Almost no Christian commentator involved in church ministry that I’ve read this week is particularly surprised by, or concerned about the findings of the 2016 census. Which might come as a surprise to those out there who’ve used the data as some sort of evidence for the decline of Australian religiousity, or to suggest that the influence of the church on Australian life is on the wane. There is, however, one Christian position that becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of the data — and that’s the assumption undergirding some political Christianity that has mounted political arguments based on the size of the Christian population; one such lobby group — the ACL — even urged people to tick the ‘Christian’ box (or fill out the question appropriately) to maintain a strong Christian constituency.
Why is it important? While the census data is rightly used to assist the government to plan for services and infrastructure, other groups, including some atheists, are seeking to push their agendas by encouraging people to leave the form blank. Not every person who holds judeo-Christian values attends a church, but if enough of them leave this section blank, some will use this to minimize the importance of basic Christian values in this country. We need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values.
I reckon we’re in big trouble if we Christians are reinforcing the idea that Christianity is a values system, not a lived belief in the resurrected Jesus Christ, and we open ourselves up to the sort of chest-beating we read from aggressive secularists if people think ‘Christian’ is just a box you tick on a form. Here’s some more of what I think, and how I feel about this census stuff; and what does have interesting implications for the church in Australia, and what doesn’t, from the data.
1. The Bible takes a pretty dim view of census taking because they’re often a measure of worldly kingdoms and their power.
Which isn’t to say we should pay no attention, just that we should remember who the real king is and what kingdom we Christians belong to. The census data provides us interesting insight into Australia as a mission field; but terrible justification for Christians to wield our influence in the political sphere as a ‘majority’ — we should put this data in its place.
In the Old Testament, David conducts a census (1 Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24) to gauge his own might; which is a slap in the face to the idea that God gives strength to his kingdom and he gets rebuked and punished.
In the New Testament, Caesar Augustus conducts a census as a measure of the might of his empire (Luke 2) — this even gets a mention in his eulogy the res gestae, which makes for interesting reading), and as history unfolds this is the moment of Rome’s undoing — cause it’s the mechanism by which God brings about the birth of the true king, Jesus, as prophesied, in a way that would ultimately be the undoing of Caesar’s ‘divine’ dynasty, as the empire became Christian. I don’t want to overstate the case here against being too worried about shifting dynamics in the worldly kingdom of Australia, but for Christians tempted to panic because we’re going to lose influence, it’s worth pondering this little interchange between Jesus and Caesar’s representative, Pilate:
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” — John 18:33-37
2. Australia has never meaningfully been a Christian nation and the decay of nominal/cultural Christianity is a good thing
But wait, you’ll say, our laws are founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and the church was part of the establishment of Australia as a colony, and we had all those ‘impressive’ Christian types like Lachlan Macquarie and Samuel Johnson running about early in our history.
To that, I’d say, there’s more than one Australian story… there’s a difference between the educated upper class establishment being Christian, and a whole host of other Australians not being Christian but being governed by Christians. Once church attendance was no longer compulsory (as it was for convicts), the population largely stopped going (and early population stats don’t count the significant number of indigenous Aussies not going to church either). So, for example, in 1907, less than 11% of those who identified as Anglican in Brisbane in the census regularly attended church (source: An inquiry commissioned by the Anglican Church diocese of Brisbane, conducted on the “Religious Knowledge and Habits of the People” cited in Tom Frame’s Losing My Religion a book on faith and practice in Australia — I wrote an essay on this census data stuff while at college).
Banjo Patterson’s The Bush Christening describes settler life outside the urban centres…
“On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few, And men of religion are scanty, On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost, One Michael Magee had a shanty”
3. This data isn’t news it has been a long time coming and Christians have been too complacent on our definition of ‘Christianity’ in part because our understanding of the Gospel is more geared towards ‘decision’ and ‘cultural identity’ than ‘discipleship’ and following Jesus.
A prominent Christian lobby group in Australia urges people to identify as Christians in the census if they wanted to maintain conservative Christian values by ‘proving the size of the constituency’. I’d rather sign up with the movement that urges people to only say they’re Christian if they hold to the historic creeds.
I’ve finally, after having it on my shelf for years, started reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and while it’s responding to the US context and I don’t want to extrapolate their data too much into our own context, but his diagnosis of what has gone wrong in America where so many people identify as Christian but don’t practice nails us for our wrong understanding and presentation of the Gospel (and what being Christian means), rather than trying to understand ‘Christian’ as a cultural identity thing; and I think he’s on the money.
