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:
Moving in new directions
Belonging and commitment are important bases from which to
grow a congregation
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’)
Conflict does not help
Leadership style is important
The congregation is outwardly focused
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
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.