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Does The Australian Church Have A Future?

Thoughts for reflection and discussion by Rowland Croucher

In two major papers, Christendom, Clericalism, Church And Context[1] and Believing Without Belonging: Church In The Aftermath Of The 60s[2], New Zealand researcher Kevin Ward notes some challenging trends in church life:

Church attendance

* In New Zealand and Australia, as in all western countries, church attendance has declined since the 1960s. In Australia, 40% in 1961 claimed to attend church at least monthly, down to 24% by 1980 and 20% by 1999. New Zealand figures are similar.

* In Britain church attendance declined from 18% to 7.5% and Canada from 55% to 22%. Even in the USA, often seen as immune from these trends, it has fallen from 49% in 1958 to 40% in 2000.


* Is this because we’re more ‘secular’? No. (Sociologist Peter Berger thought so, but said in 1998 that this was his “one big mistake”. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in their recent book, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion title one of their chapters, “Secularisation, R.I.P.”)

* In fact, Westerners remain quite religious. The spiritual supermarket is on the rise. The Massey ISSP Survey in NZ, carried out in 1991 and 1998, showed certain belief in God was indicated by 31% of people, up from 29%; belief in life after death was up from 57% to 60%; and 30% of people said they prayed several times a week, up from 22%.

* Five trends have impacted significantly on the church: individualism, privatism, pluralism, relativism and anti-institutionalism.

Denominational patterns

* It’s liberal and mainstream churches which have declined most markedly: there’s a general pattern of resilience as we move from ‘left’ to ‘right’ across the Protestant spectrum.

But why are evangelical or conservative or charismatic/Pentecostal churches – particularly ‘megachurches’ – holding their own or growing? Simple: musical chairs – ‘church hopping growth’. One survey in the U.S.: ‘more than 80%’ is transfer growth; another in Canada: only 5.5% of church attenders come from an unchurched background.

* In Australia the NCLS research found that 7% of church attenders are newcomers, of which 4% are returnees to church life after a period of time away (with no significant difference between Pentecostal and Anglican churches).

* In New Zealand in the 1950s the vast majority of the 20% or so in a church on Sunday went to either mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. By 1999 the percentage in church had halved to about 10% and over half had moved to evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal churches. But in Western countries the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches came to an end in the late 90s.

* In 1960, 40% of New Zealand children were enrolled in Protestant Sunday Schools; by 1985 it was down to 11%. Generational patterns

* In the US, the generation known as Builders (born before 1946) make up 9.7% of the population and 60% are affiliated with church. Boomers (born 1946-1960) are 29% of the population and around 40% are affiliated with church. Gen X (1961-1977) make up 27.5% and only 18% are affiliated with church. The generation behind them, sometimes known as Gen-Y or the Millennials (born post-1978) make up 21.4% of the population and only 12% are affiliated with church, a figure very similar to the 14% figure for British young people.

* In New Zealand, those aged over 50 make up 32% of the general population and 58% of those in churches. Those 40 to 49 are 18% of the population and 16% of the church attenders. Those aged 20 to 39 are 42% of the population but only 21% of church attenders.

[1]http://jmm.org.au/articles/8481.htm [2] http://jmm.org.au/articles/8483.htm


Kevin goes on to examine our understandings of conversion and of the forms church life takes. (Re the former: conversion comes about primarily through socialisation: belonging needs to happen before believing can occur. Re the latter, he quotes Eddie Gibbs, Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary: “Popular models of church today, such as the ‘megachurch’ concept, the ‘seeker church’ and the new ‘cell’ church model are only tactical attempts to breathe new life into old structures.”)


Church Attendance in Australia:

interview with Rev. Dr. Philip Hughes of the Christian Research Association:

1. Kevin Ward and others say there’s more religion out there but less church attending. Do you have some Australian figures for these over the last couple of decades?

In the 90s, church attendance monthly or more slid from about 25% of Australian adults to about 20%. (It also aged considerably, so we expect further declines.) However, the proportion describing themselves as religious, remained about the same. (1983 – 56% and 1995 – 58%: not significantly different.) Between 1983 and 1995, belief in God fell slightly from 79% to 75%; belief in the soul rose from 67% to 81% affirming it. Around 2/3rds of Australians say that having a spiritual life is important to them. (These figures mainly from the World Values Surveys of 1995 and 1983).

2. What about the cessation of growth of the Pentecostal churches in Australia?

Between 1986 and 1991, the Pentecostal denominations grew by 42%. Between 1991 and 1996, they grew by 16% – and more than half of that growth could be attributed to the birth of children to Pentecostal parents. (Census figures). The NCLS found, in 1996, large flows in and out. In 1996, 28% of all worshipping in Pentecostal churches had transferred from another denomination in last 5 years, plus 10% of newcomers were without previous church background. But there were also large flows out, with 15% of that number going to another denomination and 17% drifting out and ceasing church attendance altogether.

