A World Waiting To Be Won Duncan Heaster email the author


Appendix 2: Winning The West

2-1 Missionary Work In The West: Trends From Canada || 2-2 The Potential Of The Unchurched In The West  || 2-3 Australian Church Surveys

Appendix 3: One To One Preaching: Sample Dialogues || 3-1 Building rapport in conversations 

Appendix 4: Why Do Some Areas Respond More Than Others?


2-3 Australian Church Surveys

On a visit to Australia I was kindly given two books: “Build My Church, Trends and Possibilities for Australian Churches” by Peter Kaldor, John Bellamy, Ruth Powell, Keith Castle, Bronwyn Hughes; and “Shaping a Future, Characteristics of Vital Congregations”, again by the same authors. Their surveys of Australian church life coupled with some other statistics provide a lot of encouraging food for thought for us as we seek to win Australia for the Truth.

People are interested

It can seem that Australians simply aren’t interested. But, 20% of Australians say they attend church monthly or more often, and 10% go weekly.  A further 20% say they attend church at least yearly (Source:  1998 Australian Community Survey). The 20% of Australians who claim a regular involvement are a sizeable group.  There are few activities in Australian life that can claim such a level of involvement. And yet around 35% believe in a person God and 39% in a life-force of some sort.  Only 9% feel there is no God.  The fact that more Australians believe in God than attend church is also evident in the fact that while 20% attend church at least monthly, around 33% pray or meditate at least weekly, and 43% feel somewhat or extremely close to God. And again, only 9% say there is no God (Source:  1998 Australian Community Survey). Seven out of every ten Australians identify with one of the Christian churches (Source: 1996 Census of Population and Housing)- although it seems, putting the figures together, that not many of them actually attend very much. The conclusion is clear: people do have a religious conscience. But they are tired of churches and turning out to meetings. My suggestion based on this, therefore, is that we shouldn’t be selling ourselves as just another church on the religious landscape. I am not specifically involved in preaching to Australia, and yet on average, every day an Australian requests Bible Basics from the www.biblebasicsonline.com website. We need to get into their homes, by internet, video, home visits, and above all by talking to people and forging relationships with them. This, it seems to me, is the way to win the West.

Excluding christenings, weddings, funerals and other special services, around 40% of Australians attend church at least once a year.  According to the ABS, such contact is only bettered by attendance at the cinema (62%) and, marginally, sporting events (44%).  Far more people are involved in church activities than visit museums or art galleries or go to the opera, theatre or dance.  (Source:  Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 1996). And yet I have heard it lamented that the real religion of Australia is sport alone. The figures show this isn’t the case. And Biblically, everybody surely has a religious conscience, even the pagans- according to Romans 1.

And people are out there searching, even amongst those who do attend church. Around 7% of attenders in an average week (Catholic and Anglican/Protestant) have switched from another denomination in the previous five years (Source 1996 National Church Life Survey).

The majority of Australians claim to have attended church or Sunday school prior to the age of 12 (Source 1996 Australian Community Survey). It isn’t so that Australians simply know nothing of God. This may be so of the rising generation, but the folk we are preaching to aren’t in this situation. And note that some 64% of attenders read the Bible on their own at least once a week or more often, while 68% pray frequently or habitually (Source:  Views from the Pews, pp 86-89). It just isn’t so that ‘the churches don’t know their Bibles’. Many of them do, but it’s just that they have the information out of the right order. We need to aim at re-framing in their minds much of what they already know, rather than assuming they know nothing and we are the soul fount of Biblical information for them. And this is how the thousands of Jews converted in the first century came to the Lord; what they knew was re-framed for them and put in a different, and correct, order.

It is also a myth that only the poor are really interested. Poverty distracts, terribly, from concentration on something like Bible study. It distracts and obsesses those afflicted by it just as much as wealth does. In Sydney, a blue-collar, multicultural region such as Blacktown has an attendance rate of 27 people per 1,000 and lower class Fairfield a rate of 16 per 1,000.  Similar low levels of attendance appear in Melbourne in places such as Keilor (11 per 1,000), Broadmeadows (14 per 1,000) and Sunshine (15 per 1,000).  Higher attendance rates are found in stable white-collar regions such as Ku-ring-gai in Sydney (78 per 1,000), Ipswich (93 per 1,000) and Toowoomba (91 per 1,000) in Queensland.  (Source:  Are there Bible Belts in Australia?, Kaldow and Castle, 1995). The conclusion: it just isn’t so that only the poor are interested.

Offering What They Need

The Lord Jesus spoke to people “as they were able to hear it”- not as He was able to expound it. Reasons for non-involvement in church hinged around the perception that church services were boring or unfulfilling.  Around 42% of respondents feel that unfulfilling or boring worship services discourage them from attending, at least to some extent.  (Source:  1996 Australian Community Survey). Now I am not saying we change our Gospel- for we cannot do that. But the presentation of it and its practical relevance need to be stressed. People just are not interested in a lecture about “God is one not three”. The population is not comprised of hobby-level theologians who are just waiting for such an event to be put on for them to attend. What the average Australian wants is to know this God and the power of a committed life…with this God whom 91% of them believe in, but very few worship.

