A boost in visitor numbers for Easter church services and some survey figures on spirituality are leading many to ask whether COVID and its aftermath is providing opportunities among spiritually hungry Australians.
Research by the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) in March found there is a connection between spirituality and wellbeing and that using “spiritual practices” during tough times is important. Stress levels in the past two years have increased, firstly because of the bushfires, then COVID and more recently flooding.
“Late last year we learned that around half of Australians were drawing on spiritual practices,” NCLS’s research director Dr Ruth Powell said. “I imagine the devastating March floods would have seen people relying on spiritual resources in similar ways.”
While the “spiritual practices” –were not distinctly Christian, 18 per cent of respondents said that attending religious services appealed to them and 12-16 per cent were attracted by listening to religious talks and spiritual books.
12-16 per cent were attracted by listening to religious talks and spiritual books.
The findings build on research late last year by the McCrindle organisation, which found that during the pandemic almost half of Australians have thought more about the meaning of life (47%) or their own mortality (47%). A third of Australians have thought more about God, while almost three in 10 have prayed more.
The Dean of Sydney, Canon Sandy Grant, says there isn’t a clear trend as yet, although “there is an anecdotal sense of being clearer that ‘we are not in control’.” Canon Grant believes that isolation and the opportunities that come from working from home mean that people place a greater value on relationships. He says that apart from COVID-related uncertainties, Christians can engage on other topics that lead to gospel opportunities.
“I think intelligent discussions around human identity – including engagement, albeit fraught, with gender and biological sex, concerns about social media and questions arising from the fracturing of the Western ‘progressive’ agenda through what’s happening in Ukraine – are just as much issues for discussion.”
After the COVID-related disruption of 2020 and 2021, exact visitor numbers for Easter were difficult to estimate, but various churches across the Diocese reported strong interest.
At St Andrew’s, Roseville, senior minister the Rev Mal York believes visitors and newcomers probably outnumbered regulars. COVID, he says, has shaken people.
COVID has shaken people
“For the first time in a long time people in the West, especially, are hearing about loved ones dying,” he says. “Especially when you've got daily death counts in the news, it reminds people of the reality that we're going to die. As a result of that, there certainly has been more opportunity to talk about spiritual things with people.”
At Easter, news of the Ukraine conflict intensified people’s interest. “I don't know if that's bringing people along, but my suspicion is yes,” Mr York says.
“If you think about the last two years, we've had fires; we've had pandemics; we’ve had floods and we’ve now got a war. I mean, they're all things that the Bible talks about that are happening in the end times. I think as a result of those things being on the news, it's definitely heightening people's thoughts about death and life and spirituality.”
Engaging in gospel discussion
Canon Grant has some advice for engaging in gospel discussions. “Keep practising asking good questions: ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘Can you expand a bit further on why you think that way?’ ‘How do you know that?’ or ‘What are your sources/main evidence?’” he says.
“Conversely, get used to saying things like, ‘I respect all people in our workplace (or relevant community space), as I hope you have seen by my example. But may I ask if this is a safe space for me to share my convictions? Because my beliefs are deeply personal and I hope they would be listened to with respect, even if people disagree with me’.”
Canon Grant believes it will be helpful to encourage people not just to view themselves or others through the lens of a single identity marker. “We are all made by God and precious to him,” he says.
However the conversation is approached, Mr York says this is an opportune time for Christians to be speaking with their friends.
“Through those opportunities, remind them of the wonderful love that God has for us through the Lord Jesus and the hope that we have – despite all these things happening – that if we trust in him we don't need to worry about them because the gift of eternal life is our sure and certain hope.”