Census 2021 and the decline of Christianity in Australia

The 2021 Australian Census findings are out. According to the data, Australians are less religious and especially Australia is becoming less Christian.

Of our 25 million Australians, 43.9% identify as Christian, down from 52% in 2016 and 61% in 2011. Australians who now identify as non religious are 39%, up from 30% in 2016. Let’s not pretend otherwise, this is a significant fall and jump. Of course, the non religious category isn’t a synonym for atheism or God-free secularism, but rather these are Australians who belong across a spectrum of views but who do not identify comfortably with any specific religious expression. 

What are we to make of the national census data? How can we interpret this changing landscape of Australians’ deepest beliefs and convictions? 

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

First of all, what we are seeing in Australia is not a decline of vibrant and genuine faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. Christianity), but the growing recognition that nominalism doesn’t count as real Christianity. What we are doing is simply observing the field and noticing that pretend grass isn’t the real thing and so we are now recognising it for what it is. People who have connections with Christianity are waking up to the fact that they don’t actually trust in Jesus or agree with the Bible or like the Church, and so they are simply pulling the plug. The decline of Christian nominalism is a positive, and I suspect we still have quite a way to go before this process is finished.

In that sense, as Australia moves into an environment where identifying as a Christian really means you are a follower of Jesus Christ and belong to a local church, then that distinction is good and healthy, not only for churches and for individual people but for the entire country. Instead of falling back onto the misnomer of Australia being a Christian country, we can properly cast that myth aside and rightly so. A Christian is someone who actively believes and lives and breathes the Gospel, not someone who attended a religious school or whose parents are believers. 

Of course, and I have noted this with the 2016 Census, accompanying this decline is a downside. As fewer people identify with the Christian faith, our activist and progressive overlords will use this as ammunition to further rid our society of Christian vestiges. That is a mistake because the very foundations of our civil society and the rule of law and social pluralism depend on the Christian worldview. Many Australians are unaware of this fact, that the air we breathe and the water we drink is heavily soaked in principles and ideas that stem from the Bible and depend upon the Bible. For example, the idea that all people have inherent dignity and worth, the idea that men and women are equal, and the view that we should persuade people with ideas and not use coercion.

We mustn’t be surprised therefore if we see all manner of values disappearing from the fabric of our society and being replaced with an artificial ‘heavenly vision’ which is undergirded by an authoritarian and intolerant secularism.

Carl Trueman assesses our modern age,

“The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children.”

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as means of oppression. … Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

While each Australian is responsible for what we believe and how we live, it is myopic of us to however lay all the blame on those Australians who are moving away from organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Christians are increasingly aware of not only our failings but of horrendous evils hidden and protected inside some religious institutions. Why would anyone walk inside a church when there are so many stories of clergy abusing children and men abusing women? The fact that such occurrences are relatively rare doesn’t reduce the reality of those incidences. The only way back from these great evils is repentance.

Another reason why churches need to shoulder some of the responsibility for the decline in Christianity is the insipid liberalism that has infected some denominations and churches for generations. As pastors convince themselves that the only way to stay relevant is to abandon biblical truths and water down key doctrines, the result isn’t growing churches and people professing the name of Jesus. The opposite is true. Visit the local theologically liberal Baptist Church and then visit the average Baptist Church and you will see a significant difference in attendance and ministry output.  These churches whose basic message is,  “God didn’t say“, are an irrelevance and they endanger people‘s eternal status by driving them away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Tom Hollands says, 

“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”.

It also doesn’t help when Christians see so little relevance of the Gospel in their daily living and are often more captured by the promises of the Aussie dreams than they are by God and his purposes. Why would anyone consider Christianity when the Gospel seems to leave little dent in the lives of Christians?

While the media will make bundles of hay out of the Census data today, I don’t think anyone is really surprised. As I’ve suggested, there is something good about clearing the decks. There is also something to mourn. And like churches have done for millennia, as we look across our streets and suburbs what we must see are people who are made in the image of God and who are divorced from God and whom we wish to love and serve and to share the greatest news the world has ever known. With today’s announcement, there ought to be a conviction and even excitement that drives Christians to prayer and to holiness and to explaining with joy the wonder of God who loved his world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life everlasting. 

As Australians admit they are turning their back on God, there are other nations where the people are turning to Christianity in their millions. Christianity isn’t dead. As Jesus said the harvest is ready so let’s get to work.

Planting Churches or Gardens?

