Priscilla's Friends
Does The Australian Church Have A Future?
In two major papers, Christendom, Clericalism, Church And Context[1] and
Believing Without Belonging: Church In The Aftermath Of The 60s[2], New
Zealand researcher Kevin Ward notes some challenging trends in church life:
Church attendance
* In New Zealand and Australia, as in all western countries, church attendance
has declined since the 1960s. In Australia, 40% in 1961 claimed to attend
church at least monthly, down to 24% by 1980 and 20% by 1999. New Zealand
figures are similar.
* In Britain church attendance declined from 18% to 7.5% and Canada from 55%
to 22%. Even in the USA, often seen as immune from these trends, it has fallen
from 49% in 1958 to 40% in 2000.
* Is this because we're more 'secular'? No. (Sociologist Peter Berger thought
so, but said in 1998 that this was his "one big mistake". Rodney Stark and
Roger Finke in their recent book, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of
Religion title one of their chapters, "Secularisation, R.I.P.")
* In fact, Westerners remain quite religious. The spiritual supermarket is on
the rise. The Massey ISSP Survey in NZ, carried out in 1991 and 1998, showed
certain belief in God was indicated by 31% of people, up from 29%; belief in
life after death was up from 57% to 60%; and 30% of people said they prayed
several times a week, up from 22%.
* Five trends have impacted significantly on the church: individualism,
privatism, pluralism, relativism and anti-institutionalism.
Denominational patterns
* It's liberal and mainstream churches which have declined most markedly:
there's a general pattern of resilience as we move from 'left' to 'right'
across the Protestant spectrum.
But why are evangelical or conservative or charismatic/Pentecostal churches -
particularly 'megachurches' - holding their own or growing? Simple: musical
chairs - 'church hopping growth'. One survey in the U.S.: 'more than 80%' is
transfer growth; another in Canada: only 5.5% of church attenders come from an
unchurched background.
* In Australia the NCLS research found that 7% of church attenders are
newcomers, of which 4% are returnees to church life after a period of time
away (with no significant difference between Pentecostal and Anglican
* In New Zealand in the 1950s the vast majority of the 20% or so in a church
on Sunday went to either mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. By
1999 the percentage in church had halved to about 10% and over half had moved
to evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal churches. But in Western countries
the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches came to an end in the late 90s.
* In 1960, 40% of New Zealand children were enrolled in Protestant Sunday
Schools; by 1985 it was down to 11%. Generational patterns
* In the US, the generation known as Builders (born before 1946) make up 9.7%
of the population and 60% are affiliated with church. Boomers (born 1946-1960)
are 29% of the population and around 40% are affiliated with church. Gen X
(1961-1977) make up 27.5% and only 18% are affiliated with church. The
generation behind them, sometimes known as Gen-Y or the Millennials (born
post-1978) make up 21.4% of the population and only 12% are affiliated with
church, a figure very similar to the 14% figure for British young people.
* In New Zealand, those aged over 50 make up 32% of the general population and
58% of those in churches. Those 40 to 49 are 18% of the population and 16% of
the church attenders. Those aged 20 to 39 are 42% of the population but only
21% of church attenders.
Kevin goes on to examine our understandings of conversion and of the forms
church life takes. (Re the former: conversion comes about primarily through
socialisation: belonging needs to happen before believing can occur. Re the
latter, he quotes Eddie Gibbs, Professor of Church Growth at Fuller
Theological Seminary: "Popular models of church today, such as the
'megachurch' concept, the 'seeker church' and the new 'cell' church model 
are only tactical attempts to breathe new life into old structures.")

Church Attendance in Australia:
Interview with Rev. Dr. Philip Hughes of the Christian Research Association:
1. Kevin Ward and others say there's more religion out there but less church
attending. Do you have some Australian figures for these over the last couple
of decades?
In the 90s, church attendance monthly or more slid from about 25% of
Australian adults to about 20%. (It also aged considerably, so we expect
further declines.) However, the proportion describing themselves as religious,
remained about the same. (1983 - 56% and 1995 - 58%: not significantly
different.) Between 1983 and 1995, belief in God fell slightly from 79% to
75%; belief in the soul rose from 67% to 81% affirming it. Around 2/3rds of
Australians say that having a spiritual life is important to them. (These
figures mainly from the World Values Surveys of 1995 and 1983).
2. What about the cessation of growth of the Pentecostal churches in Australia?
Between 1986 and 1991, the Pentecostal denominations grew by 42%. Between 1991
and 1996, they grew by 16% - and more than half of that growth could be
attributed to the birth of children to Pentecostal parents. (Census figures).
The NCLS found, in 1996, large flows in and out. In 1996, 28% of all
worshipping in Pentecostal churches had transferred from another denomination
in last 5 years, plus 10% of newcomers were without previous church
background. But there were also large flows out, with 15% of that number going
to another denomination and 17% drifting out and ceasing church attendance
3. What percentage of Australian Builders, Boomers, Gen X'ers, and Millennials
attend church?
? 70 year olds - about 35%; ? 40 to 59 - about 21%; ? 20 - 39 - about 15%
monthly or more often. (These were the figures in 1998s - from the Australian
Community Survey.)

