Christianity in Decline (Census 2021)
18 July 2022 Hits:1842
The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently released the details of the 2021 census, showing Australia’s population is larger, more diverse and less religious. The proportion of people choosing “No religion” increased to 38.4% in 2021 (up from 29.6% in 2016).
The number of Australians who align with Christianity is below 50 per cent for the first time (43.9%, down from 52% in 2016). I am not surprised by this, and I believe it’s a massive wake-up call for the church (and Christians) to do some solid introspection on how it has behaved and the message it communicates. And so, this blog seeks to explore some things that may have contributed to Christianity’s decline.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse investigated abuse against children in schools, sports and community groups, residential and religious institutions, and more. The commission “heard more allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to institutions managed by religious organisations than any other management type.” More than 4,000 survivors told the commission that they were sexually abused as children in religious institutions. The abuse occurred in 1,691 religious’ schools, orphanages and missions, churches, presbyteries and manses, and confessionals.
The sexual abuse took many forms, including rape. It was often accompanied by physical or emotional abuse. Most victims were aged between 10 and 14 years when the abuse began. The perpetrators included priests, religious brothers and sisters, ministers, church elders, teachers in religious schools, workers in residential institutions, youth group leaders and others. And here’s the kicker – many religious leaders knew of allegations of child sexual abuse yet failed to take effective action. We should hang our heads in shame. We would fool ourselves if we thought these revelations had nothing to do with the decline in the number of Australians identifying with the Christian church.
Lobbying Against Marriage Equality
The Royal Commission’s findings would have been an excellent time for the church to spend a season in humble repentance and sincere apology to the people of Australia. But no, the church used its voice to seek to deny a small number of people their wish to marry. When the Australian Government conducted the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey in 2017, the Sydney Anglican church donated one million dollars to the “No” campaign. Their charity arm, Anglicare, was furious.
Unsurprisingly, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) continued to preach its anti-gay message by devoting an unprecedented proportion of its time and resources (maybe $4 million**) to the “NO” campaign. Why this fixation on a minority group, I ask? And how does this reflect Jesus’ interactions with minorities in his society? The lobbying of Christian organisations and churches against the LGBTIQ+ community was viewed as selfish and hypocritical, especially in light of the revelations of sexual abuse. Christians are seen as wanting their way at the expense of the rights of others. This has undoubtedly led to the decline in the number of people identifying with Christianity.
Treatment of Women
Here we are a century since women were granted the right to vote, and yet there are still churches where women aren’t allowed to preach or lead because of two verses wrenched from their Biblical, cultural, and historical context. A friend was invited to one such church last year and told that she could share stories but not teach from the Bible. Go figure.
The schedule for the Catholic church’s recent fifth plenary council was suspended after two motions affirming women’s role in the church failed to pass. The New Testament is jam-packed with examples of women holding all leadership roles, including an apostle, so why is it taking the church so long to change how it treats women? I’m reminded of the words of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, “By all means, move at a glacial pace.”
Catholic leaders acknowledged the failure to pass the motions had damaged the church’s reputation, creating the impression its leadership was indifferent to the concerns of female churchgoers. Ya reckon?
Preaching the Wrong Message
I suggest that the church has successfully communicated a moral message to Australians. Most people know the “Christian” stance on same-sex marriage, voluntary assisted dying, or abortion, for example. We’re notorious for what we’re against, how we judge, and who we exclude.
“Live a moral life, be a good person, and go to church” is NOT the gospel of Jesus. If it were, Jesus is irrelevant. People can live good, moral, upright lives without Jesus. The gospel is this: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” That’s it. God loves people and has moved heaven and earth to reunite every person with himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The apostle Paul says God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” That’s the Christian message, but some sectors of the church have been singing from the wrong songbook for so long that they’ve forgotten the original song. Instead, they convey “a different gospel which is really no gospel at all.” We Christians are known as sin counters but God is not counting people’s sins against them. Paul asked the Corinthian church, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Our unchristian message is turning people away.
But Look at all the Good
We (the church) must not excuse our bad behaviour by pointing to all the good we do, yet that’s the message we invariably hear. Recent scandals in megachurches in Australia and other nations have been minimised by statements like, “look at all the souls being saved.” Or, “see how many poor people we’re feeding.” I don’t deny that Christians and churches do a tremendous amount of good, but none of it is a defence for abuse and damage caused by Christians.
I wrote the following letter to the editor recently that was printed in The Age:
I respectfully disagree with Lorraine Bates (“Weighing pros and cons”, comment, 3/7), who states, “I realise terrible things have been done in the name of religion at times, but the good done should surely outweigh this.” We witness similar statements regularly from Christians and church leaders. “Yeah, sure, we’ve done some bad stuff but look at all the good.” I’m a Christian pastor, and I am horrified by this narrative. On our watch, people have been abused, bullied, and shamed. No amount of good work cancels out the pain inflicted on precious people. We need to own it and not minimise it by a sleight of hand trick suggesting people would be better to “look over there.” In his sermon on the mount, Jesus named a group of people who pointed out all the good they had done. He was unimpressed. We should be too.
While most churches complied with common-sense health and government advice, there were a few outliers whose voices were amplified louder than necessary. More than one non-Christian has asked my opinion on why some Christians have a propensity to believe in conspiracy theories and anti-vax rhetoric. The selfishness and self-centeredness of some Christians who demanded their freedom at the cost of others’ safety were considered brazenly un-Christlike.
My answer to my non-Christian friends is to give them insight into how some Christians view the world. They live as conspirators, constantly looking for the antichrist and a one-world government. I know because that was me in the 80s and 90s. They read world events with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. It’s riveting but wrong. The world looks on, rolls its collective eyes, and walks away.
But There’s More!
Time and space don’t permit me to detail other reasons for the church’s decline. I could discuss:
- The effect of the American religious world in bed with Donald Trump (think QAnon).
- The departure of some from cultural or family religious affiliation.
- Ignoring science including denial of climate change (note: The Bible is not a science book).
- The anti-abortion stance with little or no regard for women who find themselves pregnant.
- Being against Voluntary Assisted Dying because we’d sooner knock people out with morphine and starve them to death because that’s more, um, Christian! I know. I’ve seen it done, and it’s dreadful.
I have done my best to paint a realistic picture of the reasons I believe have led to a significant decline in the number of people identifying as Christian in Australia. You may think of others, and I invite you to interact in the comments section. Your input is wanted and welcomed.
** ACL’s revenue for the 2016-17 financial year was $4 million. The following financial year, the year of the Postal Survey, it was $8.9 million. The year after, the revenue was back to $5 million. Their revenue spiked again in 2021 to $8.9 million with the bonus of the $2.1 million raised for the Israel Folau Fund.