3. What percentage of Australian Builders, Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials attend church?

? 70 year olds – about 35%; ? 40 to 59 – about 21%; ? 20 – 39 – about 15% monthly or more often. (These were the figures in 1998s – from the Australian Community Survey.)


Resources/issues for discussion:

1. Future Church

In The Once and Future Church (Alban Institute, 1996) Loren Mead writes about ‘Reinventing the Congregation for a new mission frontier’. Mead’s thesis: ‘The congregation is at a critical point of change’. This is a confused time – we struggle for vision, clarity, and direction. Our

* We are facing a fundamental change in how we understand the mission of the church;

* Congregations have moved from a supporting role in mission to a front-line active role;

* Institutional structures and forms developed to support the vision of mission are collapsing, and we are being called to reinvent new forms and structures for the new mission of the church. It’s time for a paradigm shift – from ‘the Christendom paradigm’ where there was uncertainty about a clear division between laity and clergy and their respective roles.

The reinvention of the Church involves: – more intentional formation of the laity – better catechumenates – teaching people to ‘do theology’ – an altered clergy role: partnership with laity, training, encouraging – resources flowing from top down rather than bottom up – seeing crises as learning points – encouraging innovation.

Impediments to change may be structural and/or personal – the inherited systems of the old paradigm are providing inadequate leadership; personally, we may experience in this time of change feelings of denial, depression, bargaining, anger.

Mead suggests strategies for change ought to involve developing a better system of accountability between congregations in mission and those that assist them in mission.

What are the Signs of the Future Church?

They include:

– cross-denominational congregational clusters – Christian guilds or small groups based on vocation – new ministries based on gifts and needs – denominational agencies providing service instead of programs – cross-denominational networks – local training – serious study of the local context

” .the ‘megachurch’ concept, the ‘seeker church’ and the new ‘cell’ church model are only tactical attempts to breathe new life into old structures.” [Eddie Gibbs]

2. Culture

In his excellent little book Changing World Changing Church (Monarch, 2001)

Michael Moynagh (a British Anglican) says the church must realise it now operates in a different ‘It Must Fit Me’ world.


* We are moving from an off-the-peg to a tailor-made world. Post-modern values include the rejection of hierarchy, suspicion of institutions and strong emphasis on personal choice: ‘so a different approach is needed – one that is more sensitive to the differences between people’. No longer does tradition, ‘the way we do things around here’, guide people’s behaviour and outlook. So we must reach out to people on their terms/turf, rather than expecting them to come to us on ours.

* Today, people want a challenging, fulfilling, interesting job: when work was drudgery people sought fulfilment somewhere else. The notion of ‘parish’ is based on geographical neighbourhood, but people now get together in common-interest groups (e.g. on the Internet). ‘Church on Sundays’ is being supplemented by church-whenever-it’s-convenient.

* ‘Looking good’ in a consumer culture boosts self-esteem more than the unconditional love of an invisible God. The growing groups of divorced, singles, people who cohabit feel alienated from churches. Today’s songs are less ‘theologically objective’, more about individual themes; preaching is more life-related, less declamatory.

* Church planting is an effective strategy – provided the plants are designed for their target-audience, rather than clones of the sending church. ‘Seeker services’ (à la Willow Creek) attempt to be culturally relevant: but people are suspicious of organisations trying to sell them things.

* Today we can’t avoid global issues: more power in fewer hands; the growing gap between rich and poor; people feeling they’re simply pawns in a world where bottom-line economics rules (and today we would add: global nervousness about the dangers of terrorism).


* Alpha Courses are successful partly because they’re organised by local churches to fit their particular circumstances. Also people eat together (parties are one of the icons of our age), and the emphasis is on building community (rather than its simply being a sales pitch). There’s now a ‘Y’ course for those not ready for Alpha – people who don’t know the difference between an epistle and an apostle!

* Young people live in an MTV world where images foster intuitive rather than rational modes of thought, impressions rather than logic, thinking in parallel rather than in sequence, pictures rather than paragraphs.

* Why is London’s Kensington Temple church so popular? Partly because they get in touch with people new to London (‘Would you like some Filippino food and meet other people from home…?’).

* People have abandoned church, but not groups (there are half a million ‘support’ groups in the U.S.).

* Prayer-visitation ministries are working in some British churches. A letter is sent to all the people in a street, with an offer for a couple from the church to come and pray, unless they say they would prefer not. One church in Rochester aims to visit every home in its area over three years. Moderns apparently don’t mind no-strings-attached prayer! And city-wide prayer networks are growing…

* Why does Vineyard-type worship attract so many? (It’s ‘laid-back’).

* Mentoring/coaching is big these days: after-school clubs to help kids with their homework; courses on parenting, computer skills, stress etc.

