RELIGION and spirituality is becoming more important to Australians than ever before, according to a new report that could inspire Christian leaders to be more proactive in evangelisation and outreach.
The new report by McCrindle Research reveals key trends that could help church leaders buck the dominant perception that Australia is an increasingly secular nation, including data that shows Australians are not just spiritually open, but actually spiritually hungry.
The report, titled The Future of the Church in Australia, was based on 30 interviews with church leaders, including Melbourne Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli, Sydney archdiocese evangelisation director Daniel Ang and Alpha founder Nicky Gumbel, as well as a survey of more than 1000 Australians.
Lead researcher Mark McCrindle, himself a Christian, said the research showed the church in Australia was undergoing its “biggest shifts” in national history.
“The church is already dealing with the perception issues and actual challenges of past issues, and the Royal Commission brought that to the fore,” Mr McCrindle told The Catholic Leader.
“We’ve seen from the last 10 years of census data declining adherence to Christianity, from 64 per cent in 2006 to 52 per cent in the most recent census, so the rise of ‘no religion’.
“Then you add to all of that the COVID challenges and churches being unable to gather and certainly it’s been a few years of massive change for the church in Australia.”
What appears to be a dark cloud over the church in terms of growth and societal relevance could in fact be a silver lining.
Mr McCrindle said the report showed that Australians were more open to religion than the mainstream narrative portrayed.
“Part of the outcome of this report was to really paint a more fulsome picture of where our community is at so that church leaders don’t just fall into the narrative of thinking that Australians are against church and don’t believe in God and it’s a secular nation with hard spiritual soil,” Mr McCrindle said.
“That perception can sort of sway how we respond.”
The McCrindle report reveals that the majority of Australians consider themselves to be religious or spiritual, and though attendance rates have declined, the proportion of committed Christians has been stable for a decade.
“That’s I think one of the great outcomes of this report, and the realities of the data is that while a lot of people hear those challenges around where Christianity is at in Australia, where the church is at, the reality is Australians are spiritually hungry, are a spiritual people, with more than seven in 10 saying they are religious or spiritual,” Mark McCrindle.
“Even though adherence to Christianity has been declining, the proportion of Australians who are in church regularly has been unchanged for 10 years, at 16 per cent.
“What that data communicates is that sense of cultural Christianity – I’m Australian so I must be Christian, or my parents identified with this faith then I must tick that box as well – that is evaporating and therefore we’re getting a more meaningful analysis of where Australians are at.”
Mr McCrindle said the findings of his latest study could have multiple benefits for church leaders, at a time when the “nones” – those who don’t identify with any religion – are on the rise.
The McCrindle report found that most Australians believed in God and sought ways to experience spiritual or religious encounters, challenging the idea that Australia was an increasingly secular nation.
“The reality as this shows is that Australians are looking for more meaning than ever – they’re searching for purpose, they’re looking for certainty or direction in these uncertain times, they’re spiritually open and they’re looking for community more than ever before and for a local expression of that community, and for many Australians that’s met through the Church or through the outreach or connection that the Church offers,” he said.
Archbishop Comensoli said it was easy to believe the popular mainstream perception of Christianity.
“If you listen to the media and the political and academic discourse, faith, religion, Christianity and particularly the Catholic Church is severely on the nose,” he said.
“In academia there’s a drive to undermine anything that is of the faith.
“Even social and cultural roots are being dug up and tossed.
“At a personal and local level, there are still people who are coming to the Lord, who think it’s important that we have a relationship, and that it might drive the way they live in society.
“There is one (perspective) that receives all the attention, and it has made significant inroads, but it’s not all one way.”
C3 Church Global founder Phil Pringle, who is also quoted in the report, has no doubts that the majority of Australia’s population believe in God.
“The problem is not with God, it’s with the church,” he said.
Another leader interviewed for the McCrindle study, RICE Movement founder Steve Chong, suggested that church leaders had believed “a lie” about the anti-Christian nature of society.
