Australians may be losing their religious and tribal identity. Still, they have not lost their curiosity about the faith of their Christian friends or their need for the gospel truths of hope and love, said Ruth Powell, the director of NCLS Research.
The leading Christian research firm – which will publish the findings of its five-year church survey later this week – is not surprised by the increase in Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box in the 2021 national census or the decline in Christian beliefs of the United States—52 percent in 2016 to 44 percent.
“Religious affiliation has generally declined, and we’re not surprised by that – that’s a trend over the past decade. When Australians choose ‘no religion, it tells us about a group for whom it is not an important part of their personal, social or cultural identity,” Powell told Eternity.
“Where Christianity has lost people is especially among Catholics and Anglicans. Of the 8 percent decline in religious affiliation [from 2016], there is a 3 percent drop in the number of identifying people and a 3 percent drop in those who identify as Anglican. So that fits the story, which is that alignment with the religious tribe you were born into is no longer relevant to Australians. They don’t have to say, ‘I belong to that religious group’.”
However, she said there’s more to consider before forming an opinion about how “religious” or “spiritual” Australians are, as religious affiliation is just one aspect of Australians’ religious profile.
“The second point we make is that knowing if someone feels they belong to a particular group – ‘I was born Anglican, that Anglican’ – isn’t the whole story about spirituality. There are many things to look at. To understand how spiritual or religious a person is, you have to think about where they feel at home, their identity, beliefs, religious experiences, and practices. And suppose we do our additional research into the Australian community. In that case, we can build a more nuanced picture that even people who don’t belong there can still do spiritual practices and believe in something transcendent. It’s just another yardstick.”
Results from the 2021 Australian Community Survey (ACS), conducted by NCLS Research a few months after the 2021 national census, showed that more than half of Australians believed in God or a higher power (55 percent), six in every ten prayed or meditated. Two in ten (21 percent) attended religious services at least monthly.
Powell said the challenge for churches has been to “take seriously that religious identity has lost its importance in people’s lives” but not make the mistake of suggesting that Australia has necessarily become more atheistic.
“Don’t assume that people know the Christian faith or that it is unimportant to them. It doesn’t mean they are closed or hostile.”
Reflecting on ACP findings that only half of Australians believe Jesus was a real person in history, Powell said the challenge for churches was to “be accessible to those who no longer know about the Christian faith, who may still be always curious about something they don’t do doesn’t feel important or relevant.
“There is humility needed on days like today by those who have invested in religious organizations and religious identity, but we should not be distracted by or read over. It does not mean Australians are hostile or closed to spiritual life. The evidence from our detailed research shows an openness to spirituality, including the Christian faith – perhaps more than people might expect.
“There is an opportunity to offer the good news again, a sense of hope—the sense of all gospel messages, that there is a story of being the child of God. So how can the Christian church provide the hope it has, especially to those generations who are not interested in hearing what they can and cannot do, but who will always be interested in a story of hope and love.”
In other comments, historian and author John Dickson said he was “happy” about the new 2021 national census data, which revealed a further significant decline in those who say they are “Christian” and a further significant increase in those who do. Indicate that they have “no religion”.
“For the first time in Australian history, Christians are officially a minority of the population,” he said in a Facebook post.
He interpreted the data, saying that true Christians have long been a minority in Australia, so this official data is just catching up with reality.
“When Christians were (and pointed to) a statistical ‘majority’, skeptical friends often objected that a significant proportion of those who ticked ‘Christian’ in the census were nominal Christians. I’m sure that’s right,” he wrote.
“Because the church has lost its social respectability – for obvious reasons – the social motivation to tick ‘Christian’ has diminished. Thus the declining percentage of ‘Christians’ in the census reveals the steady decline of this nominal class of Christians.”
“People are becoming Christians all over the country — but it’s currently being eclipsed by the large cohort of (dwindling) nominal Christians.” -John Dickson.
Dickson said he had long maintained that the percentage of Australians who “have wholehearted confidence in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ” is about 25 percent, suggesting the percentage of Christians in the census could decline.
But he predicted that in a few more counts — say 2037; the decline would likely bottom out, as nominal Christians would drop and the number of Christians would increase again.
“That increase is already underway – people are becoming Christians across the country – but is currently being eclipsed by the large cohort of (declining) nominal Christians,” he said.
“In any case, it is time (over time) for Australian Christians to recognize and embrace their minority status. I pray that we will be a confident, humble, and cheerful minority.”
Pastor and blogger Stephen McAlpine admitted we are relieved to realize that Australia is not a Christian country finally.
“People in Australia may be less religious, but they’re still looking for something that gives meaning to life — meaning.” – Stephen McAlpine.
But he said facing that reality would make things interesting in the public square in the coming months “when the shrill cries of the Peter FitzSimons (Have we not suffered enough?)” campaign again. There will always be that nudge. Are in the back of those who hate pluralism,” he writes.
“But it’s interesting that just as the nation becomes more secular, the adoption of Christian education is moving in the opposite direction. It is as if the things that culture lacks more and more as it drifts away from the One, the source of all life and goodness, are the same things that culture still wants—the fruit without the roots.
“People in Australia may be less religious, but they are still looking for something that gives meaning to life – purpose. And right now, in Australia, given the rich and educated country, many levers can be used to provide that meaning.
“And I have enough faith in who Jesus is and what he offers in those categories to give Aussies a red-hot rift in making meaning for themselves without any transcendent view of how the world works. Not too confident in a “You’ll be back” kind of way, but confident enough to know that, as David Foster Wallace put it, “everything else you adore will eat you alive.”
“Come on; I’d say 2026. I expect the trend to continue. Unless, of course, Jesus has something to say about that.”