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.