Times of crisis spurs existential search
Mr McCrindle said society had always searched for “answers beyond their own existence” during times of crisis and the global pandemic was no exception.
With this report being undertaken during COVID-19, it showed Australians were desperate for purpose and meaning.
Almost one in two Australians thought about mortality more during the pandemic, and a similar number contemplated the meaning of life.
“We find that consistently in tough times, whether it be great depressions, world wars, or whether it just be uncertain times like the global pandemic, we see Australians searching for greater meaning and purpose,” Mr McCrindle said.
Sydney’s Daniel Ang said people’s interior life changed during anxious times.
“When people are at home and under various kinds of stress and anxiety, it does open up an interior life and a search for what matters,” he said.
“‘Do I like the way that I’m living and working?’
“A lot more of our life surfaces for us, the lights and shadows we normally pass over when we’re busy and on the run.”
Not only church-goers miss the church
Virtual gatherings including Masses have become a normal way of practising the faith during COVID-19 but the McCrindle study showed a rise in “Zoom fatigue” with church-goers missing and desiring physical gatherings.
Mr McCrindle sensed a “hybrid future” could include the option of virtual worship but encouraged churches to prioritise “that timeless human need we have for the connection”.
“Australian church-goers have missed church and have missed the actual gathering and the social interaction and, for many, church and church activities are the one social bottleneck through which they pass on a weekly basis,” he said.
“They might be out of the workforce, they might be not knowing neighbours as well, they might not be part of any other community hub or organisation, and their expression of community is the church and its ministries.”
But this absence of the church was not just felt by church-goers but also by those who receive support from church outreaches, revealing that a ministry to the marginalised and wider community was essential.
“It was the broader community that expressed the loss and they were missing it even more than the church community (because) some of those who go to church, they had other ways of connecting,” Mr McCrindle said.
“But it’s those in the community that our church reaches who might not be regular churchgoers, they were the ones who were really feeling the absence of the church in this time.
“So it’s important to keep a focus on them.
“That’s been the heart of the church and its ministry, is to reach out to the community.”
Mr McCrindle said the consensus between church leaders suggested that the church didn’t need to assert a voice of authority to be effective in outreach or evangelisation, rather it should respond to the needs of the community.
“When the church just gets about faithfully meeting the needs of its community, being clear on its spiritual role to assist and to communicate on its purpose on bringing reconciliation, both in that vertical faith-sense and in that horizontal community sense, it does its best work,” he said.
Religious press represents Christians best
While the dominant perception of the church is a negative one, Mr McCrindle said this did not represent the reality as found in the study.
This suggests the value of the religious press, with Mr McCrindle encouraging churches to pay more attention to its communications efforts.
“This data shows most Australians believe in God and most Australians are spiritual or religious, the mainstream press and indeed most mainstream influencers don’t represent that,” he said.
“They’re more in the 30 per cent who are not spiritual and not religious, and so you end up with an unrepresentative voice or influence if the religious press and those religious leaders are not using their voice and communicating important issues of faith.”
He encouraged churches to “redouble (their) efforts” to communicate the important role religion, faith and spirituality played in society, particularly in fostering a strong religious press or communications arm.
“Most people would recognise that in our lives there are physical needs that we have, and financial needs that we have, and social needs that we have, and of course spiritual needs, and that’s true of our communities, or our organisations, of our nation,” Mr McCrindle said.
“And there are many other groups that can help in the financial and organisational and the physical and indeed now the mental health, but the spiritual, the group, the organisation, the leaders best suited are those of the church and therefore if the church doesn’t meet that need in society, as its core business, and all the integration of faith issues into mental health, into social, into our community needs and into our vision for a nation, our future, our moral direction, then no one will.
“And therefore the organisations or communication channels or religious publications that can clearly articulate that voice, can encourage those of faith to step forward with cause and conviction, they are more needed than ever because mainstream press is increasingly secular.”
The Future of the Church in Australia was launched on November 5 at a virtual event and is available to read at www.cityinfield.com, an initiative of McCrindle Research that seeks to inform and equip Christian communities.