Tag Archives: Christianity in Australia

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Is what’s happening in Scarborough fair?

On the surface this reads like an angry council being spurred on by some angry residents to persecute an Australian church…

Scarborough Baptist Church, in Western Australia, has been ordered to cease almost all its activities because their church property is only technically allowed to conduct religious services and childcare. Their media release says:

“On 18 September 2012 Scarborough Baptist Church received notification from the City of Stirling requiring the Church to cease all activities (including feeding the needy and running craft and pre-school dance classes) not defined by the City as “religious activities”. The penalty for not complying is an immediate fine of $1,000,000 plus $125,000 per day that the Church fails to comply.

Many of these activities are central to the Church’s pastoral role within the community, and have been operating in the church for years; the craft group, for example, has been holding weekly craft meetings for 35 years, and the evening service and community meal has now been running for nearly a decade.

The City of Stirling has failed to provide any evidence that Scarborough Baptist Church has contravened any local by-laws. Through this Direction, the City has taken upon itself the right to define what constitutes a religious activity. According to the City’s correspondence, religious activities exclude, among others: funerals, weddings, Easter services, youth groups, quiz nights to raise funds for local schools, fêtes and fairs to raise funds for world aid, and the provision of meals and services to the community.

It is the position of Scarborough Baptist Church, in accordance with the separation of Church and State, that local government officials not take it upon themselves to define what a religious activity is, be it in the context of a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or other place of worship.”

I’m not a big fan of that last paragraph – I mean I understand where they’re coming from, but I think they assume a “separation of church and state” that might not actually exist in the form that they’re suggesting it does. However, the idea that local government officials shouldn’t be defining what a religious activity is is pretty sound.

There’s also some nice bits of the Bible to support what Scarborough Baptist are defining as religious activities – especially the bolded bits above:

From James 1:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

And Mark 10, where Jesus is talking to a young rich guy.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.””

Jesus makes it a pretty big deal towards the end of Matthew too, in chapter 25…

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Now. I don’t live in Western Australia, so I’m not exactly sure what’s going down here – but this seems to be a bit of a PR nightmare for the council, and a great opportunity for the church. Perhaps they should move their activities to a park or something while this gets sorted out… but at the very least they’ll be able to talk a bit about what it means to be a Christian – and how these activities relate to what Jesus taught.

The story is getting some coverage, and I guess we can expect to see more of it in coming days… here’s one of the fairly sympathetic stories from a West Australian outlet… where the plot thickens a bit… with two things:

The complaints were apparently initiated by the church’s neighbours… for what some might consider a legitimate reason.

“The council said it was obliged to investigate after receiving complaints from residents over late-night noise and antisocial behaviour such as urination in public…

… Health and compliance manager Peter Morrison said the council has told the church that it would consider changes to allow many of the activities if the church lodged the necessary applications and showed how it would address neighbourhood concerns.

“The church has refused to make any such application,” he said. “Any organisation, church or not, needs to make an application to their local government authority to conduct activities on premises.”

And the council is prepared to allow the church “conduct worship” if it fills out some paperwork.

Here’s what I’d be doing if I were the church in question.

1. Reach out to the neighbourhood. Mending bridges. Apologising. Offering the same love to the immediate neighbours that they seem pretty good at offering to the community at large. Deliberately.

2. Put together a teaching series on what “religion that God accepts” looks like – putting these on the website, and issuing a media release inviting the community along to experience “true religion”… even if they have to do it in a park. This gets the church’s position into the public domain as quickly, clearly, and proactively as possible.

3. Submit to the requests of the government and fill out the paperwork – and see what activities the council deems inappropriate.

4. Write an open letter to the mayor, sent to the local paper, outlining the church’s commitment to praying faithfully for, and serving the city, especially by lovingly pointing people to Jesus, and caring for them as he requires, with no request for special treatment, but a promise to keep on using whatever resources the church has to love and serve the community, out of the hope that they will see their need for Jesus through the love of his people, with a concluding statement that even one day’s worth of the fine will put the church out of business.

Obviously I’m not that church, and they have a much better idea of what’s going on on the ground, with their neighbours, with their finances, and how essential their activities are to their presence in the community. But it’s interesting to work from a non-hypothetical dilemma.

There’s an interesting take on the situation from a guy named Stephen McAlpine here, he suggests a couple of different solutions…

This could be a big deal, or it could be a small deal, either way – it raises some interesting questions about how to be the church in Australia and what it means to have a physical presence in a community.

UPDATE: There’s another good story from a couple of days ago that’s worth a read. I especially like these last lines:

Pastors and church members are adamant that they should be allowed to serve food under their licence to operate as a church, because feeding the needy is part of a religious service.