Resources/Issues for Discussion:
1. Future Church
In The Once and Future Church (Alban Institute, 1996) Loren Mead writes about
'Reinventing the Congregation for a new mission frontier'. Mead's thesis: 'The
congregation is at a critical point of change'. This is a confused time - we
struggle for vision, clarity, and direction. 
* We are facing a fundamental change in how we understand the mission of the
* Congregations have moved from a supporting role in mission to a front-line
active role;
* Institutional structures and forms developed to support the vision of
mission are collapsing, and we are being called to reinvent new forms and
structures for the new mission of the church. It's time for a paradigm shift -
from 'the Christendom paradigm' where there was uncertainty about a clear
division between laity and clergy and their respective roles.
The reinvention of the Church involves: - more intentional formation of the
laity - better catechumenates - teaching people to 'do theology' - an altered
clergy role: partnership with laity, training, encouraging - resources flowing
from top down rather than bottom up - seeing crises as learning points -
encouraging innovation.
Impediments to change may be structural and/or personal - the inherited
systems of the old paradigm are providing inadequate leadership; personally,
we may experience in this time of change feelings of denial, depression,
bargaining, anger.
Mead suggests strategies for change ought to involve developing a better
system of accountability between congregations in mission and those that
assist them in mission.
What are the Signs of the Future Church?
They include:
- cross-denominational congregational clusters - Christian guilds or small
groups based on vocation - new ministries based on gifts and needs -
denominational agencies providing service instead of programs -
cross-denominational networks - local training - serious study of the local
- the 'megachurch' concept, the 'seeker church' and the new 'cell' church
model are only tactical attempts to breathe new life into old structures."
[Eddie Gibbs]
2. Culture
In his excellent little book Changing World Changing Church (Monarch, 2001)
Michael Moynagh (a British Anglican) says the church must realise it now
operates in a different 'It Must Fit Me' world.
* We are moving from an off-the-peg to a tailor-made world. Post-modern values
include the rejection of hierarchy, suspicion of institutions and strong
emphasis on personal choice: 'so a different approach is needed - one that is
more sensitive to the differences between people'. No longer does tradition,
'the way we do things around here', guide people's behaviour and outlook. So
we must reach out to people on their terms/turf, rather than expecting them to
come to us on ours.
* Today, people want a challenging, fulfilling, interesting job: when work was
drudgery people sought fulfilment somewhere else. The notion of 'parish' is
based on geographical neighbourhood, but people now get together in
common-interest groups (e.g. on the Internet). 'Church on Sundays' is being
supplemented by church-whenever-it's-convenient.
* 'Looking good' in a consumer culture boosts self-esteem more than the
unconditional love of an invisible God. The growing groups of divorced,
singles, people who cohabit feel alienated from churches. Today's songs are
less 'theologically objective', more about individual themes; preaching is
more life-related, less declamatory.
* Church planting is an effective strategy - provided the plants are designed
for their target-audience, rather than clones of the sending church. 'Seeker
services' ( la Willow Creek) attempt to be culturally relevant: but people
are suspicious of organisations trying to sell them things.
* Today we can't avoid global issues: more power in fewer hands; the growing
gap between rich and poor; people feeling they're simply pawns in a world
where bottom-line economics rules (and today we would add: global nervousness
about the dangers of terrorism).
* Alpha Courses are successful partly because they're organised by local
churches to fit their particular circumstances. Also people eat together
(parties are one of the icons of our age), and the emphasis is on building
community (rather than its simply being a sales pitch). There's now a 'Y'
course for those not ready for Alpha - people who don't know the difference
between an epistle and an apostle!
* Young people live in an MTV world where images foster intuitive rather than
rational modes of thought, impressions rather than logic, thinking in parallel
rather than in sequence, pictures rather than paragraphs.
* Why is London's Kensington Temple church so popular? Partly because they get
in touch with people new to London ('Would you like some Filippino food and
meet other people from home...?').
* People have abandoned church, but not groups (there are half a million
'support' groups in the U.S.).
* Prayer-visitation ministries are working in some British churches. A letter
is sent to all the people in a street, with an offer for a couple from the
church to come and pray, unless they say they would prefer not. One church in
Rochester aims to visit every home in its area over three years. Moderns
apparently don't mind no-strings-attached prayer! And city-wide prayer
networks are growing...
* Why does Vineyard-type worship attract so many? (It's 'laid-back').
* Mentoring/coaching is big these days: after-school clubs to help kids with
their homework; courses on parenting, computer skills, stress etc.
But is this all compromising our biblical faith?, asks Moynagh. Not at all:
