What are we to make of the new Australian Census finding that just 43.9% of Australians now profess to be Christian? With that number apparently nosediving and the number of ‘no religion’ adherents almost matching it, all might seem bleak for the future of the Church in this nation. To some extent progressive multiculturalism, which has rightly been welcomed in society, has diluted the proportion of Christians and not just the number. Known errors in the census data also play a smaller role, and these perhaps relate to the way some people interpret its questions. Such factors skew perceptions more dramatically than is warranted. Nevertheless, there is also a clear increase in Australian secularism that the Church needs to accept and adjust to. Just what, though, might this look like?
Some obvious causes in increased detachment from churches include: ongoing angst over historical clergy abuse; a loss of confidence in large churches after the fall of prominent leaders; continued belligerence from the so-called ‘new atheists’; disenchantment with institutional faith systems; and a perceived disconnect over social hot-button issues concerning homosexuality and gender dysphoria.
That’s quite a list, and I’m fairly sure we could add to it. COVID has perhaps exacerbated the departure of many from organised religion, too, but the overall trend we are seeing has become obvious against the backdrop of seismic cultural shifts across the past half century.
Just as individual churches in decline often fail to face up to this reality until their existence is precarious, some quarters of the Church in this nation certainly need urgent redress. Nevertheless, I see three important reasons why the picture painted by the new census statistic is not really quite as gloomy as it might seem for Australian Christianity.
1. Reactions aren’t reasons – faith is still credible
The above factors represent choices people have made and do not by themselves undermine the validity of faith. It’s not that rejection of faith is necessarily emotionally-driven either. Many have just found their churches to be irrelevant, unnecessary and, in some cases, harmful. Some wrestle with their quest for answers, but others sadly bail out with minimal serious inquiry.
Churches can fall short of facilitating an optimised life of faith when their ‘shopfront’ becomes a weekend service lacking sufficient volunteers for some congregants’ liking or enough inspiration to be able to engage people on enough levels.
For instance, many young people have long since left such churches in which they’ve not yet had the benefit of long-term involvement to secure commitment and to forgive shortcomings. Talkfests, uninspiring music, and services pitched to adults while alienating or boring them when they were kids, have all played a part in their ‘post-eighteen’ exodus.
Most churches offer plenty of opportunity for discipleship growth, of course, but it is minimally utilised as a second-tier optional activity. A lack of leaders (or otherwise-occupied long-termers) means event-based churches seem to be efficient substitutes while nevertheless remaining inefficient at driving the end-goal of disciple-making.
No-one’s fault and everyone’s fault all at once.
Most long-term churchgoers have, though, at some point, discovered both the reasonableness and the emotional engagement of a faith which is surely supposed to touch all areas of the human life, anyway. Did Jesus not tell us to love the Lord with our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30)?
These people generally do maintain belief in God, even if they maintain minimal church involvement. Just as gardens sprout weeds due to sheer neglect, life’s circumstances similarly overrun those not resolutely determined to prioritise faith. The ‘no religion’ preference on the census form often simply reflects disaffiliation with organised religion no longer ‘cutting the mustard’ but not a rejection of faith per se.
Whereas a prior generation of committed baby-boomers often built and grew churches as communities of inspiration, their disenchanted generation-X kids came to mum-and-dad’s church without then transmitting faith to their own children in the years that followed. Perhaps each generation feels that church power bases among an older elite have alienated them, and perhaps the perception is an all-too convenient reason to disconnect.
The solution to the weakening of faith across these ‘Abraham,’ ‘Isaac,’ and ‘Jacob’ generations, though, is for some empowering leadership to surface that helps the third of these to have a first generation encounter with God. Ultimately, more people need to be released to lead fruitful expressions of faith.
Maybe then we will find a compelling witness to those of no faith who often look in and see little quantifiable difference in the lives of those whose practice doesn’t match their preaching.
2. Form is not faith – threats bring opportunities
While many ex-church people have been disenchanted for various reasons, many have also failed to live a surrendered life with Jesus as Lord. There have been (and are) numerous examples of burned-out leaders whose deeper passion is for secular pastimes and interests, spurning church while on holidays, and praying and preparing for their professional duties rather than their personal spiritual growth.
No wonder that listlessness follows in the pews. However, even where the majority still maintain a hunger for an enthusiastic spirituality, an over-reliance on liturgies and rituals – even in contemporary Pentecostal and evangelical circles (albeit in a different form) – sap the refreshing spontaneity and rawness of a once unpolished and exciting experience.