“The correlation between making a decision and becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not high. Here are some approximate numbers: among teenagers (13-17) almost 60% of the general population makes a commitment to Jesus — that is, they make a “decision”… However we look at this pie, most Americans ‘decide’ for Jesus. But if we measure discipleship among young adults (18-35), we find dramatic shifts in numbers. Barna has some measures for “discipleship” including what they call “revolutionary faith,” a “biblical worldview” and “faith as a highest priority in life.” Take revolutionary faith, which sorts out things like meaning in life, self-identification as a Christian, Bible reading, and prayer, as well as questions about how faith has been or is transforming one’s life. That almost 60% becomes about 6%… Our focus on getting young people to make decisions — that is, “accepting Jesus into our hearts” — appears to distort spiritual formation”
You should read the book. But his point is that we’re sloppy about our definition of Christian and that costs us and creates a perception that isn’t real — and throw in campaigns to distort the data in our favour, for our political advantage, and we’re in a terrible mess.
4. If you’re shocked by this Barna group data, or the census results, you should probably go out and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Jamie Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, then make things worse cause we’re in Australia and have less definitively Christian heritage.
Christianity has not been profoundly part of the Australian experience in the way it is part of the narrative in the United States (again, ignoring the elephant in the room that is the religiousity of the indigenous peoples in both nations). We are not a Christian colony set up by religious people escaping persecution, but rather the church was part of the way the European establishment sought to control the penal colony… we are much more profoundly secular and pluralist in our outlook/story (including in the constitution), I found this vision of religiousity (or secularity) in Australia from this paper on Indigenous Religion in Secular Australia a pretty compelling description of how religion works in our psyche (and history). It’s talking about what exactly our Constitutional provision around religion (that we have no official state religion or church) emerged from (which is different to similar provisions in the US).
Australian secularism owes less to theory than to culture. It emerges in our foundation myths of frontier self-reliance and working-class larrikinism and in our modern self-image of cosmopolitan hedonism. Where other nations have often developed secular constitutions while retaining vibrantly religious cultures, Australian cultural secularisation was arguably well-advanced before Federation opened the agenda in which the issue of constitutional secularism became relevant.”
As religious organisations became differentiated and secularised from the state, their relationship to the state was changed in three fundamental ways. First, the state no longer maintained a monopoly over religion. As a result, individuals were now able to choose whether they would follow a particular religion. Second, religious plurality was able to be developed and maintained. Third, all religious organisations would receive equal rights under the law. In addition, religion could maintain public significance as it would be supported but not controlled by the state.”
This ‘secular frame’ means that Taylor’s secular age thesis happens on steroids in Australia… because our national narratives are already a couple of steps down the path towards irreligion than in the US. I’d suggest our religiousity in the census is much more ‘cultural’ than a product of a meaningful narrative that people see themselves participating in (or a story that shapes one’s experience/identity). One implication of this sort of secularity though is that Christians should be more upfront about how our religion shapes us in public conversations as a legitimate secular/pluralist expression of our national identity.
5. Migration is part of the story of the decline in cultural Christianity, but also part of the story of opportunity for the church
26% of Australians alive today were born overseas. Many more are second generation Australian. Migration from non-European nations has altered the responses to the census religion question since it was first asked… This change isn’t all ‘European-background Aussies de-converting’… there’s a more complex picture underneath the data.
It should be obvious, but the more Australians born overseas, or born to parents who have migrated from overseas, from countries that are not Christian by heritage, the greater percentage of Aussies there are who aren’t likely to identify as Christians, culturally. And this is a fantastic opportunity for churches in Australia to grapple with multi-cultural/multi-ethnic outreach.
6. We’re increasingly going to need (at least a) ‘two-speed’ approach to being the church in Australia
Multi-ethnic ministry is probably a third speed altogether — but there’s another rapidly growing divide in the Aussie population based on age and worldview.
Us churchy types need to figure out the balance between gearing ourselves towards Australia’s aging population, with its particular suppositions and ‘cultural Christian’ baggage, and younger generations who have none of the baggage, or the assumptions.
39% of people aged under 34 said they have ‘no religion’ as opposed to 31% aged over 34. Younger Aussies are less religious than their older counterparts.
These two are related.
The stats amongst young people are much more dire than the stats amongst oldies — though the ‘aging population’ conundrum means oldies are becoming increasingly common, or as the ABS puts it:
Australia’s once youthful population is ageing slowly. Our median age is now 38. It was 23 in 1911, 28 in 1966, and 37 in 2011.
As our baby-boomer generation ‘matures’, we find that one in six of us are now over 65, compared to one in seven in 2011 and only one in 25 in 1911.
We’re probably going to live longer and the birth rate is down on what it used to be, but there’s a good chance that the ‘no religion’ stat will keep accelerating amongst young people which means we need a sort of ‘two speed economy’ approach to mission in Australia.
If we want to think about what the future of the church looks like beyond that aging population we might need to start recalibrating the way we do church to post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth types (how we present the Gospel and grow people to Christian maturity) a little more urgently; while also figuring out how to reach out to the old modernist Aussies who either think they’re Christians but don’t meaningfully follow Jesus, or have decided Christianity isn’t for them.
