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Over the last few months, two important sources of facts about religion in Australia have been released. The first was Faith and Belief in Australia: A national study on religion, spirituality, and worldview trends by the McCrindle organisation. The second was the results of the 2016 Australian Census. In this article, I would like to comment on a few of the implications of these studies for Christians (and particularly Baptists) in Queensland.
First the Bad News
As I’m sure you’ve already read in the media, religion is Australia is dying. The number of Australians identifying with “no religion” increased from 22% in the 2011 census to 30% in the 2016 census. I’m sure that much of this increase was not people ditching their faith, but just people being more honest about what they believe. However, a growing proportion of Australians are clearly stating that they do not believe in religion.
In the past, Australian Baptists have generally been spared from this decline in faith. For example, in the 2011 census those identifying with the Baptist denomination increased by over 11% in the previous 5 years. While most Christian denominations were in decline, we were leading the way forward. This was certainly true in Queensland where our numbers grew by 17% (compared with a State population growth of 11%) between 2006 and 2011. You probably don’t remember it, but I even wrote an article celebrating this growth and offering reasons for our significant success.
Well this is no longer the case. In Australia, those identifying as Baptist in the 2016 census (which is probably the best indication we have of overall Baptist numbers) showed a 2.8% decline in five years (a loss of 7347 people to be precise). We did slightly better in Queensland with a 0.4% increase (from 87271 to 87640) between 2011 and 2016. But seeing Queensland’s population is growing at about 1.5% per annum (that’s over 7% in 5 years), Qld Baptists appear to be a shrinking proportion of the population.
This is bad news indeed. Baptists are now included in the steady decline of religious affiliation in Australia. We can no longer pride ourselves on bucking the trend. It appears that if we do nothing intentional, the decline will continue.
The Good News
McCrindle’s research comes to a similar conclusion about Australia’s declining religious identity with 45% claiming to be Christian, 14% identifying as spiritual but not religious, and 22% with no religion. Of those who identify with Christianity, 15% go to church at least monthly including 7% who are actively involved. Taking a glass half full perspective, this means that while only 7 out of every 100 Australians are very active in their church, almost 60% would see themselves as religious or spiritual in some way. (This does not include those who follow other faiths.) So, we still have an open mission field.
But it gets better. Consider the following statistics:
Sorry for all the statistics, but I wanted to show that Christianity is far from a lost cause in the minds and hearts of secular Australians. They are watching and there is interest. I know that the perceptions of church abuse (73% say that this is massive or significant negative influence) are a big challenge for us, but many Australians are searching and observing and sometimes talking about faith and meaning in life.
Some Implications for Concerned Christians
If you are concerned about the decline of religion (and Baptists) in Australia, then it’s time to do something about it. Here are a few simple suggestions. There is nothing particularly new here, but the above research calls for the following actions.
Pray. There is clearly a spiritual battle for the hearts of Australians and it starts in prayer. There is no time to lose. We are clearly on the slide. We desperately need God to work in power. It’s encouraging to see a growing heart for prayer in our churches. This is paramount.
Live. People are watching us and they do notice. We need to expand our ministry to the disadvantaged (this is God’s heart) and to show the love of Jesus to those we share life with. They are looking for care and love and we can express it. Our life message must counteract the damaging church abuse message so prominent in the media.
Talk. Most Aussies are at least occasionally talking about religion and faith. Surprisingly, it’s not a taboo subject. If conversations are the biggest prompt for people to consider faith, we must get Jesus into our conversations. It’s time for gentle, but courageous words.
Find. 1 in 10 non-Christians are open to exploring faith. We must find these people and encourage and assist them. This means providing ways to explore Christianity (e.g. Alpha), offering invitations to church events, experimenting with different models of church, and consistently inviting people to follow Jesus.
We’ve had a warning shot across our bow. We can no longer be complacent. The church in Australia is slowly dying. The harvest is waiting.