“For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23)

I have noticed there has been a growth in the gardening industry of late. Christians are planting roots into local communities by beginning community gardens and teaching horticultural skills. Churches and Christian organisations are making substantial financial commitments into establishing these beds of vegetation. In fact, no fewer than 3 Pastors have asked me about this phenomenon over the past month.

Such ventures sound like a great idea. They can encourage people to think creatively about sustainable food, they may foster relationships among local people, and impart practical skills. But should we call these activities mission? Should we understand these program as growing God’s Kingdom?

gardens.JPG

Starting a community garden could well be an expression of Christlike love and may exhibit some of the qualities of God’s Kingdom to our neighbourhood. These activities may articulate an interest in our neighbours and an intent to serve our communities. They may create relationships from which we will share the Gospel and see local churches growing. However, at least in some instances, the soil isn’t producing a harvest for God’s Kingdom because Christians are planting with stones, not seeds. The problem lies when these activities are pursued in the place of evangelism and when we develop these ministries instead of cultivating the local church.

We mustn’t neglect peoples’ material needs. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus should be displayed in every aspect of our lives, and yet the Bible gives a clear vision for what God’s mission is about and the Bible gives the Church clear mandates for how this mission is to be fulfilled.

There is a substantial theological argument supporting the thesis that mission should be understood as evangelism: speaking, explaining, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether we understand the biblical categories of mission to be speaking exclusively or primarily about evangelism, the imperative to preach Christ crucified, to call for repentance and faith in Christ, and seeing (new) Christians joining a local church is at the core of God’s purposes in the world.

If Jesus promised, “I will build my church”, why would Christians decline from joining in this task, or suggest that it is optional?

If Jesus calls on people to repent and believe the good news, how can we conclude that this is no longer central to our task?

The Great Commission places intentional Gospel telling front and center,

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The book of Acts is a record of the Gospel being preached, men and women being saved, and Churches being planted.

As the Apostle Paul explains to the Romans,

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:9-15)

We repeatedly discover that the Church is God’s given means through which he will display his purposes to the world,

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:11-13)

I suspect the shift that we are seeing from evangelism to community work and from church to community results from several factors. For example:

  1. Planting a garden is more socially accepted than planting a church. The former is easier when it comes to gaining council approval, local funding, and people warm to the idea.
  2.  We look for immediate results. Church planting is a long term, patient work with no guarantees of immediate fruit whereas a garden bed or community program is tangible.
  3. Poor teaching on ecclesiology has resulted in breeding unhealthy churches and therefore a lack of confidence in churches.
  4. Cultural pressures have diminished our view of God and removed the Bible’s portrait of sinful humanity.  Another problem is how too many Christian no longer believe in sin and in a God who judges nor believe that personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is necessary.
  5. Confidence in God’s word has taken a beating through the exegetical and hermeneutical minefields laid down by Christian liberalism, who keep telling us that the Bible can’t surely mean what it says.

I attended a denominational workshop several years ago where the speaker was encouraging attendees to think about mission. It soon became apparent that his shtick was, “mission today depends on finding ‘new and innovative methods’”, and that verbal proclamation wasn’t one of them. When I asked a question about evangelism, the response given was, “I guess one might think about that as an option”. In other words, evangelism was not a necessary component for participating in God’s mission. At the very least this demonstrates a deficient theology of the Gospel.

If the biblical pattern is to preach the Gospel and plant Churches, why push these tasks to the periphery and instead focus on gardening or cafes or teaching life skills to kids? Again, I’m not dismissing these activities; I think they can wonderful ways to serve others and to show people God’s love. They may well serve as part of what we do as Christians, but let’s not pretend it is mission, unless we are also using these ministries to create conversations about Christ or as a jumping off point to begin a Christianity Explored course or reading the Bible 1-1.

As Ed Stetzer famously quipped, “feed the poor and if necessary use food!” Of course, he was responding the famous saying that is falsely attributed to Francis of Assisi, “preaching the Gospel, and if necessary use words”.

I suspect mission has joined the growing list of words that are becoming meaningless due to the loose ways Christians have been applying it. A 1000 people might sit in a room and mention mission and everyone will shout, ‘Amen’. The problem is, we’ve either defined mission so broadly as to make the term redundant or because of reluctance to deem any activity as not conforming to God’s mission, we avoid defining it all together.

My contention is this: if we view mission without Gospel proclamation and without view to building Christ’s Church, we have strayed a long way from the vision God has revealed in his word. Even worse, these ministries cease to be good works and become stumbling blocks to the Gospel.