Seven-year-member Colin Rowecliffe says: “We are a church, and inherent in that is the approval to be a church and act like a church.”

We want to be a church that is community minded, that not only has bible studies and prayers but also does things in the community”.

“We don’t just try to do talk about what Jesus does, we try to do what Jesus did.”

Also, in the comments, RodeoClown shared a response that Scarborough Baptist issued after that first article. It’s worth a read in full… but some highlights:

“Peter Morrison’s comments regarding Scarborough Baptist Church gives the wrong impression that the church is being deliberately intransigent and seeks to put itself above the law. Up to now the church has had no evidence presented to us to indicate that we have breached any by-laws of the City of Stirling or laws of the state. Mr. Morrison refers to complaints about late night activities by the church. Our Sunday evening meal finishes at 8pm. with all the people dispersed by 8.15pm. at the latest. Once or twice a year we may have a meeting up to ten at night – which hardly constitute ‘late nights’. The complaints can thus not refer to the church’s activities and should have been dismissed.”…

…We have always sought permission for activities conducted outside our church buildings that may impact on the community. Furthermore, officials of the City of Stirling trained us on how to provide meals in line with health regulations at our Sunday fellowship and outreach services.

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Imagine “No Religion”: the 2011 census data and Christianity in Australia

While the Wall Street Journal has used the census data to declare “Australia is turning its back on religion” – I’m not so sure.

Religious affiliation top responses Australia % 2006 %
Catholic 5,439,268 25.3 5,126,885 25.8
No Religion 4,796,787 22.3 3,706,553 18.7
Anglican 3,679,907 17.1 3,718,248 18.7
Uniting Church 1,065,795 5 1,135,427 5.7
Presbyterian and Reformed 599,515 2.8 596,667 3

The most common responses for religion in Australia were Catholic 25.3%, No Religion 22.3%, Anglican 17.1%, Uniting Church 5.0% and Presbyterian and Reformed 2.8%.

23% of people identifying as Christian were born overseas.

From the ABS

In the past decade, the proportion of the population reporting an affiliation to a Christian religion decreased from 68% in 2001 to 61% in 2011. This trend was also seen for the two most commonly reported denominations. In 2001, 27% of the population reported an affiliation to Catholicism. This decreased to 25% of the population in 2011. There was a slightly larger decrease for Anglicans from 21% of the population in 2001 to 17% in 2011. Some of the smaller Christian denominations increased over this period – there was an increase for those identifying with Pentecostal from 1.0% of the population in 2001 to 1.1% in 2011. However, the actual number of people reporting this religion increased by one-fifth.

This is interesting too..

“The number of people reporting ‘No Religion’ also increased strongly, from 15% of the population in 2001 to 22% in 2011. This is most evident amongst younger people, with 28% of people aged 15-34 reporting they had no religious affiliation.”

The Wall Street Journal did include this perceptive little analysis of why religion in Australia might be on the decline:

“Proponents of religion frequently promote it as a route to happiness. But in Australia, whose prosperity has soared in recent years thanks to a mining boom fueled by developing Asia, some believe it might be the country’s rising level of contentedness that’s actually driving the decline of religion.

“We’re a nation that is very comfortably off and one that managed to ride out the global financial crisis,” said Carole Cusack, associate professor of religion at Sydney University. “Why would you need God here?”

That sentiment finds support from an Organization for Economic Cooperation report last month, which marked Australia as the happiest industrialized nation based on criteria including jobs, income and health. Unless something radical happens that interrupts that path to prosperity, said Ms. Cusack, the trend toward secularism here is likely to continue.

The problem is – using the census data as an indicator of religiosity is a terribly flawed method and it paints a pretty distorted picture of the Australian landscape. The religious affiliation question is optional and big changes in the number of Australians indicating “no religion” occurred with a change to the wording of the question to include the words “if no religion mark none” in 1971. Interestingly – the migration boom since 1971 also radically altered and diluted the religious pool in Australia, a conclusion which the data since, including the 2011 data, supports. Church attendance and indications of religious commitment rather than “affiliation” are surely better measures than ticking a box – especially when both the Australian Christian Lobby actively lobbied to skew the data, while the Atheist Foundation of Australia lobbied for more honest reporting.

Here’s what the ACL said in their Census media release:

“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’d say it’s a simple indicator that the constituency doesn’t actually share our values – and perhaps never has.

