There is no such thing as the inevitable decline of Christianity in Australia. That is the underlying assumption in much contemporary commentary, but noting a trajectory is not to lock in a predetermined outcome.
The church mood is anxious. The rise of a post-Christian society and the subsequent weakening of Christian influence feed into the narrative. But it is the decline in the reported numbers of church attenders that hits hardest (it is worth noting that, for Sydney Anglicans, though average church attendance has remained steady over the past 10 years, the massive increase in the wider population has meant we have statistically declined).
We have rapidly transitioned from a time when religious belief was seen to be a virtue for society, to a time when it was harmless and spoke about how humans functioned in the past. Today, Christian belief is seen as a hindrance to a well-functioning society. To state the obvious, 2022 is very different from 1962! The local church has not changed locations but is now ministering in a very different environment.
It may seem like a new challenge but, read against the sweep of 2000 years of Christian history, it would be better to consider that we are moving into a “normal” period, after living through an abnormal time of cultural Christianity.
Our time is nothing unusual, but the circumstances are unique. The features include:
- the politicisation of morality, so morality is now contested;
- progressive secularism, which is a religion in its own right with its own faith, salvation and eschatology;
- immigration, through which religious belief will remain stubbornly embedded in large segments of society, but not necessarily among the Westernised, educated, industrialised, affluent segments of Australia;
- cultural changes, which are amplified through technology and social media with a loss of social capital and trust in institutions.
These are only preliminary comments and require amplification and addition. The more pressing question is, how can the church maintain a realistic optimism and not succumb to the temptation of agreeing with the presumption of inevitable decline?
What realistic optimism looks like
There are at least eight ways in which I believe we can make a difference. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but some preliminary thoughts on how we might play our part.
- Churches are the largest voluntary society that is challenging and confusing to the secular mindset. Our network of local churches, with deep Christian communities that live lives of much more than mere convenience, is well placed to deal with the challenges of this time. Focus on creative ways of ministering to the local needs of the wider community.
- We should continue in prayer for the conversion of many. Expect God to bring many into his kingdom. Continue to ask God to do what he said he would do. We need Christian communities that are both different from the culture but confidently outward focused.
- It is important to stay firm in the truth that we as a church are always moving forward to a certain and glorious future. Our churches have a compelling hope with a realistic optimism.
- We need to ensure Jesus and his grace and forgiveness are deeply known so that we can speak to each other in such a way that Jesus does matter.
- Maintain a commitment to your local church, where you can do life together. An increasingly lonely and impersonalised society demonstrates the value of local communities, where people can be known and know God.
- Keep on with the intentional discipling of children and youth. They are at the forefront of a catechism conflict seeking to pervasively shape them into committing to the new secular religion. Careful, thoughtful, intelligent and loving discipleship, which demonstrates confidence in Christian teaching, is needed for younger folk in a way that we have not previously given thought to. Christian commitment is possible without succumbing to societal conformity.
- We need to maintain patient, reflective ministry practices that focus on the proclamation of the whole counsel of God.
- As we do this, we should continue to patiently build Christian institutions that will last well. While commitment to your local church is paramount, the long-term maintenance and development of healthy Christian institutions will be vital. We should never fossilise them, or they will die.
I pray that we will have Christian communities of different sizes, located across the Diocese, that are characterised by love, mercy, peace and humility – that demonstrate a realistic hope and a confident movement toward the future with patient urgency. That will outlive, out-love and out-think the prevailing culture of individualised self-expression, which seeks to impose a secular-religious mindset.
The great promise of Scripture is that Christ’s church is being built. The hardening against religious beliefs means we will need to adjust any expectation that we will somehow return to a previous time.
The future may not be straightforward, and will require much prayer, but I am confident that if we maintain what we should, it will confirm that God continues to do what Jesus promised: to build his church.