The Australian church is not in good shape. Over the last century regular church attendance has declined from around 50% of the population to around 15% today and our younger generations are dropping out an alarming rate. The large decline suggests the issue is not lifestage (i.e. people leave as young adults and return to church when they have families) but generational (i.e. succeeding generations are less religious across all stages of life).
Why is this happening? There are factors that are external to the church and factors that are internal. It seems to me that at least four external factors are in play. First, since the Enlightenment it has been common to argue that religions are systems of meaning but not systems of truth. For a long time this was predominantly an argument of the Academy, but with the rise of cheap international travel and expansion of Australia’s migration to include people of non-Christian faiths, ordinary Australians are exposed to a multiplicity of religions, each with their claim to be the truth. In this context the truth claims of any religion appear problematic.
Second, the rising affluence of our society and the capacity of science and technology to resolve many of our challenges, have eroded people’s sense of need for God. Faith simply doesn’t seem necessary to a good life.
Third, we live in a society that is increasingly impatient with institutions. Every movement must eventually become institutionalised if it is to survive, which means rules and constitutions and budgets and rosters. Everybody likes the services institutions provide, but fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to deal with the mundane realities of maintaining those institutions.
Finally there is the power of the group. As fewer and fewer people participate in religious institutions and our public institutions became thoroughly secular the sense that religious faith and religious practice are a normal part of life has died away.
But it is not external factors alone that are responsible for people leaving the church. More people are leaving our faith than are embracing it, and while the external factors I’ve described provide a context within which we can make sense of this, it is usually personal encounter and personal experiences that are the catalyst for people making a decisive break with faith. When I speak to people and read stories of those who have left the church a number of themes commonly appear.
First, many find the morality of the church inadequate. The two great ethical developments of Western society have been movements for freedom and equality and the rise of environmentalism, yet many churches are oblivious to both. Over the past few hundred years we have shifted from a society that privileged white heterosexual males and repressed all others to one that has championed the freedoms and rights of women, slaves, people of different cultures, and people of different sexualities. Yet the church, which was once a champion of freedoms, has become the largest social institution in the West that stands in the way of equality for women and freedom for people of alternate sexualities. Similarly, many are concerned for the environment and increasingly extend their ethics into areas such as vegetarianism and avoidance of animal cruelty, yet find their churches silent on these issues. It would appear that increasing numbers, particularly those of the younger generations, simply don’t want to belong to such an institution.
Second, many find the institutional demands of church can overwhelm their relational aspirations. My father held a senior role in commercial law with a major Australian bank, yet he was home at a reasonable hour every night, his weekends were mostly free, and he was not expected to complete a Masters degree or other postgrad study. Most people entering professions today work longer hours, often work weekends, and are expected to engage in ongoing education. Similarly, when my father was a younger man not many shops were open on Sundays and organised sporting events rarely occurred on Sundays. Today we work longer hours than ever, and Sundays are filled with activities, yet our churches still operate their ministries in the fashion they did during my father’s generation. We expect people to devote huge amounts of time to running ministries, which they often do, but then find themselves stretched and missing out on experiences of community they crave. It doesn’t take much for them to give up.
Third, a number of people have mentioned to me their frustration with a system in which a trained clergy person stands up and delivers a weekly monologue telling them how to live. We are the most highly educated generation in history, yet at the centre of our weekly gatherings is a form of communication that treats people as though they know nothing and need to be told what to.
Fourth, some simply find the church and the faith it proclaims irrelevant to the challenges they face in life. Church gatherings don’t address the questions they’re asking, and when answers are given they are often a simplistic regurgitating of church dogma. Those who long for the opportunity to engage thoughtfully with their faith all too often find there is little room to do this.
Fifth, just as some people find the church and its leaders are there for them in beautifully graceful ways during times of crisis, others find they are not. They feel let down, hurt, and leave.
Sixth, our understanding of the gospel has not progressed past the 16th century. Jesus described the gospel in terms of the in-breaking reign of God which creates a new community of generosity, grace, and love. Read the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and they highlight the resurrection of Jesus as the signal that God is at work in the world. Yet enter an evangelical church and the gospel is almost exclusively described in terms of Christ dying to pay the penalty for our sin. The metaphor is legal rather than relational; God is depicted as an offended monarch torn between the demands of love and the demands of justice; humankind is depicted as essentially corrupt; and godliness is depicted in terms of blind obedience to the commands of God. This may have spoken to people in the mediaeval and Reformation eras, but it lacks potency in ours.
While it may all sound rather sombre and bleak, these all seem to me to be resolvable issues. But we cannot continue to do more of the same in the vain hope that things will change. We can however reframe our faith and our church life in ways that will connect with the questions and aspirations of our age. I hope to make some suggestions around this in the coming few weeks, but would welcome your comments and thoughts on what I have argued here. Most of my observations attempt to bring together what I have heard anecdotally with what I observe theologically and in the practice of our churches. It may well be wide of the mark or have glaring holes. What do you think?