News broke yesterday confirming that Melbourne is Australia’s largest city. Thanks to the city planner who has redrawn the city limits, Melton is now part of Melbourne and hence, Melbourne is the biggest city in Australia, with now 4,875,400 residents and growing!
A certain degree of pride is deserved. After all, until we grabbed the title of the world’s lockdown capital, Melbourne was acclaimed as the world’s most liveable city. And while we may have lost that near totally useless title, we still have the best coffee in the world and the MCG!
The day after capturing another somewhat superfluous title, the Herald Sun exposed a not-so-secret story about our town, namely, fewer people are attending and belonging to churches in Melbourne.
Mandy Squires reported,
“Christian churches are closing in Melbourne suburbs like Box Hill and Victorian regions like Ballarat
Once the anchor of communities, increasing numbers of Christian churches are closing across the state. This is why suburban and regional Victoria is losing traditional religion.”
But “the faithful” are ever fewer in Victoria, and Christian churches are closing their doors across the state at an alarming rate – a process some research suggests was hastened by harsh Covid lockdowns and restrictions.
Dwindling congregation sizes have combined with rising insurance fees, maintenance costs and increasingly onerous building safety compliance expectations, to make the price of keeping ageing churches operational simply too high for many denominations.
The burden of upkeep has also largely fallen to an ever smaller group of, also ageing, parishioners.”
There is a complex web of data and factors that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating how churches are doing in Melbourne today. COVID has impacted every part of life and it’s hit churches hard, both financially and with peoples’ capacity to serve and volunteer. At the same time, I think Squires’ summary is fair. The pandemic didn’t kill churches, it simply sped up the dying process. There is something to grieve in this; An ageing congregation can be a faithful church and yet unable to keep going under the weight of regulations, rules, and costs. It’s difficult enough for a middle-sized church where I serve, let alone a congregation where all that remains are 20 elderly members.
As Mandy Squires notes, church closures are not only happening across Melbourne suburbs but also across regional Victoria. This isn’t a Victoria only phenomenon, this is widespread across much of Australia and indeed the Western world. Alternative belief systems, most notably the god of the self, have captured the imaginations of our streets and roads. After all, the priests of expressive individualism promise freedom and happiness and a sinless life for sin is nothing more than oppression dipped in sanctified language. We don’t need God, for Melbourne is as close to heaven as it gets. Sure the pandemic proved otherwise, but now we are waking up from the nightmare and hoping that normalcy returns.
Squires notes that there are evangelical churches growing and attracting younger people. This growth isn’t at a rate that can overturn the overall decline but these churches are often an oasis in the middle of a spiritual desert. Reader, please note, by evangelical, we don’t mean some American religiopolitical craziness. I use the term with its proper meaning: Evangelical refers to churches that are grounded in and preach the evangel (evangel is an English word for gospel). These are churches that believe and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as handed down to the church by the Apostles in the Bible.
Reading Squire’s piece can feel like another dreaded reminder. But before the doom and gloom set over the conversation like a Melbourne winter, we do well to remember that this same ancient Gospel is growing around the world today. For example, while the UK may be becoming less Christian, there are more people in London today who belong to a church than in many decades. And in France, evangelical Christianity is seeing remarkable growth, with around 745,000 adherent today in contrast to around 50,000 in 1950. And if we’re interested to see where Christianity is truly blossoming, look to China and Iran and to Africa. While Church of England parishes are declining in England and in many parts of Australia (take note, it’s not all cities and regions), Anglicanism is growing across Africa. Indeed, Anglican’s home is no longer Canterbury but places like Nigeria and Rwanda where GACFON is currently meeting.
Christianity isn’t dying, Melbourne is witnessing the death of nominal Christianity. Where classical Christianity is believed and taught, there is growth. It may not always be in line with population trends but nonetheless, unbelievers become believers.
The church where I have the privilege of serving grew from 30 people in 2005 to over 200 people by 2017. We then planted a church near Monash University (Regeneration Church). Praise God, they continue to grow. They are seeing people become Christians, especially university students. To be honest, Mentone Baptist Church has struggled to grow in the last few years (COVID has been a substantial factor), but this year we are again seeing many visitors and people curious to find out more about Jesus. I know of many more Melbourne Churches that have seen growth in the past decade and at higher rates than Mentone.
