Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Is Australia losing religion: The State of the Church

05 May 2023 - by Liz Jakimow

Is Australia losing religion: The State of the Church

The 2021 Census shows that nearly 10 million Australians indicated they had no religion; the data also shows a reduction of over a million Christians since the 2016 Census. These statistics highlight an increasing rate of decline in Christianity and a trend that has continued since the 1960s.

In 1971, Christians represented 86.2% of the Australian population. In 2021, Christians were down to 43.9% of the population. The 2021 Census also show that identification with other religions besides Christianity has grown from 3.5% in 1996 to 10% of the population in 2021. So that means just over 54% of the Australian population say they adhere to religious belief system, so more than half of us. Yet the amount of people identifying as having no religion is also growing, from 6.7% in 1971 to 38.9% in 2021.

However, these figures need breaking down. Identifying as having no religion does not necessarily mean they do not believe in God. It may be that they do not believe in a particular form of religion or church teaching. There is a big difference between those two things.

There are various and interrelated sociological reasons for the decline in mainstream Christianity in Australia, including improvements in education and prosperity, along with internal institutional issues, such as the child abuse scandal, the role of women and issues of sexual ethics.

Possibly, the most significant factor is the evolution of the autonomous ‘thinking self’, as the authority on all matters of faith, belonging and sexuality. This so-called ‘turn to the self’ and ‘me’ focused mentality increasingly prevails in Western culture, rather than the acceptance of an institutional or autocratic external moral authority. ‘I don’t’ need religion to go to God,’ is an increasingly popular reframe.

In addition, people are often repelled by the reactionary version of Christianity they see in the media. Unfortunately, a lot of media coverage of Christianity tends to focus on its more extreme elements, such as arguments against inclusivity or matters of sexual ethics. Churches that make some outrageous statements get a lot of media coverage and it makes for good reading in newspapers and social media.

However, these extreme views represent only a small proportion of Christian thinking. Many Christians solved moral questions of conscience years ago and moved onto other much more important questions, like issues of social justice, refugees, climate change and major world affairs. We need to get the message out there that Christianity is focused upon love and human dignity rather than excluding people.

A lot of faith groups (including Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, as well as Christians) have an incredible social outreach and social conscience: feeding the homeless, helping those in need in a variety of ways. Our social fabric would go into meltdown if people of faith stopped caring for their neighbour.

Today everything seems to be given a political edge, as we drift more towards the US type of synthesis between Christianity and politics. Issues of social justice can rapidly become polarised, forcing us to take sides. We see that currently in Australia with the Voice debate.  Spirituality transcends the political as people of faith struggle to navigate the mystical and pollical.  Justice may well be political, but it also transcends the material from a faith perspective Faith should not drive people apart, but bring people together. God wants us to flourish, in community, with one another, loving our neighbour.

One of the great challenges facing Christianity today is restoring the balance between tradition and heritage, between scripture and the contemporary context. The challenge for people of faith is to bridge the divide between faith and culture, to make Christianity more relevant and focus on the message of the Gospel. The message is simple, the practice difficult.  To be Christian is to recover this simple message and witness to it in daily life: God is love…

The Church of the future requires an unambiguous, contextual and inclusive articulation of Christian love, imagining a Church as expansive as the Australian landscape and as generous as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Professor Anthony Maher will present the inaugural ‘Wisdom for the Common Good’ talk on the subject of ‘The State of the Church: Back to the Future’. This talk will be based on academic research, but accessible to the general public, particularly those interested in the state of the Church today and its place in Australian society in the future.

Drawing upon a chapter from his forthcoming book with Prof. Stan Grant, ‘Refounding Australia: a theology of liberation’, practical theologian Prof. Anthony Maher will offer a forthright assessment of the health of the Church in the light of issues facing it today. He will further argue for a ‘refounding’ of the Church’s Mission and identity, looking at the past to envision the future. Prof. Stan Grant will respond to the ‘State of the Church’ lecture from the perspective of First Nations spirituality and the Theology of Yindyamarra.

The inaugural ‘Wisdom for the Common Good’ talk will be held at 6.00pm, 11 May 2023 the Chapel, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Please register here.