Following Jesus is more than a prayer
Many would argue that Australia is not a Christian (or religious) Nation; instead, it is an atheist one. In their 2020 Report The Future of the Church in Australia, McCrindle Research found that "more than two in three Australians (68%) follow a religion or have spiritual beliefs. Of those that do, almost half (47%) remain committed to the religion of their upbringing. The number of Australians who do not identify with a religion or spiritual belief, however, is on the rise, with almost one in three (32%) not identifying with a religion. This study replicated the ABS Census question, but added in an option for 'spiritual but not religious'. This had a response rate of 14% among Australians nationally, and the Christianity grouping was 45% (down from 61% in the 2011 Census)."
The drop from 61% of Australians identifying as Christian to 45% is quite dramatic within five years when you also consider population growth. In Faith For Exiles, Kinnaman & Matlock have placed a 'mass exodus' from Christian faith or — more precisely- the Christian Church. "Today, nearly two-thirds of all young adults who were once regular churchgoers have dropped out at one time or another (64 per cent). Our contention is that today's society is especially and insidiously faith repellent. Certainly, God's people have weathered hostile seasons in the past; church history reminds us that living faithfully has never been easy. But our research shows that resilient faith is tougher to grow today using the cultivation methods we relied on throughout the twentieth century. This leads to our central claim in Faith for Exiles" (p. 15). Non-Christians are avoiding Christianity, and many young Christians are abandoning the Church.
However, it is crucial to clarify that not all people who identify as Christian are the same. The McCrindle report shows that out of the 45% who identified as Christian, only 15% were churchgoers (at least monthly), and 7% were active practicers (or extremely involved). Similarly, Kinnaman & Matlock found that among today's 18- 29 year-olds who grew up Christian:
22% are prodigals: ex-Christians who do not currently identify as Christian despite growing up in the Christian faith
30% are Nomads: Unchurched with the vast majority not being to Church within the last six months or more
38% are Habitual Churchgoers: Those who describe themselves as Christian and have been once within the previous month but do not meet foundational core beliefs with being an intentional, engaged disciple
10% are Resilient disciples: Church followers with regular attendance (at least once a month) who engage with their Church more than just worship services, trust firmly in the bible, are committed to Jesus personally and believe in his death and resurrection, and express a desire to transform the broader society as an outcome of their faith.
In both studies, a regular churchgoer was a person that went to Church at least once a month, meaning that most people only engage with their church worship service and community twelve times a year. With an average service going for an hour and a half, they only engage with the Church for eighteen hours in a year.
But it is not all bad news. McCrindle reports, "More than half of Australians (52%) are open to changing their religious views given the right circumstances and evidence. Younger Australians are more open to changing their current religious views than older generations. Additionally, [When gathering with friends, more than half of Australians (55%) often or occasionally talk about religion or spirituality. Generation Z (65%) are the most comfortable talking the topic, while the Baby Boomers are the least with 51% never talking about it with their friends."
Where does that leave the Church?
Since 1970, the Seeker-friendly church movement has been adopted by many churches that have seen significant growth. This movement's premise was to reach as many people and see as many salvations as possible. A seeker-friendly church has the new person in mind with events to bring friends to, professional-quality music, lights and video, as well as a relaxed environment. I will clarify that I am not against this; however, we can see that this model is losing traction.
In many ways, the Church has become something that is to be consumed rather than transforming. Kinnaman and Matlock state, "The church has responded to the identity pressures of our culture by offering young people a Jesus "brand experience" rather than facilitating a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus… being a Christian is not meaningfully different from participating in the branded culture of our times — it is a transaction equivalent to following a band on Instagram, attending the concerts, and wearing the swag. Jesus is just one more brand competing for our loyalty" (p. 51).
"Salvation" or Transformation
The most crucial point of many evangelical church services is the moment of "salvation", where people are asked if they want to give their lives to Jesus, and then the Church prays "the sinner's prayer." It is fantastic every time someone decides to surrender to God, but it often stops there. Paul writes about salvation in the present, past and future tense. Salvation is not a one-time event. We have been saved (2 Timothy 1:9), are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18), and are being saved (Romans 5:9–10).
Dallas Willard, in The Great Omission, states, "The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as 'Christians' will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence."
Furthermore, Kinnaman & Matlock found, "The Church is one of the least demanding environments for young people, in terms of what they are asked to do mentally and emotionally and of what is expected of them when it comes to serving and giving. We're just so happy to have them there! Yet one of the most hopeful findings in our research is this: young exemplar Christians are more willing to be challenged than the Church is willing to challenge them. This means they expect to be asked to do more but in reality experience a faith community that doesn't ask all that much of them… Undertaking a radical, life-altering mission is what our young generations crave, but instead, we take everything, from our worship services to what's required of a Christian, and mould it into the shape of comfort and entertainment. They want to get their hands dirty. Churches, schools, and families that ask more of young men and women and give them meaningful opportunities to be engaged are indispensable to their spiritual growth" (p. 51).
If the Church is to impact society, Jesus needs to be presented, and rightly so, as a saviour who asks us for everything yet also gives us everything at the same time — life in relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Salvation must be seen as past (the atonement), present (our realization) and future (spiritual formation).
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Kinnaman, David, and Mark Matlock. Faith For Exiles. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2014.