The statistics are in from the 2021 census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS: source]. Only 43.9% of Australians now identify with its most common religion – Christianity. This is down from 50% in 2016, 60% percent in 2011, and 71% not long before that. That’s what I would call a ‘free fall’ – almost a 30%+ decline in a matter of decades. It is the first time less than half of the country identifies as Christian.

So what is the fastest-growing religious category? ‘No religion‘. More Australians than ever have reported they don’t identify with any religion. Almost 40% of the Australian population reported having ‘no religion’. This marks an increase from 30% in 2016 and 22% in 2011. NOTE: Despite being a voluntary question on the census, there was an increase in the proportion of people answering the question, from 91% in 2016 to 93% in 2021.

The census showed other religions are growing but make up a small proportion of the population. Hinduism has grown by 55.3 percent to 684,002 people or 2.7 percent of the population. Islam has grown to 813,392 people, which is 3.2 percent of the Australian population.

So what is happening? Is this simply a sign of increasing nominalism and spiritual apathy? Or could it be that Christianity in its current forms simply doesn’t seem attractive to more and more people who do not believe it is worth their wholehearted devotion and commitment?

In the USA, the Supreme Court has recently overturned Roe Vs Wade which legalised abortion back in 1973. Most conservative Christians are rejoicing and former President Donald Trump is smiling in a corner somewhere. However, the culture wars are ignited afresh as a result of this landmark decision, with LGTBQI+ rights potentially under threat next.

How does all of this affect the work of the church and the message of Jesus? Personally, I am for life in all its ages and stages BUT I think legislating morality can be problematic. Zack Hunt’s recent provocative article ‘The Pro-Life Movement Is Anti-Christ‘ raises a lot of relevant issues in all of this.

No doubt the reputation of Christianity has been greatly damaged by cases of clergy sexual abuse and recent public scandals of influential leaders. In addition, the COVID pandemic caused much polarisation within the church between anti-vaxxers, conspiracists, and health professionals, and has also had a big impact on church attendance as well as volunteerism (I recently heard that one Christian business person said the last thing they wanted right now was to be on a roster!).

An increasing number of people I know have no problem with Jesus and would describe themselves as ‘spiritual‘ but feel less comfortable with the institutional church as we know it and in identifying with ‘Christianity.’

I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s latest book ‘Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned‘. It is a challenging read and though you will probably not agree with all of his analysis or recommendations, he sure captures the current questions and dilemmas that many followers of Jesus are grappling with.

We know that ‘Christendom‘ is gone, at least in the West, but it now seems that even contemporary expressions of ‘church‘ are also on shaky ground.

In his book ‘The Future of Faith‘, Harvard religion scholar Harvey Cox offers up a new interpretation of the history and future of religion. Cox identifies three fundamental shifts over the last 2,000 years of church history:

  • The Age of Faith was when the early church was more concerned with following Jesus’ teachings than enforcing what to believe about Jesus.
  • The Age of Belief marks a significant shift – between the fourth and twentieth centuries – when the church focused on orthodoxy and right beliefs.
  • The Age of the Spirit, which began in the 1960s and is shaping not just Christianity but other religious traditions today, is ignoring dogma and breaking down barriers between different religions. Spirituality is replacing formal religion. 

For even more thought-provoking reading on this topic, you can’t go past American historian of Christianity Diana Butler Bass‘ monumental work in her book ‘Christianity After Religion’.

So what does this all mean? Where are things heading? What does the future hold? How should we respond to this? What is God up to? These are vital questions for our time, especially for followers of Jesus and church leaders seeking to live out his mission in our world. May we have wisdom, courage, and grace to respond well to the times we have been given.

9 thoughts on “What is Happening to Christianity?

  1. Hi Mark, when I saw the headlines from the Daily Telegraph today I wrote a response which I had planned to post on their page, but then couldn’t find the article again. It had just come up as a feed on my phone and I tried to find it on facebook but only found three articles, one of which was yours. So here is what I wrote:

    The main reason to not want God is because we don’t like to be controlled. We don’t want our own decision making capacity to be hampered. When really, what we don’t want is in a way ‘abuse’. Because abuse is control, mind control, not letting a person think for themselves. It happens in many mediums: relationships, religion, employment and dictatorial government. And yet, I do believe in God and seek God. I think, because He’s my anchor. I think because only in Him do I find some meaning and light in this world. I think because I don’t want to live as an orphan. I think because as I’ve gotten to know Him more, I’ve come to realise that He does recognise abuse, and He isn’t a fan of it. I’ve come to discover Him as the God who doesn’t force my heart, although He can change it. I’ve come to realise that He is good. He is a father who wants the best for me. He made me. He actually knows what is best for me, but He won’t force it. I have learnt to run to Him rather than run away from Him. I have learnt not to hide, but to come to him, as I am, exposed, honest, telling Him what I don’t want to do, telling Him how I feel. And I know that that, is what He wants. He is a gentle, guiding hand. He also created the universe. He is King of the universe. To experience His presence, is the greatest thing I have ever known, and it tells me what I was made for. He is King, and I am His.

  2. Thank you zest. I’m going to read those books . I am Christianity after Religion. Now I am dying I’m confused sometimes. The reading will do me good.
    Need a pastoral counselor I think. These will fill a gap.
    I appreciate all you still give out to others.
    Lv Beverley Morton 🅱️❌❤️

  3. isn’t this what the bible tells us will happen? the world is like the letters to the seven churches.

    1. Yes, you’re right, David. But of course, that shouldn’t lead us to complacency or being unconcerned with the current state of the church and the cause of Christ in our nation 🙂

  4. Hi Mark, interesting read. I saw this article when I was looking up census data.

    You touched on the dangers of legislating morality. Slavery was abolished in 1807 by legislating the Biblical teaching that ALL humans are made in the image of God.

    1. Yep, great news about that decision – especially for people of colour who were treated inhumanely for centuries.

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