the apostles' strategy was to go to people and form the church around them. We
must encourage radical criticism of the it-must-fit-me world.
3. What does a healthy church look like?
According to Christian Swarz and Christoph Schalk (Natural Church Development,
ChurchSmart, 1998) there are eight 'Quality characteristics':
* Empowering Leadership 'Empowering Leaders are themselves dependent on being
* Gift-Oriented Ministry 'Every Christian serving at the place where God has
called him or her to be'
* Passionate Spirituality 'Are you curious to learn something new from God, or
has much of your ministry become a dull routine?'
* Functional Structures 'There are no "off-the-rack" functional structures'
* Inspiring Worship Service 'Is visiting the worship service an inspiring
* Holistic Small Groups 'The quality of a small group depends literally on the
qualification of its leader'
* Need-oriented Evangelism 'Are the forms and contents of the evangelistic
activities related to the needs of those you are trying to win?'
* Loving Relationships 'This is the area where most churches extravagantly
overestimate their strength'.
4. Pastoral priorities
In several of his books Eugene Peterson makes the astonishing assertion
(following C.S. Lewis' idea about only lazy people working hard) that pastors
are busy because they're lazy. 'How can I lead people into the quiet place
beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion?' (The Contemplative
Pastor, Word, 1989, pp. 28-9). A pastor can't easily be both busy and
prayerful. Peterson says pastors are primarily spiritual directors leading
people to God, not managers rustling up customers to fill the church's pews
and pay the church's bills. But for most pastors there's a Catch-22 here.
Peterson is a brilliant scholar and wordsmith. People will come back again to
hear him expound the Scriptures. But most pastors have to work very hard to
fill the pews and pay the bills. It's O.K. for the bright kid in the class to
offer advice!!! However, all that said, Peterson is on to something very
Think about Kevin Ward's scathing critique of clericalism: 'While many
contemporary churches endeavour to disguise any signs of hierarchy and talk a
language of tolerance and "permission giving," to outsiders they appear
dominated by hierarchies and deeply concerned over issues of control. In most
churches whether something is allowed to happen or not, whether it is some new
venture by young people, or a new ministry that someone wants to begin,
permission has to be sought from the appropriate authority before it can begin
- usually in the end the "man" at the top. In a culture which encourages you
to do your own thing and follow your own dream people bristle at this kind of
control over what often seem to be fairly minor things. "Who can tell me who
can meet in my home or what we do there?" "Why shouldn't a group of us be able
to meet together to worship the way we want to when we want to?" Often people
suspect the real issue is that the leaders are afraid of losing control of
what people think or do.'
How do you react to that? See the GRID article Ministry as Empowerment for
more to encourage discussion:
Moynagh writes about The Leader as Coach - helping others to learn rather 
than 'teaching' them.
5. Spirituality
In their recent book, Beyond the Ordinary: Spirituality for Church Leaders
(Eerdmans 2001), Ben Campbell and Andrew Dreitcer cite 'the need for a clear
focus on spiritual formation' as the Number One 'Cutting Edge' issue for
mainline churches: 'For decades the church has settled for being an
institution that emphasises budgets, organisation, structure, management, and
an arm's-length relationship to God... [We are challenged] to expose the core
of the church, where we would again discover the Spirit' (p. 159). The key
quest for churches is to facilitate our knowing and loving God. And as Richard
Foster points out in his brilliant book 'Streams of Living Water' (Harper,
1998) there are at least six answers to the question 'How Can I Know God?':
* the contemplative tradition, encouraging the prayer-filled life;
* the holiness tradition - the virtuous life;
* the charismatic tradition - the Spirit-empowered life;
* the social justice tradition - the compassionate life;
* the evangelical tradition - the Word-centred life;
* the Incarnational tradition - the sacramental life.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these?

More Issues for Discussion:
1. Why are ethnic churches booming everywhere in the West?
2. Are people less 'committed' these days? (A recent study by the Melbourne
RMIT's Centre for Applied Social Research found that Australians work harder
and longer than any other employees in the developed world. How about our
commitment to sport?)
3. 'Church health is more important than church growth'. Agree? Why? Why are
many smaller churches suspicious of larger ones? How can different churches be
a resource for one another?
4. Are our training programs for clergy and lay leaders adequate for creating
innovative forms of the church in the future?
5. 'Communicators and musos are competing these days with TV. People watch an
average of 20 hours of TV a week, and they expect certain levels of excellence
and relevance from those "up-front" in church'. Agree? For more, visit

6. David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press,
2001) says there are now 33,830 Christian denominations worldwide. What do you
think about that? Christianity's population center is inexorably shifting.
Growth is in the Southern Hemisphere especially, notably in Africa. Why?

Rowland Croucher, October 2001.

rowland @ johnmarkministries . org
Email Jan and Rowland