There is of course no silver bullet when it comes to church growth, as though employing the right technique or strategy is the key. The missing ingredient isn’t to give people what they want. Sure, we can find the odd church that puts on a weekly production that’s as impressive as U2 in concert, but also note how people leave these performing venues through the back door almost as quickly as they enter through the front.
There is, however, a connection between what is believed and taught and the health of a congregation. Churches that have a high view of the truthfulness and sufficiency of the Bible, who believe in the sinfulness of humanity, who trust the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, and who follow the Gospel call for repentance and faith in Jesus, are more likely to experience health and growth. The more progressive a church is, the more likely it will experience decline. The classic example is the Uniting Church which has lost something like 50% of is adherents since its beginning in 1977. Anglicans and Baptists who’ve followed this liberalist agenda of dumping the Bible of its Divinity and reliability also find themselves with a growing number of empty chairs as the years move on. Faithfulness to the Bible actually works.
The topic of gender and sexuality is an interesting one. We know for example that the Christian view on these matters is a significant reason why millennials are disinterested in Christianity. Part of this misunderstanding is the product of successful campaigning by Hollywood, social commentators and activists who demonise even Jesus. What’s interesting, is that those churches that adopt the culture’s sexual ethics are more likely to shrink, while churches that uphold the classical Christian teaching on these matters tend to either hold their ground or see growth, including among millennials.
After all, why join a church if all it does is mirror popular culture back to me?
I recall an observation made by British historian Tom Holland in 2020. He said,
“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.
Holland isn’t a Christian but he understands the lunacy of ecclesiastical leaders sacrificing Christian beliefs at the expense of pursuing favourable opinion polls or trying to draw in potential pew sitters. Didn’t Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”?
What makes Christianity distinct and enthralling, shocking and appealing, is that it does not sit comfortably in any given culture. The Church is the community where people from progressive and conservative backgrounds, religious and nones, all find in Jesus Christ the God of truth and grace, love and goodness.
Melbourne (and Victoria) needs more churches.
For a moment, let’s leave aside the religious aspect of church life. Of course, this is impossible given how the Christian faith is embedded into every song, brick and cup of coffee. And it is, after all, the Christian message that gives birth to a church. But from a sociological perspective, the loss of Christian churches is creating a social vacuum in local communities that has not been replaced. Human beings need social interaction and relationships and such spaces are rare in today’s fast pace and time-poor society. Sure, there are schools, the local cricket club and a men’s shed, but there’s little else that brings people together, especially bringing together people who have little in common. And let’s stretch the imagination for a moment, what of a group that meets regularly and has little in common and yet shares everything in love and with happy sacrifice?
Going back to the expressive individual that we idolise today. This good news message of ‘being yourself’ and ‘expressing yourself’ is popular and attractive, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t build togetherness, much less bring together diverse people into deep friendships. The very ethos Melbournians are taught to pursue, pushes against belonging, and without that sense of community we lose ourselves. As Jesus argued, there isn’t much point in gaining the world if in the process we lose our soul!
Melbourne needs 50 new churches today (and with 200 people in each) just to keep up with the annual population growth which stands are around 100,000 people. Melbourne needs small churches and big churches, meeting in different shaped buildings with different styles of music and preaching in different languages. Melbourne may be a great city, and the city I love, but it’s still going to hell without Jesus. Premier Daniel Andrews can’t atone for your sins. Governments, schools and universities aren’t fitted for the task of reconciling God to us. The footy club might provide exercise and a beer, but it won’t fill the soul. An afternoon of shopping at Chadstone might bring a little relief but it can’t heal the human heart.
There is something stunning and ordinary about the local suburban church. There is a goodness that can be uncovered, not inherent in the people but in the Christ whom they are getting to know and trust. Churches are not perfect communities. Indeed, we have learned how cassocks and altars are stained with the blood of innocent children. Most of the time, our churches are made up of ordinary people from all kinds of backgrounds who are together coming to know God. I can’t think of a greater community building project than this.
Melbourne needs Christian communities filled with thankful, gracious, loving, and truthful men and women. We need more churches that are clear on the gospel and convicted by the gospel and courageous to keep speaking the gospel. The question is, are churches up for it? Are churches ready to make the necessary changes (or should we call it reformation!)? I guess it depends on how much we love: love God, love the church, and love the people of Melbourne.