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.

Child Abuse

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.

The Pandemic

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.

I came across an article this week that was published in Psychology Today a while ago. The article highlighted the psychological benefits of having faith. Despite the many voices around today that would decry the importance of religious faith, it is still thriving in many parts of the world – including Australia. One reason for this is that faith is actually good for our physical and psychological health. Psychology Today suggests four main ways this takes place:
1. Faith is a source of hope and optimism
Research in psychology indicates that positive attitudes are good for our health. For example, people who are optimistic about their chances of recovery from major diseases tend to better adhere to medical treatment plans, be less bothered by disease symptoms and have better recovery rates. For many people, their faith is a major source of hope and optimism.

2. Faith promotes feelings of belonging
We humans are social creatures and so meeting our need to belong is good for us. In a world that is leading to increasing isolation through an addiction to so-called “social” media, belonging to a community of people has never been more important. Conversation, prayer, laughter, empathy, hugs and serving are all benefits of belonging.

3. Faith can boost self-esteem
Like optimism, self-esteem has been shown to be a predictor of good physical health. We gain self-esteem from feeling as if we are people of value. Faith can offer a particularly potent and resilient sense of self-worth because God, like a good parent, loves and values us no matter what we do. Many sources of self-esteem (like beauty, success and popularity) are not so reliable.

4. Faith provides answers to many of life’s questions
As intellectual and self-aware creatures, we humans are uniquely able to ask questions like, “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “What happens to me when I die?” For people of faith it is not satisfying to accept the possibility that human existence is by chance and people are no more significant or enduring than any other organism. Faith offers meaning, purpose and hope in this life as well as the life to come.

Of course anything good can be counterfeited and so some people, whose faith becomes misguided by being involved with false cults, can experience the “bad side of faith.” But as long as faith is placed in a loving God and expressed in a healthy community of believers, it adds an amazing dimension to life. Jesus referred to it as “abundant life” and expressed clearly that this was His main mission, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). If you haven’t put your faith in Jesus, why not do it now?

In her article “Digging Wells or Building Fences”, Dr Sheila Pritchard tells the story of a visitor to an Australian outback cattle ranch being intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of farming country with no sign of any fences. He asked a local rancher how he kept track of his cattle. The rancher replied, “Oh, that’s no problem. Out here we dig wells instead of building fences.” The implication, I hope, is obvious. There is no need to fence cattle in when they are highly motivated to stay within range of water, their most important source of life.

Sheila goes on to use this illustration as a paradigm for a type of spiritual growth that is based on digging deeper wells rather than on building higher fences. Paul Hiebert, in his 1978 paper “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,” writes along similar lines in describing true Christianity as a “centered” rather than a “bounded” set.

In a bounded set you are either in or out. You either fit or you don’t and the lines are clear. The goal is to get someone on the outside of the line to the inside. The problem here is that, as human beings, we tend to judge people on externals whereas God looks at the heart. A person could be seen to believe all the right things and behave in all the right ways and yet not have a relationship with God at all. This was certainly true of some of the religious people of Jesus’ day (see Matthew 15:1-9), who were theologically orthodox, kept the Law, mostly lived good lives, studied the Bible, prayed and tithed and yet were moving away from God.

The Old Testament presents a bounded set. It was about erecting fences like circumcision, the Law and Jewishness. The morning prayer from the Jewish prayer book read, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has created me a human and not beast, 
a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.” The Temple was built as a bounded set with the Courts of Priests (for priests only), the Court of Israel (for Jewish men only), the Court of Women (for Jewish women only) and the Court of Gentiles (where proselytes could gather). It was all about those who were “in” verses those who were “out.”

When Jesus came along He dismantled the fence (and some people took offense). Jesus demonstrated the end of the bounded set and introduced a centered set approach to God. The fence was removed so that EVERYONE could come towards God and drink from the Well. One of Jesus’ first spiritual conversations was with a Samaritan woman (see John 4:1-42). She was definitely outside the fence for many reasons – she was Samaritan, female and had led an immoral life. Much to her surprise, as well as the surprise of His disciples, Jesus engaged her in a fascinating dialogue in which he encouraged her to come into relationship with a God who loves her: “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman responded positively to Jesus’ invitation, and so did the entire Samaritan town in which the woman lived.

The Bible reports that when Jesus died on the Cross, the veil in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The veil was a “fence” designed as a “keep out” sign. Jesus ripped the fence up showing that the way into the presence of God was open to all (Cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).

Thus Jesus demonstrated a centered-set approach to a relationship with God rather than a bounded set. In a centered set the thought is about moving towards the center, moving towards Jesus. Here, as long as you are moving towards the center, growth is good. Some arrows may be moving faster or slower, but the goal is to be moving in.

centrered setAs important as Christian conversion is, it’s important to realize that it’s not an end in itself. The Christian life is a journey – a process – not just an event (2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Peter 1:9). Paul Hiebert put it this way; “A Christian is not a finished product the moment he is converted.” Christianity is not just about “getting over the line” or “getting into the circle.” It’s about a long obedience in the same direction. Every choice and decision we make, every act we perform is to be put through the filter of “will this lead me closer to Jesus or take me away from Him?”

Growth is an equally essential part of being a Christian. Having turned around, one must continue to move towards the center. There is no static state: conversion is not the end it is the beginning. We must think in terms of growing to Christian maturity (2 Cor. 3:18; Philippians 1:6; 3:13-14).

In a bounded set you are either “in” or “out.” A person would be either a “Christian” or a “non-Christian.” In a centered set all those who are moving towards the centre are included even though they are all at different stages.

In 1 Corinthians 14:23 the apostle Paul speaks of three categories of people that he would expect to see in a church gathering: believers, unbelievers and the unlearned. The unlearned are people who may have become Christians but they don’t know much about the Christian faith. Paul teaches the church to be sensitive to people who are at different stages in their spiritual journey so that they will be attracted to Jesus rather than repelled. We need to be sensitive to people in everyday life as well, not just in the church gathering.

I’m told that 80% of Australians are open to having a spiritual conversation. They might not be ready to come to a church service but they want to talk about spiritual things. I’ve certainly found that to be true with the people I chat with in every day life.

So often our goal when it comes to those who haven’t chosen to be Christians yet is about getting them “over the line.” But not every person is ready for that. Some are and that is wonderful, but for those who aren’t what is it that I can do or say (or not do or say) that will move them a little closer to Jesus?

The Engel Scale was developed by Professor James Engel as a way of representing the journey from no knowledge of God through to spiritual maturity as a Christian believer. It’s a useful tool to have in mind when you’re having a discussion with someone about spiritual things.
engel scale

The goal in a conversation or a friendship is not about “getting someone converted.” This can so easily lead to friendship with an ulterior motive – to “love with hooks.” When we genuinely love people and have their best interests at heart, our motive will be to help them in any way we can in their quest for truth and spiritual fulfillment. How can we help them move just a little closer to Jesus? How can I take down fences that the religious too-often erect to keep people out? How can I dig a well that will attract people to the water of life that Jesus provides for all to quench their spiritual thirst?