Letter from Australia
A Believable Church
Over the last decade Australians have been increasingly reluctant to join organizations that require real commitment from their members. For example, in spite of the loyalties that are expressed leading up to elections, it has never been more difficult to get people to actually join political parties and participate in debate and other activities at the local level. Likewise, trade unions seem unable to attract members, and many of them are in big trouble. This is not just because of technological change reducing the proportion of real workers in many industries; it's because workers want the rights that unions protect, but can't be bothered joining up. Again, Australians are great fans of football. But even in Melbourne where Aussie Rules has a massive following, the big clubs are frequently in financial trouble. Fans turn up in enormous numbers week by week to watch the games, but the actual paid up membership of many clubs is in decline.
This attitude takes its toll on church life in two different ways. First, even among committed churchgoers, ‘denominational loyalty’ is far weaker than it was a generation ago. When younger churchgoing people move house, they are likely to ‘shop around’ for a congregation in their new area whose ‘style’ they like, rather than feel committed to their own denomination. In a highly mobile society the successful congregations are those who have the kind of fellowship in which these seekers easily feel accepted and affirmed.
Second, the faithful have undergone an obvious loss of loyalty to the programs and activities of the local church itself. Apart from the difficulty with which many parishes celebrate the paschal triduum with many of their key families away for the ‘Easter holidays’, the self-absorption of people who have been formed by consumerism and post-modernism means that commitment to various activities (such as choir, bible study/prayer groups, and even parish council meetings) is patchy at the best of times. That is one reason why five or six week mini courses are much more popular than a permanently constituted study group. It feels like a much more manageable commitment.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently released the findings of the 2001 census. Out of 18.9 million residents, 12.8 million said that they were Christians; nearly 3 million had ‘no religion’; there were just under one million Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. (The shortfall in the figures is because the question on religion was non-compulsory – the only non compulsory one – and more than 1.8 million chose not to answer it.)
What is more interesting, and of more concern, is the profile of Australian society to emerge from the census. The average Australian is now 40 years of age, with the proportion of people over 65 reaching 12.6 per cent (increasing three times in the last hundred years, and set to double in the next 40). Only 51 per cent of the adult population is married, and fertility rates are falling. In fact the proportion of couples without children rose to 35.7 per cent. The need to work out how a shrunken tax payer base will be able to support a greatly increased population of elderly people in twenty years time is already one of the matters uppermost in the government's mind.
The census also showed that the proportion of people living alone has doubled since 1971, with lone person households accounting for 22.9 per cent of the population (double the percentage in 1971). This figure is comprised of young people making lifestyle choices (not marrying, or putting marriage off) and people who are divorced (an increase from 2 per cent of the population to 7.4 per cent over the past 30 years).
These revelations from the census figures provide a background to the self-absorbed individualism described above. But there is plenty of evidence to show that the wealthy, comfortable, solitary life is in the long term hard to handle, and that loneliness, depression and suicide are on the increase among such Australians.
The Church and the café society
Well-known commentator, Hugh Mackay thinks that because we are social beings and must have meaningful networks of communication and support if we are survive emotionally, we necessarily stand at the threshold of new social developments. ‘The shrinking household is one of the strongest indications we have of a looming community revival.’ He cites the remarkable development of Australia's ‘cafe culture’ as an example.
How should we relate to this situation? It is clear that the churches as large organized corporations have lost their power to win the hearts and minds of most people. This is partly because of the growing perception that so much of our energy and resources are used to prop up self-generating bureaucracies that have so little to do with the mission of Christ. We sometimes defend the indefensible to our non-Christian friends when we know full well how different things could be if some of the resources that are tied up in the unproductive strata of diocesan ‘middle management’ could be released for gospel ministry. The Church's credibility has also been damaged by the present revelations of child sexual abuse and the way victims have been ignored by at least some church authorities.
It's the parish level that matters most. In the early days of Forward in Faith we spoke often about the need for our parishes to become ‘centres of excellence’ to the glory of God and for the salvation of souls. We still talk like that in Australia! Within a society of affluence and despair we want our parishes to beckon the gaze of those around us to the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross. We try to proclaim the truth of salvation in him, and to teach the fulness of the Catholic Faith. We try to speak ‘the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15), for that's what the apostles did in a society similar to our own; the Faith took root and the people of Jesus turned the world upside down. They really had no ‘strategies’ of evangelism . . . but they did share their lives together in such a way that others said, ‘How these Christians love one another’. The quality of friendship and love in the Christian community far exceeded that which could be found anywhere else, and people considered the claims of Christ and became Christians as a result of having been touched by it.
Some years ago in the USA 14,000 adult converts were asked how they came to Christ. Less than 20 percent credited a clergyman, renewal programme, visitation program, special music, Sunday School or outreach.
11,000 out of the 14,000 were converted through an invitation from a friend to go with them to church! Simple, inexpensive, old fashioned; but it still works. However, a bishop once estimated that the average Anglican invites another person to church once every 27 years! Surely we can do better!
David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane
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