Tuesday, February 02, 2010

mate, that church is freezing and boring! australian religious identity

Some fascinating perspectives on Australia and religious identity, from Philip J Hughes, “Religious Trends in Australia,” in Reimagining God and Mission: Perspectives from Australia, 27-43.

While the Pentcostal growth has been significant in relation to the history of religious groups in Australia, the overall growth in relation to the picture of the Australian population is small. Only one percent of the population identify with the Pentecostals. Many people try them for a short while and move on. The Pentecostals are not taking over. They are attracting a small portion of the population, but leave many Australians cold.  Many people are wary of the enthusiasm, commitment and attitudes to authority within Pentecostal churches. (Hughes, 30)

Only two-and-a-half per cent of all Muslims in Australia were born of Australian-born parents … All of these [Islamic] groups will weaken over time. They are struggling to adapt to their new cultural milieu. (Hughes, 33, 34)

The militant forms of secularism and atheism, which show their faces from time to time in the mass media, are rarely found in the younger proportions of the population. (Hughes, 37)

Much has been made of the rise of spirituality in the Australian scene, in contrast to the decline in religiosity. However, the size and importance of this movement has been considerably over-emphasized. The actual proportion … [is] about two-and-a-half percent of the total population … While few are antagonistic to spirituality, for comparatively few Australians it is even on the radar – despite the small and enthusaistic numbers who fill classes in some university courses on it. (Hughes, 36, 37)

In other words, Pentecostalism, Islam, new atheism and the rise of spirituality have been over-hyped.

Q. What is going on?
A. The “whatever” of postmodernity

Since the 1960s and 1970s, there have been huge changes in the nature of culture. Globalisation and the Western emphasis on the individual have contributed to culture becoming more fluid, created by individuals rather than being tied to ethnicity … Most engage with religion if they find it helpful … many are put off religious services because they find them boring and irrelevant. (Hughes, 38, 39)

Hughes also notes the notable absence of the following groups from churches:

  • those in non-nuclear family groupings ie de facto, separated, homosexual
  • working class ie those whose lives revolve around production, service and skilled trades. “There is very little of what happens in churches which relates to the world in which these people work and earn their living.” (Hughes, 40)

Immediate “missional church” responses as I read Hughes:
1. Offer CHOICE. Multiple pathways including diverse services, block courses, study groups, spirituality days, take home resources.

2. Get rigorously critical of your church services. Take the “Father Bob” test – earthy, humour.  Because we’re boring!

3. Ask each other “So what?” In the “lucky country” how on earth does God/faith/spirituality shape your everyday life? Hughes writes that “The spirit does affect every other dimension of life.” (43). So keep asking each other the “so what” question and then find ways to chatter that in the public domain (video on the internet, postcards, billboards, storytelling in church).

Posted by steve at 05:09 PM


  1. “While the Pentcostal growth has been significant in relation to the history of religious groups in Australia, the overall growth in relation to the picture of the Australian population is small. Only one percent of the population identify with the Pentecostals(Hughes, 30)”

    That is interesting. I was on the website of a pentecostal church today and they claimed that over 50% of people who attend a church on any given Sunday will attend an AOG church! I would be interested to know where they got their information from.

    Comment by Mark Stevens — February 2, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

  2. I assume you asked them where they got the information from? Any response

    Comment by Aaron — February 3, 2010 @ 7:33 am

  3. Aaron, no I didn’t – it was some info on this particular church’s website explaining who the Australian Christian Churches (AOG) are. I think they have taken their weekly figures (as a denom) and then looked at how many people attend church weekly (according to the census) and arrived at a figure. Very poor use of statistics because I would have thought Anglican, Catholic and Uniting would have more than double what they claim on a any given weekend. According to the ACC website they have over 215000 constituents.

    If you take this city as an example it is interesting to note that 90% of people who attend an ACC church will attend one of two. If you remove those then their stats fall away dramatically.

    Having a bit to do with Pentecostal churches I would echo Hughes’ sentiments concerning people’s attitudes and experiences. However, they are still a part of the wider body!