For the third time, I am not saying that it’s a mistake for Churches or Christians to create ministries in their communities that provide services or helps. I say if it’s a constructive way to love neighbours in your area, go for it. May we not give up on doing good works and loving our neighbours in all manner of ways, but let us not blur our vision of what God’s Kingdom is about by taking our eyes off God’s word and believing what God has spoken about his mission in the world.

In the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus tells us the secret of the Kingdom,

“The farmer sows the word… Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Surely we can trust God to produce a great harvest, even in this age of skepticism in which we find ourselves today. Our role in mission is to obediently plant His seed (the Gospel) and to keep asking the Lord of the harvest to make it grow, for the good and salvation of people and for glory of Christ.

By all means, plant potatoes, peas, carrots, and pumpkin seed but please don’t neglect the seed that is the word of God, the only word that gives life to sinners.

New Sermon Series on Romans 9-11

JoiningGodsMission

What is God’s mission into the world?

What is our role in God’s work?

What is the relationship between God’s Gospel at the people of Melbourne?

At Mentone Baptist we will be working through Romans 9-11 (Sept 28-Dec 13). It will be exciting. It will be challenging. It will be hard. It will life changing.

The compelling love of Christ

What motivates Christians to tell people about Jesus? Even when a society is overwhelmingly averse to the Christian message, Christians keep on talking about the man from Nazareth. Why? I understand that there are people in our communities whose motives are questionable, even unprincipled, however, it would be misleading to define the many by a few wolves who’ve found their way into the sheep paddock.

Let’s take a look at how Paul explains his evangelistic heart in Romans 9.

At Mentone Baptist, we have just finished a two month sermon series on Romans chapter 8, one of climatic points of the entire Bible. The final verses of this Scripture explore the unchanging character of God’s love for his people in Christ Jesus:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God’s ever constant and never ending love, is a love that is ours in Christ Jesus. And this love has a centre, the cross, which is alluded to by the phrase, ‘through him who loved us’. When Paul uses the aorist form of the verb ‘to love’, he is referring to a completed love, which is one way of talking about Jesus’ sufficient death on the cross in our place.

While chapter 9 introduces a new section in the letter, moving from teaching on Christian assurance to expounding God’s mission into the world, what Paul says here ought to be understood in light of his understanding of God’s love in Christ. There may not be any conjunctions connecting 9:1 with 8:39, but the very first subject on Paul’s mind after meditating upon God’s love is 9:1-5:

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”

When this love of God has been truly experienced, it cannot be kept to the self. Embracing this love is personal and real, but God’s love experienced will become God’s love expressed. It is too wonderful to keep to yourself. The news is too important to keep private. For Paul, assurance of Christ’s love:

1. Changes how we view people: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people”. There is no hint of spite or envy, no Hamlet-esque Soliloquy. He grieves for his fellow Jews.

2. Changes what we want for people. Paul desires their salvation, for people to realise that Jesus is the Christ. If it were possible, Paul would suffer God’s judgement for them. The Gospel is too important and too phenomenal to hide.

He is under no illusions that not everyone appreciates his endeavours, at times the opposition is strident, but some will respond by believing this Gospel of Jesus.

3. Changes how we speak to people. There is an earnestness in Paul’s tone, and as he reflects upon the plight of his people he turns to the story of the Bible, God’s promise of salvation. Paul’s speech is theologically shaped and Gospel driven, and his manner is in tune with the very words he speaks.

We anticipate that some folk will throw hissy fits at our evangelism, some will be genuinely angered, while others are indifferent. Evangelism’s aim isn’t popularity. That was Paul’s experience on mission, as it was for all the Apostles and even for Jesus; should we expect anything different? I am not suggesting that we should be poor employees and begin a Bible study when we should be working, or that we misuse various platforms; it’s right to be pulled up when this happens. Integrity is an aspect of love.

Fear leads to the Gospel being diluted or disappearing from our conversations.

Pride always wants to win the argument.

Greed looks for personal gain.

Retaliation uses the Gospel as a weapon to crush those who hurt us.

We know these temptations, but they are not what we most fundamentally desire. They are intruders that distract us from God’s love. The extent to which we know that Christ has loved us, this love will motivate our hearts to love the people around us, deeply, earnestly, and freeing us to speak of Christ with clarity and grace, boldness and love. 

Australia’s view of Christianity may be shifting from a paradigm of suspicion to antagonism. Therefore,  keep reminding one another of Romans 8:35-39,  and let this knowledge be evident in our lives and words.