According to the latest Australian community survey released this week by NCLS Research, only half of Australians understand that Jesus is a real person who lived at a time and place in history.
Two in ten Australians said Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, while three in ten did not know.
Their doubts contrast with those of ancient historians, classicists, and New Testament scholars, who universally accept that Jesus was a real person in time and place in history, noted NCLS Research Director Ruth Powell in a webinar Thursday.
Regarding Orthodox Christian beliefs, only two in ten currently accept that Jesus was divine or God in human form, but 44 percent believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead somehow.
“In either case, more than a quarter of Australians, rather than rejecting those beliefs, say, ‘I don’t know,'” Powell said.
“What do we learn? First, a knowledge gap exists about Jesus and the Christian faith, especially among young Australians. Second, there is low acceptance of Orthodox Christian beliefs.”
But this latest annual survey of Australians’ attitudes toward Jesus and the Church also revealed some positive findings.
It is striking that one in three young adults – aged 18 to 24 – regularly attend a church service once a month.
This figure was the highest of any age group compared with 20 percent for all Australians, a percentage who have recovered from a collapse to 16 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Powell said she wondered if the figure for the young adults was a quirk of this sample of 1,300 across ages, genders, and locations. But after checking the 2019 and 2020 results, she found that the patterns were consistent.
She found that the group with the lowest church attendance was the 50-64-year-olds, whom she called the Gen X group. And this was cause for concern given their position in public life.
“Do we see something to do with their stage of life here? Or is this a generation effect? What is the impact of this period in history?” she said.
While Gen X’s voices were viewed as muffled compared to the baby boomer generation, she pointed out that this group currently serves as the CEO in core leadership, perhaps at the height of their profession.
“You know what? We’ve got the mic, and you can see from this Australian community survey that the 50-64-year-olds are the ones who are the least present, least believer, least practiced, and least positive about Christianity. “Do they control the public narrative? Is this something we should be aware of: who has the microphone? And what happens to the narrative because of these people?”
But Powell focused primarily on young adults, noting they have a very high commitment to the church — comparable to the over-65s.
However, there was an important difference between these two groups. Both age groups have similar proportions, 17 percent, who claim to attend weekly or more frequently; however, young adults are much more likely to come one to three times a month, 15 percent, compared to 2 percent of those over 65.
Powell said she checked the results with a different scenario.
“We asked in the past five years, have you ever attended a Christian church and were open to joining but decided not to join? We hear from Australians that two in ten have tried to lean over, had an attitude where they were inclined to get involved in a Christian church, and then decided against it.
“That result was even higher for young adults – three in ten may have tried to get involved in the past five years… is this a missed opportunity? How are they overlooked? Perhaps they are missed in the bustle and priorities of the business-as-usual church.”
Other encouraging findings related to Australians’ openness to being invited to church.
Three in ten Australians said they were likely to attend church if invited by a close friend or relative. Another 16 percent were unsure, while about a quarter said no, probably not.
“We went into a little more detail on this – what would help someone accept an invitation to church? We have prepared a series of scenarios for them. What do you think would help them say yes? We repeatedly learned in our research that relationship is far more important than anything else. Australians say, ‘I will go if I felt it was important to my friend or relative that I accepted’ – and this was true of any age group.”
But here’s the problem: 56 percent of Australians think they don’t have close contacts who go to church.
“And we know from our previous research that there are positive links between having close contact with a churchgoer and being attracted rather than repelled by Christian actions, being open to an invitation and attending,” Powell said.
She summarized: “Australians are less Christian than before, but not all are closed. There is a knowledge gap between Jesus and the Christian faith. Relationships are critical, but there is a gap between churchgoers and other Australians. More young adults are associated with the church and open to the faith than older age groups, but too many have tried to get more involved and failed. There are challenges, yet there are also great opportunities for greater connection between church and community.”