    Comment by Mark Stevens — February 3, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  4. A bit of a tangent regarding spirituality…yesterday I was called up for jury duty and watched others in the group who wished to be excused, taking oaths. People had the choice to take either the oath (with Bible and “so help me God”) or the affirmation (no Bible and no mention of God). All up there would have been about 40 people who had to swear and only about 6 chose the affirmation (very stridently, it must be said). I thought it was interesting

    Comment by kerry — February 3, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  5. Sociologically, Pentecostal churches are generally 1 or 2 per city. They tend to offer a “city” vision, which is in contrast to Baptist/Uniting etc, which offer a more suburban ethos ie care for the local community. Both are needed.

    Why I put the quote up was because of the “huff and puff” that tends to be around “Pentecostal/Spirit” is the hope of the future of the church – which statistically it aint.


    Comment by steve — February 3, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  6. The Pentecostal phenomenon can be a bit of a distraction for the church. As the statistics show they are still a minority, though command a larger active attendance than most ‘mainstream’ churches. Yet the well-known back door, of course, is wide open in most pentecostal churches. Attendance figures don’t reflect membership, or even spiritual maturity; and most pentecostal churches are aware of that. The temptation for some mainstream churches is to be like the pentecostals and ‘hype’ up the services, which we don’t do very well. This is not a slag against pentecostal churches because what they do, they do well. The challenge is for us ‘mainstreams’ to develop an incarnational ministry that is indigineous and connects and serves, with integrity, the community in which we live.

    Comment by Chris McLeod — February 3, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  7. What is the scripture for “serve the community in which you live?”

    Comment by Ingrid — February 3, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  8. love your neighbour as you love yourself, perhaps.

    and we could then ask “well, who is my neighbour” … and the Scripture for that is …. 🙂


    Comment by steve — February 3, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  9. Hi Steve, I can’t comment about the Pentecostal or the Islam statistics, but I do think that I am becoming something of an armchair expert on the New Atheist movement. (I’d be a proper expert if I could, but nobody is offering the course :P)

    I don’t deny the particular stat that Hughes gives, that New Atheist groups are currently over-represented by white, elderly, males, but from listening to and reading relevant people and material over the last few years I have learned at least three facts about New Atheist trends that seem worth mentioning here:

    (1) the number of women associated with organised atheist movements are increasing (perhaps remarkably so).
    (2) the number of young people associated with organised atheist movements are significantly increasing.
    (3) at least in the U.S. (and I wonder how this is reflected in other countries), the “atheist” minority group is currently the fastest growing minority (compared to smaller denominations and/or cults, gays, jews, muslims, and blacks).

    In summary, while I would agree with Hughes that atheist populations in Australia and around the world are small, I wonder whether it is best to summarise them only in that light. If one were to say that their current lack of size or influence is the only salient factor of the atheist “trend”, then one may risk underestimating or misunderstanding New Atheism’s place in the world.

    Comment by Iain — February 3, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

  10. Iain,

    you are certainly well-equipped to comment on this.

    for what it’s worth, the “atheism” quote is followed by a second sentence “In in-depth interviews with more than two hundred young people over the last eighteen months in a study of youth spirituality, I found few signs of it.” Now the conf was 2005, so that’s 2004-5 research. But 200 young people is a good sample size.

    but I do think, (as you’ve seen me do) that a church needs to take the atheist challenge throughtfully in its’ preaching, as much to help church folk think through their faith.

    i miss espresso


    Comment by steve — February 3, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

  11. Steve, I’d disagree or at least offer an alternative perspective on some of these conclusions about Australian spirituality. Past surveys have measured up to 30% or so (can’t recall the exact figure) believe in reincarnation, and up to 70 or 80% believe in God or spiritual life force, etc. So most Aussies aren’t Atheist or even that agnostic. There’s some spirituality there. More than the 2.5% quoted in any case. What can be said about it though is that its very low temperature spirituality. And that’s very hard to measure.

    That does gel with your conclusions about Pentecostalism however. I would agree Aussies are wary of high temperature religion. Mark Stevens asks, what about surveys showing 50% of church attenders are Pentecostals? Well, given church attendance is down to around 5% on any given Sunday maybe I’d predict 2.5% rather than 1%, but that still a fairly insignificant number.

    In response to Iain, well, I wonder whether it is best to summarise the New Atheist movement only in the light of America. I welcome that Steve is highlighting some pertinant information about the local scene, whether or not that gels with experiences elsewhere. In fact, in saying that Aussie tend towards low temperature religion, I’d add they also tend towards low temperature irreligion.

