Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for the 2021 census arrived this week. For the first time Christians are less than half the population: just 44%. No, people haven’t switched to other faiths: 39% identify as “no religion.”
What are Aussies saying to the church? I’m hearing values such as these:
- We don’t trust people in power, especially politicians and priests. Authorities are suspect, self-serving. The whole “faith” thing doesn’t sit with our distrust.
- We don’t want the church telling us what to do and how to behave. We will define ourselves and set our own social norms. The individual reigns, free to pursue her own goals limited only by a social consensus not to harm other beings.
- We don’t need a God. Science explains the world better than religion does. We can take care of ourselves now.
- We will express ourselves as we please, without controls over our bodies (abortion), without limits on who we can love (gay rights), without subjecting women to male power (#metoo), without forcing people to fit binary gender identities.
- Religion is irrelevant, or worse. We don’t want its outdated values and divisive beliefs ruling us, restricting our potential, making financial demands. We don’t want the fear, guilt, and shame it imposes.
- Choosing “no religion” is better for everyone, delivering greater freedom for the individual and for society.
How do churches respond?
- Some ignore the issues, hoping it will all go away eventually. These churches are aging, gradually dying, for younger generations find no place there.
- Some try to adapt by changing our values. These churches are dividing, gradually falling apart as some hold to the traditional values of Scripture while others reframe their beliefs to accommodate the times.
- Some try to fight the darkness. They have financed ministries to speak against evolution, or lobbied and protested to overturn laws on abortion or gay marriage, or conducted “spiritual warfare” against the evils of our time. These churches make the problem worse: driving their opponents further from God, misrepresenting Christ with their condemning message, relying on the wrong powers with political partisanship.
None of those approaches represent what our Lord called us to do. He never asked us to fight the darkness, to turn down the lights, or to stay inside with our candles.
This is what he said:
You are the light of the world. Like a town set up on a hill, you have no chance of hiding it. No one lights a lamp to hide it under a bowl; the whole point is to let it shine for everyone. I want you to shine so that everyone sees the good you’re doing, and goes, ‘OMG! That family’s light reflects the brilliance of their Father in the heavens.’ (Matthew 5:14–16 paraphrased).
Aussies are telling us they can’t see God. What do we need to do differently so they can see Father’s radiance?
We must review our belief and practice, but that review is conducted in light of God’s character, not cultural demands. The clash between what God wants and what the culture wants is not absent from Scripture; it’s at the heart of the story. So is God’s faithfulness. What can Scripture teach us about living faithfully in a world that does not have a commitment to faithfulness?
Scripture is also the story of God’s people struggling to stay on mission with God’s restorative programme. That’s why we must humbly review and adjust both our belief and practice. Specifically:
- What is our message? Why don’t Aussies hear it as good news?
- What are we doing to make God known? Why isn’t that working? What do we need to do differently?
Take-aways for this time:
- We’re not fighting the darkness. That’s a waste of energy.
- We’re not dimming the lights to accommodate the culture. That’s losing what matters.
- We’re not hiding in a bowl until we die out. That’s missing our calling.
But how many saints does it take to change a light bulb?
What others are saying
John Dickson, Facebook post, 2022-06-28:
The civic motivation to tick “Christian” has declined, and so the declining percentage of “Christians” in the Census reveals the steady dropping away of this nominal class of Christians.
I have long said that the percentage of Australians that actually have some type of heartfelt trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ is something closer to 25% …
It is time (over time) for Australian Christians to recognise and embrace their minority status. How I pray that we will be a confident, humble, and cheerful minority.
Michael Jensen, Not my tribe: Australians have turned their back on religion, but not on their faith (The Age, 2022-06-29).
For a large part of Australia’s history, since 1788, religion has been tribal as much as a matter of personal faith. If you were Irish or Italian, you were Catholic; if you were English, you were Church of England; if you were Scottish, you were Presbyterian; if you were Greek, you were Orthodox. …
What the 2021 census reveals is perhaps the widespread breaking of this tribal link. Fewer and fewer Australians identify with those tribal groupings. But it’s not just the case that the “nominals” have simply left a church they weren’t really attending. …
This is the challenge – and the opportunity – for the Christian churches. It’s not that we have to become more secular, or more cool. We’ve lost trust where we’ve become too institutionally driven, and too desperate to cling to our influence. Our aim should not be to “win” the census, but to be more like Jesus Christ.
McCrindle Research, Faith and Belief in Australia (McCrindle, 2017):
There has been a notable increase in the proportion of Australians who identify with no religion over the last 100 years, from 0.4% in 1911 to 22% in 2011. (p.8)
57% of Australians say, “I am not at all active in practising religion.” (p.16)
Less than three in ten (28%) non-Christians believe the church is having a positive impact in their area. (p.39)
- Distinctively God’s kingdom: salt and light (Mt 5:13-16)
- Are Christians the moral police? (Mt 5:13-16)
- Who is the light of the world? (Mt 5:14-16)
- What kind of society do Aussies want?