But is this all compromising our biblical faith?, asks Moynagh. Not at all: the apostles’ strategy was to go to people and form the church around them. We must encourage radical criticism of the it-must-fit-me world.

3. What does a healthy church look like?

According to Christian Swarz and Christoph Schalk (Natural Church Development, ChurchSmart, 1998) there are eight ‘Quality characteristics’:

* Empowering Leadership ‘Empowering Leaders are themselves dependent on being empowered’

* Gift-Oriented Ministry ‘Every Christian serving at the place where God has called him or her to be’

* Passionate Spirituality ‘Are you curious to learn something new from God, or has much of your ministry become a dull routine?’

* Functional Structures ‘There are no “off-the-rack” functional structures’

* Inspiring Worship Service ‘Is visiting the worship service an inspiring experience?’

* Holistic Small Groups ‘The quality of a small group depends literally on the qualification of its leader’

* Need-oriented Evangelism ‘Are the forms and contents of the evangelistic activities related to the needs of those you are trying to win?’

* Loving Relationships ‘This is the area where most churches extravagantly overestimate their strength’.

4. Pastoral priorities

In several of his books Eugene Peterson makes the astonishing assertion (following C.S. Lewis’ idea about only lazy people working hard) that pastors are busy because they’re lazy. ‘How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion?’ (The Contemplative Pastor, Word, 1989, pp. 28-9). A pastor can’t easily be both busy and prayerful. Peterson says pastors are primarily spiritual directors leading people to God, not managers rustling up customers to fill the church’s pews and pay the church’s bills. But for most pastors there’s a Catch-22 here. Peterson is a brilliant scholar and wordsmith. People will come back again to hear him expound the Scriptures. But most pastors have to work very hard to fill the pews and pay the bills. It’s O.K. for the bright kid in the class to offer advice!!! However, all that said, Peterson is on to something very important.

Think about Kevin Ward’s scathing critique of clericalism: ‘While many contemporary churches endeavour to disguise any signs of hierarchy and talk a language of tolerance and “permission giving,” to outsiders they appear dominated by hierarchies and deeply concerned over issues of control. In most churches whether something is allowed to happen or not, whether it is some new venture by young people, or a new ministry that someone wants to begin, permission has to be sought from the appropriate authority before it can begin – usually in the end the “man” at the top. In a culture which encourages you to do your own thing and follow your own dream people bristle at this kind of control over what often seem to be fairly minor things. “Who can tell me who can meet in my home or what we do there?” “Why shouldn’t a group of us be able to meet together to worship the way we want to when we want to?” Often people suspect the real issue is that the leaders are afraid of losing control of what people think or do.’

How do you react to that? See the GRID article Ministry as Empowerment for more to encourage discussion: Moynagh writes about The Leader as Coach – helping others to learn rather than ‘teaching’ them.

5. Spirituality

In their recent book, Beyond the Ordinary: Spirituality for Church Leaders (Eerdmans 2001), Ben Campbell and Andrew Dreitcer cite ‘the need for a clear focus on spiritual formation’ as the Number One ‘Cutting Edge’ issue for mainline churches: ‘For decades the church has settled for being an institution that emphasises budgets, organisation, structure, management, and an arm’s-length relationship to God… [We are challenged] to expose the core of the church, where we would again discover the Spirit’ (p. 159). The key quest for churches is to facilitate our knowing and loving God. And as Richard Foster points out in his brilliant book ‘Streams of Living Water’ (Harper, 1998) there are at least six answers to the question ‘How Can I Know God?’:

* the contemplative tradition, encouraging the prayer-filled life;

* the holiness tradition – the virtuous life;

* the charismatic tradition – the Spirit-empowered life;

* the social justice tradition – the compassionate life;

* the evangelical tradition – the Word-centred life;

* the Incarnational tradition – the sacramental life.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these?

More issues for discussion:

1. Why are ethnic churches booming everywhere in the West?

2. Are people less ‘committed’ these days? (A recent study by the Melbourne RMIT’s Centre for Applied Social Research found that Australians work harder and longer than any other employees in the developed world. How about our commitment to sport?)

3. ‘Church health is more important than church growth’. Agree? Why? Why are many smaller churches suspicious of larger ones? How can different churches be a resource for one another?

4. Are our training programs for clergy and lay leaders adequate for creating innovative forms of the church in the future?

5. ‘Communicators and musos are competing these days with TV. People watch an average of 20 hours of TV a week, and they expect certain levels of excellence and relevance from those “up-front” in church’. Agree? For more, visit http://jmm.org.au/articles/4861.htm 

6. David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 2001) says there are now 33,830 Christian denominations worldwide. What do you think about that? Christianity’s population center is inexorably shifting. Growth is in the Southern Hemisphere especially, notably in Africa. Why?

[Written for World Vision of Australia’s forthcoming Leadership Letter GRID]

October 2001.

Rowland Croucher is Director of John Mark Ministries (Victoria)



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