What do we do in the face of changing spiritual trends in Australia?
Recently I've been researching trends in Aussie culture, especially related to church and faith. Reports suggest that Australian culture for Christians is changing rapidly.
We see a huge growth in secularism—one report says that the number of people identifying as having "no religion" has risen from 18.7% in 2006 to 22.3% in 2011. This is an increase in more than 1 million people.
"No religion" is now the most common "belief" category in census data in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, ACT and Northern Territory—five out of the eight Australian states and territories.
Only one in seven people attend church monthly. Most people now get married by a civil celebrant.
However, the survey would indicate most Australians see the Church in a positive light. Of the non-regular church attenders who were surveyed in the 2014 report, 88% stated that churches are beneficial for their community, and 43% stated that churches are beneficial for them personally, even though they don't attend. Most who cited they didn't attend church cited the reason as being "it's not relevant for my life".
Finally, according to the 2014 report, the population of Australia in 1976 was 13.9 million, with 3.9 million part of a church. Today, there are 23.3 million and the Church has shrunk to 3.5 million.
Responding to cultural change
All of these statistics point to a changing culture, and especially an increasing gulf between faith and the everyday life of the average Aussie. As Australia moves out of its nominal Christian orbit, the Church will become more counter-cultural and—if trends persist—will increasingly be seen as irrelevant.
Important laws will be made on the grounds of sexuality, gender, birthing choices and household arrangements, and Christian values are not necessarily the benchmark.
What then do we do in this environment? Christians tend to fall into one of the following categories.
(1) We fight.
We see this in various protests, boycotts, campaigns and social media, aimed at topics like same-sex marriage, abortion rights and gender issues. Protesting Christians are becoming increasingly stereotyped in popular culture and it's not difficult to see why. These responses are meant to show a stance against anti-Christian culture, but too often they degenerate into antagonism and treating vulnerable people as enemies.
For me, this is deeply unhelpful, and misses how Jesus would respond. It's true we are not called to conform, and should certainly speak to our beliefs. But at the same time, we should remember what Paul says about being a "slave to everyone" to win them (1 Corinthians chapter 9, verse 19-23)—not to "win an argument".
Are we putting the needs of others first, and speaking to them from their experience? At a time when it's more important than ever to build bridges with others, having an antagonistic and defensive response can only alienate non-Christians.
(2) We conform.
Effectively, we "go with the flow". Churches change their policies and practises in response to changing worldviews, and Christians are harder to spot because they're like everyone else.
There is nothing wrong with understanding and having cultural awareness—in fact, for relationships with non-believers, this is essential. The problem here is that the Christian message is counter-cultural by nature, and always has been—because humans are sinful and Christian beliefs are about sinlessness. The bottom line is that we are called to be more like Jesus, not more like the world.
(3) We engage.
I'm not using a different word for conform. What I mean is that that we are "in the world, but not of the world". While we shouldn't buy into the promises of our world, we need to understand and recognise how our culture operates—this is better for building relationships with those who are different to us, and ultimately being able to show God's love. This doesn't mean we change our beliefs to fit that culture; but we can convey those same beliefs in ways that can reach people within that backdrop.
In the case of Australia, that might be the issue of law-making on religious grounds, or the general feeling that religion is outdated. Our task will be to counter and challenge those assumptions.
As Christians, we are not called to let the world press us into its mould, but neither are we called to put up walls and shut the world out because it's "evil". We are called to live like Jesus did—engaging with the lowly, walking humbly and speaking truth to others. We should not be aiming simply to "prove ourselves right", but to build relationships and the faith of others.
Let's remember that as culture changes, we can stand firm while also speaking with grace and honesty.
Cheryl McGrath lives in Melbourne, Victoria. She is qualified in editing and works in communications.
Cheryl McGrath'sprevious articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html