What shall we make of the Census finding that 44% of Australians identify as ‘Christian’, with as many as 39% describing themselves as having no religion? It is the first time in Census history that fewer than 50% of Australians align with a Christian denomination. What does it mean for Sydney Anglicans as we seek to commend the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to our friends and neighbours?
It’s worth noting that the ‘raw’ figure of Christian affiliation is a little opaque, and the decline almost certainly means that there are fewer people who ‘tick the box’ simply because of their cultural, family or ethnic heritage. As we know, there has been a (legitimate) campaign by secular groups to encourage people not to align with a religion ‘just because your grandmother did’. We also know from the National Church Life Survey that attendance at Sydney Anglican churches has remained virtually unchanged, or very slightly increased over the last three census periods. There is some scope for saying that as the ‘Christian’ number falls, the proportion of those whose response is more considered and intentional is growing.
The National Church Life Survey also sheds more light on the complexity of interpreting the ‘no religion’ group. For example, 12% of people describe themselves as ‘spiritual, not religious, and 55% of Australians believe in God or a higher power. Perhaps even more strikingly, 44% of people say they have little or no familiarity with Christianity or the teachings of Jesus, and 31% said they would accept an invitation to church if asked by a close friend or family member. In other words, there remains both openness and opportunity to engage our friends and neighbours with the Christian community and the message of God’s love for the world expressed in his Son. More challengingly, 56% of Australians say they do not have a friend or family member who regularly attends church. As a former Archbishop of Sydney once said, ‘Knowing a Christian is becoming as exotic as knowing a zookeeper!”
Anecdotally, as Cailey and I have been visiting churches on a Sunday, across the diocese of Sydney, we have found that in every church where they are actively seeking to offer opportunities for people to learn about Jesus – through Christianity Explored, Alpha or Introducing God or just reading the bible in small groups or one to one – people with little or no church background are joining in, and some are getting established in faith in Christ and in the life of the local church. It is wonderful to hear of it!
The gospel has never been a matter of popularity but it remains solid hope in a world of distress, sorrow and sin.
We are not selling a product or trying to beef up our numbers for the sake of market share or political influence. Rather, we have encountered in Jesus, the true and living God who alone can offer forgiveness of sin, welcome into God’s family, hope for the future and help for today. The number that matters most to God is one. Jesus said, ‘There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent’. (Luke 15:7)
In the western suburbs, I heard of a man who found a leaflet from his local Anglican church in his mailbox after he returned home from a failed attempt to take his own life at the railway station. He explained to the minister that when we found the leaflet he decided to come and talk. That man has attended the little church every Sunday since then and, reading the bible with the minister, has discovered a reason to keep living. In the north west of Sydney, an Iranian couple came to church mid-week wondering if they could find out about Jesus. They have been warmly welcomed by the congregation and are studying the bible with others. In the beach suburbs, a recently completed Alpha course resulted in 15 people saying they wanted to know more, 6 of whom said they had accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Praise God for these precious souls, and for the ‘labour of love’ of these willing saints in their ‘ordinary’ local churches seeking to make Christ known.
No doubt, the census figures reflect the changing face of Australia, and the challenge of bringing the gospel to our own nation, as well as ‘the nations’ who in God’s kindness have come among us. We are called to ‘declare the praises of him, who brought you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet 2:9) and ‘live such good lives among the nations, that seeing your good works they may glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Pet 2:12). As we do so, we can be assured that Jesus will fulfil his promise, ‘I will build my church’ (Matt 16:18).