Many who bought into Jesus at some point in time, have long since stopped short of living a life based on the biblical priority of hearing God and obeying him in a transformative daily relationship.
While a relationship with God is often touted as a very welcome replacement for religion, many who had left one religion and sought another are now opting for ‘no religion’ at all when religion apparently fails to impress them.
In reality, it has simply not been impressed upon them.
Any Australian decline in Christian adherence mirrors that seen in other Western nations, but the worldwide picture is actually more inspiring. Globally, while Christianity remains the frontrunning faith by a long way, the relatively-recent Pentecostal and Charismatic expressions (despite their imperfections) have been growing steadily, now accounting for more than half a billion people worldwide.
When Christians buy into a pragmatic faith, sometimes accompanied by a culture of success and a bless-me centrality that allows pride and self-absorption to supplant the mission and call of Jesus, then disruptions such as COVID will all too easily undermine it.
The words of G. K. Chesterton remain true: the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.
Therefore, since many Australians are still open to spirituality, there exists a perfect opportunity to change the message from one of expectation to one of exploration. Again, it is empowering leadership that will best contextualise effective new opportunities to engage people who may have ditched certain forms of faith, but haven’t necessarily given up on the idea of developing that faith altogether.
Ridiculous are the oft-peddled reactionary notions that taking church to the masses beyond the four walls means dispensing with larger-scale celebration services. Multiple worship contexts adopt the genius of the ‘and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ polarity, and they apply a church’s best leadership gifts to where they can make the biggest impact.
3. People aren’t different now – Jesus still changes lives
Many Christians miss opportunities to share faith with the many open people around them because of intimidation by the few who are closed. This is often more pronounced when the existing Christian’s faith is routine and not transformative, but there’s nothing like a conviction that people need Jesus to stir some transformation! And this come from being filled with the Spirit.
When my life (and that of others around me) was changed by God, I felt such a spiritual stirring that I became naturally committed to taking a stand for what I believed. I also began sharing my faith with others. What was good for me surely had to be good for them, too.
This was despite not always being able to articulate my responses to their questions as well as I would have liked. Of course, I became motivated to learn more and become better at explaining or defending my beliefs both relationally and confidently.
And it is not about waiting to be surer, or more perfect, first: it’s about obeying the Great Commission in new, creative, and Spirit-fuelled ways when so many around us are still going to a Christless eternity.
Whether it is consumerism, offence, busyness, or any other driver leading to distraction, almost every generation has needed to be snapped out of its spiritually lethargic stupor to recapture zeal for what still today matters most.
Once again, empowering leadership inspires, coaches, encourages, shapes and releases the people of God to impact their generation.
But we all need to own this. If we come looking to others in a church service to give us a shot in the arm, what then happens when they also come looking for the same thing?!
So what is really needed now?
The church today doesn’t necessarily need to focus on new forms or extremes. It has suffered for several decades from an indifference to the prizing of empowering leadership and spiritual passion. The former is often mistaken for what becomes controlled management by individual leaders, even good people who unwittingly shape congregations around their own charisma. The latter is mistaken for a slick and effective worship set that too often reduces the weekly engagement with God to four songs (often presented by chart-bound bands doing the best they can but lacking compelling spiritual leadership that matches their musical proficiency).
The seeker sensitivity of Willow Creek, the contemporary worship of Hillsong, or any other approaches to worship are merely contexts, not answers. None are especially desirable or undesirable at the expense of others. Any of these contexts can be celebrated for their strengths or chastised for their weaknesses.
Those that grow disciples who develop a meaningful faith that then leads others to Christ find, too, that they grow. And technology is not the spirit of their church community; the Holy Ghost is!
So, whatever isn’t working in churches today might just be overhauled or renewed when He is given access to the very people who themselves, in the end, really are the Church. Every congregation member owning his or her commitment to stir a response to God with enthusiastic singing and prayer, led by people helping them engage meaningfully and pursue daily ownership of biblical truth, will exercise a greater Kingdom impact in every life context.
And empowered leaders would also become empowering (and less controlling). Spiritual passion would pervade contexts in which we celebrate the benefit of both the small and large dynamic, finding an equilibrium that magnifies Jesus and draws the rest of us in reverence before Him.