I have my doubts about whether Australia can ever have been considered a “Christian nation” even if the majority of Australians still culturally identify as Christian – you can read about the history of the census question, and Australian Christianity, in much longer form in an essay I wrote for Australian Church History if you like – but here’s the conclusion:

The Census data on religious affiliation, which focuses on individual identity rather than community belonging, provides an insight into the failure of the Australian church to articulate what Christian identity entails, and paints a confusing picture about the role of religion in Australia in both the past and the present. While some wish to claim Australia has a “rich Christian heritage,”the reality  is that an equally viable claim could be made for Australia’s secular history, and advocating either view at the expense of the other is historically reductionist.
My essay tracked the decline in church attendance in Australia, cultural changes, and changes to the census question, as well as looking at some of the factors behind church attendance in the Colonial days. I think the conclusion that Australia might have culturally identified as “Christian” in the past, but has never truly practiced being Christian – except for a brief period of revival in the mid 20th century – best represents the data, and it’s misleading for Christians to argue for superiority on the basis of data where the question is measuring cultural affiliation rather than actual belief and practice.
What is really cool about the census data this time around is the ability to generate postcode specific reports with QuickData – here’s the religious affiliation of those living in my postcode – which incidentally is in the catchment area for Creek Road – the church we’re plugged in to. There’s heaps of useful data for building a profile of the people in your patch – and it’s so readily accessible. It’s wonderful.
Religious affiliation, top responses 4152, Qld % Queensland % Australia %
Catholic 13,352 31.4 0 5,439,268 25.3
No Religion 7,936 18.7 0 4,796,787 22.3
Anglican 6,588 15.5 0 3,679,907 17.1
Uniting Church 2,419 5.7 0 1,065,795 5
Presbyterian and Reformed 1,610 3.8 0 599,515 2.8

Census Day: Why you should answer the religion question truthfully…

There’s a bit of a campaign doing the rounds regarding the answering the controversial religious affiliation question in the 2011 Census. And now there’s a counter campaign. What happened to just telling the truth?

It’s pretty bizarre that the Atheist campaign website is down the night before the census – I can only hope that this isn’t thanks to some misguided Christians thinking it’s a bad thing for people to be honest in their census answers (remember the ninth commandment people…). It was a good website, and a good campaign.

One thing I thought was interesting was their insistence that being able to sign up to the Apostle’s Creed (or maybe the Nicene Creed) was the mark of a Christian, their position was that if you can’t agree with the creed – you’re not a Christian, and you shouldn’t indicate that you are. Which is great. Because now we’ve got a functional definition of Christian and we can do away with the typical internet atheist’s constant resort to the “no True Scotsman fallacy” whenever one suggests that a particular behaviour is not consistent with Christian belief. Because apparently being a Christian does require a particular characteristic, it’s not just good enough to call yourself one…

That’s all well and good. I’d love people to answer the census honestly, because I hate nominalism. It breeds complacency and a bizarre superiority complex when Christians approach social issues. It flies in the face of the human experience. And people should stop feeling like they need to pretend to honour a religious belief they don’t actually live out. The way people live is indicative of their belief system. Anyway.

Here’s the counter campaign, almost the pro-nominalism campaign… from a friend’s Facebook. I quite like the intention here. Because politically correct editing of society is just ridiculous. Take, for example, a school in the US that renamed Easter Eggs “Spring Spheres” – which is pretty bizarre because the word Easter comes from a pagan festival anyway and what Christians are really interested in at Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Australia will be holding census tomorrow.
Don’t leave the ‘religion’ part blank.
Be sure to at least tick Christian or (your own faith)
1,000,000 Muslims will tick their box and
10,000,000 Australians will leave theirs blank and wonder why Christmas carols are being banned from schools, not to mention Easter hat parades! It’s not about religion, it’s about keeping our way of life! :)
Repost if u agree!”

I have some major problems with this, because the stats are ridiculously paranoid. 63% of Australians said they were Christians at the last census. The ABS population clock says we currently have 22 million people in our country. Based on figures at the last census people who indicated no religion accounted for around 18% of our population (I’m sure that will increase, that’s the trend. That’s about 3.9 million people. Not 10 million. 13.8 million people said they were Christians last time around. And the real furphy in those figures is the Muslim statistic (again, I suspect this will increase this year). 1.7% of Australians ticked the Muslim box last time around. That’s about 400,000 people. The one million figure quoted above would be a huge increase in proportion of the Australian population – from 1.8% to 4.5%. I just don’t see that happening.

I think we need to look elsewhere for the cause of the removal of Christmas from the calendar, and it’s got much more to do with the decreasing role Jesus plays in the lives of Australians.

So please, atheists, muslim, Christian, whatever your creed – lets get a good picture of the nature of the Australian community, because ultimately it’s going to help the church do its job and think clearly about its mission.

That is all.

Scratching the Christmas itch

Churches all over the world were jam packed over the last couple of days as people celebrated Christmas. Churches in Australia were no doubt packed like sardines in a tin – full to the gills with “believers” who only come to church at Christmas and Easter.

