Sacred Agents #110

Census and Sensibility

I know most of you don’t love statistics as much as I do, probably 98.841% of you with a margin of error of … WAIT! Don’t switch off. The recent Australian Census data is important. Let me try to translate the number columns into a meaningful story.

Some results were not that surprising. Turns out we’re all five years older than we were at the last census five years ago. Over that time the Australian population grew 8.6% (1.5% per year) to 25.4 million. Half of that growth came from migration. Ask your parents where the other half came from. Speaking of which, did you know nearly 50% of us have a parent born overseas? Oh, and that Millennials have totes taken over as largest age demographic? LOL. Eye-roll emoji.

But it was the Religious Affiliation data that surprised many. The proportion of Aussies who claim to be Christian dropped sharply, from 52% to 44% (in 2011 it was 61%).  At the same time, those who ticked ‘No Religion’ rose from 30% to 39%. This represents two million nominal Christians no longer claiming to be what they don’t practice. Most of us would see this as a rise in honesty – don’t claim to be a musician if you don’t play an instrument. But if it’s a shift from ‘I’m a lazy musician who hardly ever practices’ to ‘I’m no musician and selling my trumpet’, it is a loss and a grief.

The drop-off from those claiming Christianity was not spread evenly across denominations. Anglicans especially, but Catholics, Uniting, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Salvos had very significant reductions. Pentecostals and Churches of Christ fell a little. Baptists actually grew – by 2,192 – small falls in most states were more than offset by a jump of 4,500 in Victoria. Go BUV!

The generation that is least ‘Christian’ (31%) and most ‘No Religion’ (47%) are those millennials, now aged 26-40. But this may be more about life-stage than generation; young adults often do a prodigal walkabout before returning to faith. Let’s be sure to welcome them as per.

So what’s the story? What might God be saying to us and what might we do with all this?

Firstly, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Phrases like ‘post-Christian’ are easily thrown around, but I think we should be careful with them, recognizing that it can be a way of writing off the people around us – and at worst, resigning our missionary responsibilities. The “No Religion is winning, Christianity is losing” line is deafening, but pretty bad maths when our score is 44 and they’re on 39. What everyone is doing is projecting the trends forward, and critically, assuming things will just keep going as they are.

This is so dangerous, because we Christians have agency and responsibility. We’re not mere victims of vast cultural forces that are eating us up. The truth is that Christ’s kingdom is everlasting, it’s on the right side of history and will rightly prevail. No empire, force, ideology or culture will swallow it up or outlast it. Remember Nebuchadnezzar’s statue dream? There is no better, cleverer road than the way of Jesus, they all end up being detours.

Don’t we know this? In the year 1800, on Easter Sunday at St Paul’s cathedral in London, the number who took communion was six. Christianity was on the way out; Science was the bright new star. But looking back, we now think of the 1800s as a century of enormous Christian growth. In Germany in 1930 it seemed clear that the way forward was science, technology, and humanism. Christians were backwards sentimentalists lost in a past age. Forward together! Now we look back on Hitler’s twelve year ‘Thousand-year-Reich’ with abject horror. Things change. The direction our society is going in is not obvious, linear, inevitable, or beyond our influence as God works in history through us.

Having said that, we should take from this the reminder that we will continue to see the same results if we continue to do the same things. If we keep on refusing to sow, we will keep on failing to reap. If we keep circling the wagons, pulling up the drawbridge and turning our churches into uninviting, introspective circles, what do we expect? It astonishes me that census news like this can prompt many Christians into further reclusion rather than spurring us on to better mission.

And we can readily do so much better. We’re busily doing just about everything but sharing Jesus with others. We’re failing at the most obvious and easiest of steps – looking at Mt Kosciuszko and writing it off as an impossible Everest. (Frankly, we should grab the horns, see reaching Australians as our first, not last priority, and put ten times the resources into Crossover. That would not even be a Kosciuszko, given that we currently invest … wait for it … less than 50 cents per Baptist per year.) Come on! We can turn things around; we can change our priorities. Why wait till next census? Why not now?

Consider the opportunity dangling right in front of us! Let’s zoom in on those 10 million (39%) who ticked ‘No Religion’. Only 0.1% (1 in every 258 of them) categorised themselves as Atheist. Similar tiny fractions were New Age-ish or owned themselves as Agnostic. And the other 38.5% out of 39% seemed to not even know that they didn’t know. We make an extremely clumsy error to imagine all 10 million as committed atheists when in fact hardly any are. The vast group of them are more likely wandering prodigals, not committed philosophically to the piggery but getting nudged and corralled there by the roughness of life cut off from Life.

So the 3.4 million practising Christians could perhaps consider their Australian mission field in 3 broad groups:

8 million Church Drop-outs – describing themselves as Christian in belief, but not intentionally connecting with other believers.
9 million Wanderers – as discussed above, not actively owning a defined world view but defaulting to a humanist/materialist life practice.
– 5 million Committed to Something Else –practicing other religions or committed atheists. Rather than wandering, they’re deliberately walking a different road. But hardly out of God’s reach – Saul of Tarsus was one of these, many of us were.

So friends, there remains an enormous openness, interest in and respect for Christianity, and its message when respectfully conveyed. There remains an enormous thirst for love, meaning, belonging, hope and purpose. What God has given us to offer is hugely attractive and deeply transformative. No Australians are far from God’s kingdom if you, dear ambassadors, are nearby. The sensible census takeaway is clear, I hope, I beg:

Not to sook, but to seek.

Andrew Turner is the Director of Crossover for ABM and author of Fruitful Church and Taking the Plunge

Photo by Mika Baumeister on

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