denominations will take part.

The survey is being run by an international committee, which has met three times since 1997 in Australia, the U.S. and England. The Australian survey is being handled by the Uniting Church, Anglicare, and the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference. In New Zealand the Christian Research Association will administer the project, and in England it will be coordinated by the Churches Information for Mission (CIM). In the U.S. it is being managed by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

A similar survey has been run twice before in Australia, and once in New Zealand.

Drayton says that the results, which he hopes will be available early next year, would be a valuable resource both for individual congregations and church leaders. "It will give individual congregations and church leaders three major vitality indicators: how well do we interact with the community; how well are we attracting people into our congregations; and how are people growing in faith and belonging," he said.

Results will be available on an international, national and congregation-by-congregation basis. The congregations participating in the survey should get printouts of their own results by the end of this year. Results will also be available on the Web.

Drayton said the four countries had been chosen because the project had grown through "informal networks." He expected another two or three countries to join the International Church Life Survey team for another survey to be held in 2006.

"It really is an immense undertaking," he said. "This is an extraordinarily constructive ecumenical exercise. We discovered some great surprises in Australia when we began to survey all denominations. There were some great commonalities emerging. When we do it internationally, I think we are going to be surprised both by areas of difference and commonality.

"We should get a picture of the range of responses to the Grace of God in the present-day context. It will be a mission resource that will guide congregations in taking steps forward, as well as a resource for decision-makers and a reference point for the media."

Drayton said he expected to discover great differences in the "flavor of how we look at congregational life and the future," as well as material which would build bridges between Christians from different traditions.

Related Elsewhere

The International Church Life Survey site offers more information about what the survey hopes to measure, who is participating, and other topics.