A series of reflections on challenges facing the Christian church as we move into 2017.
We are witnessing a dramatic decline in belief in God in Australia. Since 1991 the number of Australians who believe in God has declined from 78% to 55%. When this is broken down on by age it is evident that young people are growing up in a world that they experience as increasingly devoid of belief in God.
Philosopher JP Moreland comments that
A culture has a set of background assumptions—we can call it a plausibility structure—that sets a tone, a framework, for what people think, to what they are willing to listen and evaluate, how they feel and how they act. This plausibility structure is so widespread and subtle that people usually don’t even know it is there even though it hugely impacts their perspective on the world.
The plausibility structures of our culture are being shaped profoundly by the embrace of science as the only path to certain knowledge and the rise of religious pluralism. These create a perspective that religion is irrelevant to knowing reality. Religion appeals to revelation, which is scientifically not verifiable and therefore cannot be trusted, while the presence and visibility of many religions in Australia reinforces the arbitrary nature of their claims. Religion may prove useful to some as a system of meaning, but as a system of truth it is worthless.
In view of this, I expect that belief in God will continue to plummet in Australia.
How should churches respond? I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts, but I suspect we need to do the following:
1. Provide members of our churches with coherent arguments that show that belief in God is plausible and beneficial. This needs to go beyond the intellectually flimsy stuff we get out of places like the creation science movement that expose Christians to ridicule. Rather we need to draw on resources such as leading scientists, philosophers, and commentators who embrace faith and articulate the case for it.
2. Encourage Christians to become involved in and express their faith through culture forming areas such as the arts, literature, and science.
3. Cultivate in our churches a culture of deep personal, experiential engagement with God. We need to re-engage with spiritual disciplines adapted for the modern age, so that we are not simply articulating a set of beliefs, but a lived reality of engagement with the divine.
4. Cultivate in our churches a lifestyle that is built on values with sharp points of distinction from those of our wider culture. At the moment our distinctiveness seems to lie in our sexual ethics, rather than a much more profound distinctiveness at the level of values. If we can cultivate lifestyles grounded in extraordinary love, deep generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, passion for justice, and the like then we offer a faith that is worth believing in and embracing.
In western culture there are less people going to church, but evangelical churches are not Shrinking, and in many places are actually growing. These churches are growing because they faithfully preach the Bible and help to apply it to the mind, will, conscience and emotions, successfully applying the word to the lives of those listening. This results in genuine Christian discipleship, including a desire to reach others with the gospel and seeing many come into the kingdom. It is only through belief in Christ that a person will be reconciled to God and enter into the kingdom/be a member of… Read more »
Hi Richard, Thanks for the comment. I am not sure the data supports your assertion about evangelical churches growing. I think your comments underestimate the impact of cultural plausibility structures on the belief of Christians and on the openness of people to the gospel. Points 1 and 2 are directed at ways we can build the plausibility structures of people in our churches and our society. Points 3 and 4 aren’t intended to say the same things. One is about our experience of God and he other about lifestyle. Re offering the gospel of course we offer it to people.… Read more »
Hi Scott, Thanks for your response. Where I am in Australia (and in other evangelical churches I am aware of in other states), the evangelical church is growing. I worship in a church which is a part of a growing network, which has planted 8 churches since 2001. In my particular plant we have grown from around 80 to around 350 in under four years. While some people have moved churches to be with us, others have come after being de-churched for a while, and a reasonable number have come to faith through the ministry of the church. An evangelical… Read more »
Very pleased to hear of the growth in your church. I agree that the lived experience and testimony of faith is the best tool we have to share Christ. My post was not suggesting otherwise, but was focussed on how we can create a culture in which Christians area affirmed in their faith and people in general are open to hearing our story.
I wonder whether the percentage of people believing in God is a good indicator. Maybe, just maybe, it is the Lord’s doing trying to sieve through between the sheep and the goat?
Or is it a good indicator that something that the church has failed to do? Your point 4 “At the moment our distinctiveness seems to lie in our sexual ethics” does hit home for me. I wonder whether churches should prepare the congregation more on other values? The like of social justice issues? https://makewealthhistory.org/about/about-the-title/
Thanks for the comment. I used the percentage of people who don’t believe in God as an indicator of unbelief. Not sure why this is inappropriate.
Good one Scott. Have you got a link for that McCrindle info? I’d love to see a bit more of there is any.
Interesting and worthwhile conclusions you’ve made, but I’d be reluctant to make strong conclusions based on the sample size used. 283 people in 18-35 (note, 30 year olds grew up in a significantly different world to 18 year olds), and only 41 respondents were 18- 20year olds. Thats a very small sample size to make any real generalisations about “young people in Australia”. IMHO, thats not even enough to make conclusions about Young people in Sydney.
***That should read 21-35 year olds
Scott, I am probably to old to offer any real suggestions but I think we seem to have forgotten a significant fact the devaluing of the day of rest by society in the pursuit of money or transient things.The devaluing has been done by our politicians in the interests of votes not the good of the community . A real challenge today is for individuals to write to their local member and express their views perhaps even join a political party.I have recently written to the Premier suggesting that he take a view on the Wesfarmers suggestion of $1.00 limits… Read more »
Thanks for your comment. I don’t think you are too old to comment! Age has wisdom.
I think the idea of re-engaging with the sabbath fits with my call for re-engaging spiritual disciplines. I don’t think we’ll see society adopt in a hurry, but it is certainly something Christians could invest themselves in.
Scott, thanks so much for your thoughtful post.
Perhaps your first point implies this to a degree, but I wonder what role you think a (re)turn to stronger catechetical practices might play in strengthening the faith and knowledge of believers in a rapidly secularising context? I wonder also what you think this might look like in the contemporary Western church? Especially for denominations (such as Baptists) which are not traditionally catechetical.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts.
Hi DJ, My first suggestion reflects the fact that we live in an age in which the societal plausibility structures don’t encourage faith. In light of this I think we need to work hard to show members of our church that faith is intellectually credible. I don’t know that catechetical practises do this. They may however have an important role to play in my points 3 and 4. For example when I went t theological college my Baptist disdain for prayer books was challenged. I had always thought it led to prayer that was rote and routine. What I discovered… Read more »
Scott, Another ageing thought based on DJ . How often do you in a church service say the Lord’s Prayer together.Do we help children by using a variety of translations in our churches? Do we encourage the memorising of scripture ? Are our services just warm and friendly have we lost our sense of awe? We did have Spurgeon’s Catechism http://www.spurgeon.org/catechis.php. Today how would that be received or taught by our leaders ? Perhaps the restoration of dignity awe and order may help. the other is Benjamin Keach’s catechism http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/keachcat.htm. Perhaps to day we need to look afresh at these… Read more »
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