    Comment by Matt Stone — February 3, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  12. Thanks, I was interested in hearing the larger context of the quote.

    One thing that I have noticed is that people are good at seeing “the other side” in a light closer to how they would hope to be the case rather in a way that is rigorously close to the truth. This isn’t an underhanded comment at you, I’m only speaking in generalities. Everybody does it (wow, how general is that!).
    I’m keen to finish reading that Hart book about the New Atheism and then post my comments on your blog entry about it. I notice nobody else has commented on your three posts about it, perhaps we could have a fruitful blogOtalk about it sometime.

    As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    Espresso certainly misses you,

    Comment by Iain — February 3, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

  13. If Mr. Wonderful said to me “I’ll serve you forever”, I guess that would be something. But I’d rather he said “I’ll love you forever.”….

    Comment by Ingrid — February 3, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  14. Mark, lots of 2001 church attendance stats here: http://www.ncls.org.au/default.aspx?sitemapid=2231
    Also my “distribution” article (follow my link) has links to other stats and there’s a focus on Adelaide.

    Back then attendance was around 50% Catholic and 9% pentecostal (mostly ACC). That 9% would have grown a bit in the last 8 years as older members of other churches die.

    Tonight our home group was crashed by a drunk man. “Are you religious people here? Do you have bible study here? I’m a Baptist”, he said, still carrying his bottle of liquor! Not the first drunk we’ve had in there either!

    Comment by Eric — February 3, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  15. Matt, I’ll respond to your comment with a separate post I think, cos what I was quoting was just a “heading” and it’s worth exploring the data more thoroughly I think.


    Comment by steve — February 4, 2010 @ 8:05 am

  16. Ingrid, I’m fascinated that you separate love and service. Is God, and our churchs, meant to be “Mr Wonderful.”?

    As I read your comments, I also thought of Philipians 2:7, where Incarnation is to be a servant; and 1 John, in which love is defined in Jesus, including the obedience of death and resurrection.


    Comment by steve — February 4, 2010 @ 8:08 am

  17. Kerry, thanks for sharing that experience. its an interesting perspective, perhaps on spirituality, perhaps on attitudes to “authority.”


    Comment by steve — February 4, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  18. It must be difficult (but not impossible) for ministers of reigion who trained 30 years ago or more to keep up to date and relevant in how they express the good news that God offers. I wonder if a cross referencing of the age demographic of ministers might reveal anything? I think the church has largely failed in transitioning younger leaders from ‘youth leaders’ into pastors.

    Comment by David — February 4, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

  19. Mr. Wonderful has got nothing to do with the church. You were replacing the word ‘serve’ with the word ‘love”….I was just trying to bring out that the word ‘serve’ is not necessarily the same as the word ‘love’. You can serve without loving and you can love without serving…….To get back to my original comment: I could only find scriptures that require us to SERVE God or one another, i.e. fellow believers …which of course does not exclude helping someone in urgent need….Regarding 1John, I don’t know what scripture you refer to and what you are saying to me.

    Comment by Ingrid — February 4, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  20. While in some cases you maybe able to love with out serving. I don’t believe this applies to a church in relation to its community.

    Comment by Aaron — February 4, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  21. Aaron: I was speaking about the words ‘love’ and ‘serve’ strictly by themselves, not in connection with anything…..When you say “church in relation to its community” do you mean ‘church in relation to its own attendants’ or ‘church in relation to the people living in its vicinity?”

    Comment by Ingrid — February 5, 2010 @ 4:01 am

  22. Hi Ingrid. Love & serve are verbs. They have to be in connection to something. When Jesus said he came to serve he didn’t just have the church in mind, as it didn’t exist!

    Comment by Chris McLeod — February 5, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

  23. David,
    love your comment and a great perspective. do you have any suggestions for how leadership transitions can be improved? and done so in a way that does not say, youth are just a training ground, cos when a leader matures, they get to work with big people,


    Comment by steve — February 5, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  24. Yes but it was in response to your question about serving in the community that Steve gave you the scripture to love you neighbour as yourself. So it didn’t seem to just be a general discussion about the nature of love and serving.
    I was talking about people living in its vicinity but it could probably apply to both.

    Comment by Aaron — February 5, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

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