7. If you didn’t believe Australia was already post-Christian, post-modern, and post-truth, maybe now is the time to start figuring out how to change the way we do stuff both in the public realm and in the church?
Campaigns encouraging Aussies to tick ‘Christian’ in the census to maintain Christian values, that are disconnected from campaigns to embed those values in people’s hearts are part of the problem, not the solution. Public Christianity that confuses people about what Christians believe is deleterious to the church’s mission and we need to get better at expressing what the Gospel is and why following Jesus as king leads to a better, wiser, fuller, more beautiful and eternal life in a compelling alternative community where love is a reflection of the character of God revealed at the cross of Jesus.
I’ve written some thoughts on how we might be the church for the post-truth/post-modern generation here. Our challenge is to match our rational truth with the sort of experience and community that makes it emotionally plausible.
8. Pessimism is for losers.
On the flip side, you might not think the census data is particularly bad, or particularly accurate. Because you might think the numbers are actually much lower than it suggests and it isn’t particularly newsy. You might agree that Christianity isn’t a box ticked in a census, but membership of an alternative kingdom following King Jesus, and you might already see Australia as a massive mission field in which we’re meant to be living and proclaiming the Gospel so as to make disciples while we follow Jesus in trying to seek and save the lost.
You might not actually think all this is that bad, because you might have friendships with people who’ve ticked the “Christian” box, but don’t follow Jesus, or plenty of friends who tick the ‘no religion’ box who are comfortable with the sort of historic ‘secular’ norm in Australia (so they aren’t out to silence you, although perhaps they might think it’s time our laws stopped reflecting values they don’t share). That’s me. Despite the odd coverage from places like Buzzfeed, and the weird chest-beating from the aggressive ‘hard secularist’ types who want to use this data to silence Christians altogether.
So what then?
Well. Here’s two more thoughts.
9. Qualitative data beats quantitative every time in terms of painting a meaningful picture.
McCrindle’s Faith and Belief in Australia survey, which asks more pointed questions, is a heaps better measure than the Census, and provides more reason for optimism, and a clear picture on how churches keen to proclaim and live the Gospel in Australia might shape that proclamation in ways that produce emotional plausibility and connect with the Australian psyche.
Here’s a couple of encouraging findings from McCrindle’s summary.
A genuine faith the greatest attraction to a religion or spirituality
Observing people with genuine faith is the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality. Second is experiencing personal trauma or a significant life change. On the inverse, the top repellent to Australians investigating is public figures or celebrities who are examples of that faith. This is followed by miraculous stories of healings or supernatural occurrences.
Perceptions of Christianity
Australians most value Christian organisations for their work with those in need, specifically looking after people who are homeless, offering financial assistance/food relief programs and providing disaster relief (74%, 72% and 69% respectively). 8% of Australian adults (1.5 million) do not know any Christians, while for Generation Y this is almost one in ten. One in 29 Australians have never heard of Jesus.
10. The problem here is with the church, not the world. We don’t need no Benedict Option, but we do need ‘thick’ joyful creative communities prepared to operate at, from, and for the margins.
The days of the Aussie church (and its dominant mission field) being upwardly middle class, educated, and of European descent (ie coming out of the ‘establishment narrative’ where to be Australian is to have a Judeo-Christian heritage and approach to life) might be over. And maybe that’s a good thing.
This data could feed all sorts of narratives out there about how hostile the world we live in is to the church, but maybe this sort of data shouldn’t be a wake up call about how hostile the world is becoming, but rather, about how disengaged the church is from the world, and perhaps how much we’ve been resting on our laurels with the assumption that we live in a Christian nation.
We might be tempted to withdraw into our own little communities by this data (and the response), and to work harder on reinforcing the boundaries…Maybe, if we’re going to tick a box identifying ourselves with Christ in a secular census, we need to be on about living out Jesus’ ‘golden rule,’ his ‘greatest commandments,’ and ‘great commission’…
Maybe it’ll help us be more urgently on about the Gospel and less worried about civic religion and/or our influence in society based on inflated numbers.
Maybe being a good Aussie citizen, as a Christian, is actually about first being a good citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and then participating in a rich secular, pluralist, society. Maybe our participation should happen in such a way that how our religious views shape our lives becomes obvious, and in turn shapes how people understand what being a Christian is, and where our beliefs are evident to all (and plausible to some) because how we live is so different to many of our neighbours. It should be really costly to tick the ‘Christian’ box on the census; because, as Bonhoeffer put it, when Christ calls a person, he calls them to come and die…
Maybe we need to stop pretending that Christianity can possibly just be a values system that we hope other people will tick and flick so that we can maintain our slightly inaccurate belief that Australia is a ‘Christian nation’ with a ‘Christian majority,’ because those beliefs are becoming less and less plausible every census.