According to the two batches of stats I’ve posted recently about 50% of people in Australia identify as “Christian” and about 20% go to church semi-regularly.

The other 30% are those, who in the stats from the Neilsen poll I posted the other day, meet the following criteria:

They [Christians] are convinced (94 per cent) that Christ was a historical figure; fairly confident (91 per cent) that He was the Son of God; increasingly sceptical (72 per cent) about the Virgin Birth; and oddly – considering its key importance to the faith – uncertain that He rose from the dead (85 per cent). These beliefs are held very confidently. The Nielsen poll found almost nine out of 10 Australian Christians were absolutely or fairly certain of their beliefs.

If these numbers are accurate, and I have no reason to doubt them. Then why on earth do we spend Christmas literally preaching to the “converted” that Jesus is Lord. They know that. What they don’t know is that being a follower of Jesus can not be an apathetic and convenient association where you touch base with Jesus once or twice a year and expect it to all pan out in the end.

All Christmas sermons are the same – they proclaim Jesus as the promised Messiah, the one who would bring peace with God. Emmanuel. God with us. And yet – in all probability the people in the building already believe that.

This is the problem with branding Christianity with John 3:16 and the idea that “belief” as in “I believe in Japan” is what saves you. The mechanics of salvation can’t be explained with that single verse – or am I missing something.

Here’s a passage someone should preach on one Christmas. I dare you. Matthew 7:21-23

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

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When I survey

This week the Sydney Morning Herald published yet another survey on religiosity in Australia. The results continue to show that the majority of Australians call themselves Christians while the minority are actually actively involved in church… how should the church fix that disparity?

The more conventional Christians, those who believe in – and occasionally worship – a personal God make up a neat 50 per cent of the nation.

There are some interesting demographic breakdowns…

Women are more certain that God created the world (27 per cent to 18 per cent) and wrote the Bible (40 per cent to 28 per cent) but aren’t so sure every word of the Good Book has to be taken to be literally true (25 per cent to 30 per cent). The least Christian community in Australia is young men; the most Christian are women of a certain age.

It seems that the “progressives” are gaining some traction.

They [Christians] are convinced (94 per cent) that Christ was a historical figure; fairly confident (91 per cent) that He was the Son of God; increasingly sceptical (72 per cent) about the Virgin Birth; and oddly – considering its key importance to the faith – uncertain that He rose from the dead (85 per cent). These beliefs are held very confidently. The Nielsen poll found almost nine out of 10 Australian Christians were absolutely or fairly certain of their beliefs.

Across all faiths and no faith 34 per cent of the population thought these texts were the word of God. A clear majority (61 per cent) thought they were written by man. Christians showed far greater confidence in the Bible (58 per cent) than other religions showed in their texts (35 per cent).

Then the findings just got a little weird…

Astrology
Christians seem hardly more likely (44 per cent) than the rest of us to put their faith in the stars.

Psychics
The Christians in our midst are markedly more likely (52 per cent) to put their faith in telepathy, clairvoyance, psychic healing etc.

The beliefs regarding science and the origin of life were also pretty interesting…

Most Australians believe God played a part in the process. That He created all life at a stroke about 10,000 years ago is believed by 23 per cent of us. That He guided a long process over time is believed by another 32 per cent. The beliefs of Australian Christians are even more dramatic, with 38 per cent supporting Genesis and another 47 per cent favouring the God of Design.

In the year in which the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth was celebrated around the world, only 12 per cent of Australian Christians believe his theory of natural selection. For all the talk of Darwin’s preeminence in modern science, attitudes to evolution remain the litmus test of belief and disbelief in Australia. Christians offer the most meager support, while 89 per cent of those who deny God’s existence back Darwin.

What do the other 11% who deny God’s existence back?

Heaven, hell, angels, witches and the devil get a tick from about 10 per cent of those who doubt or disbelieve the existence of God. A quarter support miracles; 27 per cent put their faith in astrology and UFOs; and a mighty 34 per cent believe in ESP. So a third of the nation’s atheists, agnostics and doubters have turned their back on God, but not on magic.

But it seems Australia is trending towards atheism. Nearly half of young men aged under 25 identify as atheists. Atheism is de rigueur for the angry young man.

Men outnumber women by two to one in the ranks of the deniers. They are joined by nearly half (42 per cent) of Australians under 25. But only a quarter of those over 55 are as sure that no God awaits them as their end approaches.

Here are the results for a similar survey in the US.

  • 82% of American adults believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in heaven
  • 73% believe Jesus is God or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in the survival of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the resurrection of Jesus
  • 45% of adults believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution
  • 40% believe in creationism.
  • 61% of adults believe in hell
  • 61% believe in the virgin birth (Jesus born of Mary)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches