Churches seeking growth need to focus on “member care” and building a “story-filled” community, according to a leading Melbourne Christian academic.
Dr Andrew Menzies, the Deputy Chancellor of MCD University of Divinity and chief executive of EAST Alliance, said at the launch of the Christian research Association’s latest publication, Australia’s Religious Communities: Facts and figures from the Australian Census and other sources, on 15 February that one of the prevailing messages from this research was that Australia’s religious communities had big back doors.
“If a front door is where people come into the house and are welcomed, back doors are where they slip out and are lost,” he said.
The biggest back-door issue for religious communities in Australia was that 300,000 people of those missing from participation in Australian religious life were aged 10-34.
Dr Menzies, whose role at EAST includes being Principal both of Stirling Theological College, the Federal College of the Churches of Christ in Australia and of Tabor College Victoria, said relationship and narrative were key to Australian religious life’s future.
“Where there is a story-filled community, there seems to be organic growth and some degree of permanence.”
The co-author of Religious Communities, the Revd Dr Philip Hughes, outlined some of the key findings from the 2011 Census and their implications for ministry:
- While Australia’s population had grown by 8.3% between 2006-11, the Christian population had risen only 3.7%, while “No religion” had jumped 29.4%;
- From 2001-11, 1.4 million of the 2.5 million children born in Australia were identified with a Christian denomination by their parents but 750,000 were identified by their parents as “no religion”;
- Of the 1.2 million deaths in Australia from 2001-11, one million were Christians, with more deaths than births among Anglicans, Presbyterians and Reformed, Salvation Army and Uniting Church;
- In the same period, Christians made up 770,000 of the 1.8 million immigrants, with 144,000 of them Anglicans and 420,000 “no religion”;
- Twice as many immigrants attend church than other Australians, but Dr Hughes noted that “immigrants had a great impact on the rate of decline in Anglican, Presbyterian and Uniting churches”, while being a major cause of growth in other denominations;
- Between 2001 and 2011, all denominations lost more people than they gained through conversion, with 577,000 people in total “lost” – 237,000 of whom were Anglicans;
- Many of those “missing” are second generation away from church, with a decline in youth activities in parishes and many church-run schools facing increased opposition from students to Religious Education and chapel services;
- Mostly, churches with good programs are drawing people away from churches with poor programs, but there is not much overall impact;
- “At the heart of the decline in (churches’) connection with the Anglo community are cultural changes”;
- Churches need “task group” rather than “committee structure” and flexible ways of involving people, including use of electronic communications, to tap into people seeking ways to “nurture the Spirit” and serve;
- “Ministry today means opening many doors, not just the front door to the congregation”;
- “Our churches exist not for themselves but for God and the people of Australia.”
Dr Menzies said while an Anglo stronghold and worldview in the Australian church seemed present, it was really dying and there were people from all over the world, and especially our region, who formed vibrant religious communities and churches.
“The more ‘Anglo’ the context, the less adherents seem to adhere,” he said. “Conversely, the closer the religion or tradition is to migrants the greater the adherence. And as this book shows us, the motives for this growth include factors like wanting a community in Australia; shared language; shared values; and confirmation of identity through ethno-religious association combined with a sense of duty to attend. These patterns have continued in Australian immigration since 1788.
“Clearly, religious groups do better among new Australians and ‘Immigrant-friendly’ denominations are more likely to grow.
“But what happens down the track? What occurs one or two generations on? We know that most of the kids or the grandkids of previous migrants leave that tradition because they no longer have the same needs and motivations. This seems to be a great Australian religious tradition. And a great challenge for mission. Lesslie Newbigin was asked by an Indonesian Christian statesman in 1973, can the West be won? That question is still live.”
Dr Menzies said he served for 10 years as an associate-pastor in one of Australia’s biggest churches. It was and is a great church; it was big, buzzing and busy and 12 years since he moved on, it was still big, buzzing and busy.
“Everyone at that church would have a sense that things are big and growing,” he said. “Except that today, it is actually about the same size as when my wife and I were called to move on to another role in 2000.
“First, any new services and congregations that this church has grown since we left are Asian. Often they are in an Asian language, which clearly means that they are aimed at first or second-generation migrants. So, in a 50-plus-year-old, middle-class Australian church (as this church is), their growth is the same growth reflected in the census data… migrants and their children, not Anglos.
“Second, if you visit any of the English language services at this church, you will notice that over half of those present are from Asia, too, which it wasn’t when I was on staff there. So while this church is big, buzzing and busy, I want to observe that many Anglos have slipped away out the back door and have been replaced by people from Asia who prefer a worship service in English.
“Third, I would observe that since we moved on from that church, more people have moved right through this church (that is in the front door and out the back door) than are actually in the church now. So, in all of the buzz, bustle and energy, if a little more focus was placed on what might be called member care, there might be greater growth in this church instead of burning rubber.”
Dr Menzies said there was momentum in one area and that was towards the “no religion” category.
“It seems the research shows that the missional church conversation, methods and programs of evangelism, church growth and Pentecostalism have not really made a discernible difference upon Australian religious life,” he said. “And while some churches have been spinning a lot of rubber in these things perhaps if they had just been a little better at holding onto their own flock they might have done a little better!
“Migration is what has and continues to make the biggest impact on Australian religious life.
“I think that relationship and narrative are key to Australian religious life’s future. Where there is a story-filled community, there seems to be organic growth and some degree of permanence.
“For example, when someone’s mum and dad arrive from a foreign country they attend a religious community. I know many Korean and South African friends in particular who through the liminal experience of migration have seen their faith grow and flourish.
“I compare that with a church I happened to be in on Sunday that would be categorised as big and thriving. It is an example of a successful church. The numbers are great but I see all the symptoms of the turnover and the sizeable big back door that I have already explained. There was vibrant singing, a warm greeting from a stranger on the door, a special room with good coffee for visitors and a great kids program. But what shocked me last Sunday was that this church did not open a Bible passage (either a physical Bible or on a screen) and did not have any pastoral prayer, opening in prayer or benediction. I reckon they were just spinning rubber.”
This article appeared in the April 2013 edition of The Melbourne Anglican. Mark Brolly is a writer for TMA. You can read more from TMA at: www.melbourne.anglican.com.au
Image from Flickr Naosuke ii.