Not that long ago I read an interesting article written by Peter Sherlock published in The Conversation on church attendance at Christmas and what I gleaned from it was that the reality of Christian belief may only have a semblance to the local church.
He cited huge public events such as Melbourne's Carols by Candlelight and the similar gala occasions in Sydney where mystery galvanises Australians into a fresh world of wonder and Christian identification.
He ponders on the increased numbers of people who attend local churches at Christmas and Easter and in spite of all this, he asks whether Christmas has been surrendered to heathens.
I might concur a little here as at the December Tweed Heads Chamber of Commerce breakfast with so much materialistic sham I raised to my feet and suggested Christmas is celebrating something else of more significance, to which many acknowledged and applauded.
Once again it illustrated, as someone who has ministered for 38 years outside the cloisters of the local church in specialist ministries, I have found men and women of Christian belief and faith in the strangest of places.
I am reminded of Elijah's cry that he was the only one (believer) and he reprimanded that there were 7,000 true believers. Alas, they were not on the mountain where the test of fire was conducted. Because we cannot see them, it does not mean that we are not surrounded by like minded people of Christian belief and faith.
Yet, in our society which largely organised at every level including church, the nature of the statistics of attendance to church is critical to the sustainability of the Christian movement.
This was one of the areas where Australia differs from the United States Christian scene. For Christian movement in the US, it takes a Christian politician, a Christian businessman, a Christian celebrity, a Christian movie star, a Christian athlete to lead the movement and the celebrations.
Australia is very different. It needs a Church Statesman to lead the way for the movement to occur and we can see this in any number of situations. Even the Australian Christian Lobby has references from the heads of various denominations. This was the way I initiated the sports ministry way back in 1982. I visited the Heads of Churches for their blessing, support and board appointments.
Church attendance statistics
According to McCrindle Research there are 1.8 million Australian who regularly attend their local church and the authors point out that is more than the total population of South Australia (1.6 min).
It states that 61% of Australians affiliate with a Christian church in some measure and from my experience of 38 years in ministry outside the church -
Australian Cricket Team chaplaincy 17 years
Founding Sports Ministry negotiating with professional sport 18 years
Olympic Ministry 30 years
Elite athlete respite ministry 23 years
The Arts ministry 16 years
Business community 23 years
Author of 16 railway books
Daily column in Christian Today since 2008
My experience has overwhelmingly demonstrated that although church attendance is vital to keep the movement happening, the deep recesses of individual's hearts and souls have a well-spring of Christian belief and faith that in some measure I've been able to tap into.
One of the sad things today is so many weddings and funerals are no longer held in churches where the community tasted something of the rich flavour of Christian inspiration and thought. It kept them in touch (as it were). In my view church sign-boards might ditch the usual information and in its place welcome weddings, Christenings and farewells. Welcome the community whoever they are.
Success is not an explanatory Christian word, as Salvation comes through faith in Christ and nothing we can do, it is not ours to earn, it is a Gift from God, and that gift was Jesus who died on the cross for our sin. But the world thinks in terms of success so when the community looks at a thriving church they think in terms of 'doing things right' (success) in bringing in the people.
The McCrindle Research identifies what those who do not attend church do not like the way they function, but you've only to to visit any number of thriving churches to see how it is done right (success). Programs for the littlies, the children, teenagers, young adults, families, oldies all help, but they don't tell the story.
The story is something else entirely. It's the spirit of the minister, the spirit of the leadership team, the spirit of the congregation, the spirit of a whole host of ingredients from genuine presentation, the worship, the preaching, the teaching, the home groups and the like.
The best option in my view, to visit families from those churches and you'll get a glimpse of the spirit of the congregation.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html