I’ve been a church consultant and leadership coach working both within my own and across several other denominations for over 30 years. And during that time the one constant has been the steady decline of the vast majority of mainstream local churches. Certainly there have been a handful of exceptions bucking that trend. However, they are the exceptions and not the norm.
This is a trend that in Australia started in the 1960s. In 2021, around 21% of adults reported they attend church at least monthly – a decline from 46% of adults in 1950.
There have been many reasons proposed for the decline in mainstream Christianity in Australia. An article published by the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture suggests “improvements in education and prosperity, along with internal institutional issues, such as the child abuse scandal, the role of women and issues of sexual ethics.” (Liz Jakimow, ‘Is Australia losing religion: The State of the Church’). To this we could add:
• Over the last 40-50 years there have been significant cultural and religious changes in the Australian population. Immigrants have brought the faith traditions from their home countries. Hence there’s been a rise of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikh and other belief systems.
• Australia has become a more secular society reflecting a global trend across the western world away from religious faith and church attendance.
• There’s been an erosion of trust in traditional social and national institutions such as governments, politicians, the judiciary, the education system, law enforcement and of course the church.
• The growth of hedonism, consumerism and individualism across much of Australian society has occurred at the detriment of community.
• The perceived irrelevance of church and religion for an increasing number of Australians.
• The Church itself – in addition to the impact of the findings of the Royal Commission into the abuse of children: a perceived shift by denominational judicatories from traditional missional practices and financial support for churches to other programs eligible for government funding and prestigious church schools accused of ‘inoculating’ children against Christian faith (eg. through chapel services that fail to relate to young people).
• Individual members and families leaving their church because they have felt unaccepted, not cared for or not included.
• Lack of leadership intervention to arrest local church decline. Research shows that unless a regular attender’s unexplained absence is not followed up personally within 6 weeks by a church leader that person will probably interpret that as lack of concern. As a result they will find something else to do on a Sunday morning and usually that doesn’t mean going to a church elsewhere.
When I was a teenager my father said to me, “Son, there are three things you don’t talk about – sex, politics and religion.” That was back in the early 1960s. My father’s views reflected those of his generation. Certainly those three subjects are freely discussed today in our wider society. However, in the mainstream church there is still a strong attitude that faith is personal and private and should not be discussed outside one’s intimate family circle. I believe it is this culture of privatised faith, still prevalent in most mainline churches that is mainly the cause of declining church participation. As a result rarely are lay people encouraged and equipped by their pastors and leaders to be able to conversationally and respectfully share their experience of Jesus with their non-church friends. As a denominational church consultant for 16 years and now having my own independent leadership coaching and church consulting practice for the past 15 years, I know from experience how entrenched this reluctance to share faith is. Moreover, repeated national church surveys have shown how passive the majority of church members are when it comes to actively communicating with others beyond their families and church communities their spiritual experiences.
Now certainly Christian mission isn’t primarily about church attendance. Nevertheless church attendance patterns are one of the primary indicators of the extent to which a church is connecting with its local community. Obviously, ageing and numerically declining congregations are minimally equipped to establish missional programs and activities that engage with non-church people. According to the 2021 National Church Life Survey 36% of churchgoers are 70 or older, compared with only 15% of the Australian population in that age bracket. Catholic and mainstream Protestant attenders have the oldest age profiles contrasted with Pentecostal churches which have the youngest. Moreover it’s not just the young adults who are missing from church life. The evidence shows all age groups under 60 are in decline with each subsequent generation even less connected to a local church.
While reclaiming a missional mindset for a local church may include establishing programs and activities that serve the wider community, especially the poor and marginalised, the core of mission is helping non-believers become followers of Jesus (Matt 28:19-20). And that doesn’t happen simply by running programs or putting welcome signs outside the front of your church. Discovering a relationship with Jesus happens relationally. It best happens when non- believers experience love, friendship and acceptance. Certainly groups and activities that draw people from the wider community can become places where such relationships can be formed. However, churches don’t have to wait till they are able to develop community groups. Most of us have, to some extent, friendships with people who don’t go to church. Our calling as Jesus followers is through listening, asking sensitive questions and prayer discern where the Spirit of God is at work in the lives of our friends. And when we sense the time is right to share something of our faith in Jesus that relates to where our unchurched friend is at in his/her life journey and help our friend move a step closer to the Lord.
McCrindle Research in their 2022 Report, “The Changing Faith Landscape of Australia”, gives us strong encouragement at this point. Their research indicates that around 80% of Australians are ‘open to a spiritual conversation that may involve different views to their own’. In fact, 21% are extremely open, 25% very open, 26% somewhat open and 8% slightly open. Moreover, younger Australians are more open than older generations.
Beyond just engaging in a faith conversation McCrindle also found (if presented in the right circumstances and with what the friend considers to be sufficient evidence) 58% are at least slightly open to changing their religious beliefs with almost half (46%) extremely or very open. Again this is especially so for younger Australians (73% Gen Z, 70% Gen Y, 54% Gen X, compared with 45% Baby Boomers and 36% Builders). In fact only around 21% of all surveyed said they were not open to having such conversations.
Research carried out in South Australia several years ago found that 80% of people first came to faith in Jesus and into the life of the church because of the influence of a relative or friend. This was contrasted with those who were converted because of a pastor (7%), church program (3%), crusade event or TV (0.0001%), Sunday School (4%), door to door visits (1%) or just came to church uninfluenced by any church activity (5%). As these finding are consistent with international research I have every reason to believe these same percentages basically still apply.
The bottom line is to what extent are we prepared and willing to witness to our experience of Jesus to our non-believing friends when the opportunity arises? After all the as followers of Jesus we have been given the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to him (Acts 1:8) and encouraged to “give a reason for the hope that you have” when asked (1Peter 3:15). The core question for each of us is: Do my actions and lifestyle as a follower of Jesus evoke the sort of questions that give me an opportunity for share with a non-believer the reason for the hope I have?
If you or your church want to find out more you are welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for free, relationally based, faith sharing resources.