The 1991 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) identifies a range of characteristics associated with numerically growing congregations:

    1. Moving in new directions

    2. Belonging and commitment are important bases from which to grow a congregation

    3. The congregation is connecting with new arrivals in the area (given that half of the Australian population moves every five years- remember this statistic when assuming that an area has been ‘covered’)

    4. Conflict does not help

    5. Leadership style is important

    6. The congregation is outwardly focused

    7. Other factors – attenders are growing in their faith, buildings that are not uncomfortably empty for worship, attenders highly valuing the mission activities of the congregation, friendliness to newcomers

If people see transformed lives in practice, they will be attracted. And so it must have been in the first century. It was personal example which was the real puller. The radical difference between our lives and those around us must rest in the fact that our doctrine affects our living, practically, and that doctrine is what is so different.

The 1991 National Church Life Survey concluded that talks need to be short (not longer than 25 minutes) and simple in order to be understood, with stories to aid listening.  Most people’s attention span is about 15-30 minutes.  Our community is very much based in the 19th century approach to sermonizing. The reality is that TV, the internet, breakdown in family and other communications, have resulted in short attention spans. We can lament it, but this is what has happened. These are the folk we are dealing with.

Some 71% feel that the important issues of their daily lives are being addressed in their congregations.  For most (41%), this occurs through informal discussion of issues with other attenders.  Only 30% feel that important issues are discussed through the formal activities of their congregation.  (Source:  Winds of Change, p 143). Again, we see that it is relationships within the church which teach the message. Yet we have tended to elevate platform speaking to such a position that we feel that what is written and spoken formally is the defining power in the thinking and being of an audience. It simply isn’t like this. I for one can remember only a tiny percentage of the exhortation I heard last week…and scarcely anything from the ones I heard in the weeks before that. And yet I can remember the smile of the old sister, the grin of the excited young brother, the incident in a brother’s life which they shared with me.

It isn’t so that we need to water down our doctrinal approach in order to get a hearing. “A conservative orientation to the Bible is also positively related to attenders feeling a strong sense of belonging to their congregation and the likelihood of young adults being retained within its life”  Source 1991 National Church Life Survey. And remember, conversion is all about relationships, and showing to others the unity which we have reached. The way we plan our hall layout needs to be reflected upon, if it is really so that relationships are the key to conversion. The survey claims that “Ideally buildings should be full to about 80% of their seating capacity in urban areas and 50-70% in rural areas.  People prefer to worship in a building that is comfortably full but not overcrowded”.

Consider carefully the following quote: “Congregations that focus only on church attenders or on affiliates of the same denomination within the area are less likely to grow numerically than other congregations.  Attenders who are growing in their faith are more likely to be found in congregations which focus on all contacts and less likely to be in those which focus on church attenders or denominational affiliates”  (Source 1991 National Church Life Survey). I am not arguing from this that we should be ecumenical. But rather, that we should be outward looking, with conversion and reaching out into this world as one of our main objectives. If we are inwardly focused, those outside will not be attracted in. The key to numerical growth is seen by the surveys as the willingness of attenders to invite people with whom they have built relationships into the life of the church.  (Source 1991 National Church Life Survey).

Just 1% of attenders began at their current congregation as a result of seeing a newsletter, advertisement or signboard (Source:  Winds of Change, p 155). Yet our  assumption has too often been that placing an advertisement equals having preached the Gospel. Yet we all know, if we just pause and look around our ecclesias, that the real source of conversion is personal witness. Without being humanistic, we must show others that people matter; that you, really, for who you are, matter to me. “Many congregations are ineffective because they become preoccupied with programs and lose sight of the people whose needs the programs are intended to meet”; and whilst we are in some ways fundamentally different to other churches in terms of our doctrine, this conclusion in this case seems very relevant to us too.

Congregations which had experienced serious conflict over theological, social, financial or other issues in the previous ten years were less likely to grow numerically than churches which had not experienced such conflicts. And we could put this in Biblical context by reflecting how the Lord taught that our unity with each other is what would bring the world to know Him. The extraordinary fusion of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and master in the early church must have been the main attraction and confirmation of their message. As Jew and Gentile separated within the early church, so the numbers of conversions declined. And we know all too well that ecclesial conflict has turned so many away from us. We need to urgently learn the lessons, both from Scripture and from the conclusions which this research presents. The surveys suggest that a key to mission is reaching society’s “unacceptable” persons, not just those who are like the congregation . And here we have a real challenge to our comfortable way of being. It is quite right that large families ‘in the Truth’ have developed, but unless there is a constant inflow of new converts from other backgrounds, it will become increasingly difficult to attract anyone from a more diverse background to come in and share with us. In a constantly, regularly converting ecclesia, an upward spiral can be broken into whereby one conversion leads to another. It is my honest, considered observation and belief that with thought and prayer and effort, Australia and indeed the whole Western world can break into this upward spiral before the Lord comes.