Does the Church have a future in Australia?

The Pilgrim Uniting Church in Adelaide. Image Source: Thomas Kelsall

By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall

Australia is becoming more secular, and churches across Adelaide are struggling to cope.

The 2016 census marked the first time in Australian history where more people identified with no religion (30.1 per cent) than any Christian denomination (Catholic 22.6 per cent).

Although Christianity is still Australia’s most prominent religion at 52 per cent, this is a remarkable decline from 1966, when 88 per cent of Australians identified with the Christian faith.

While Adelaide still proudly holds the label the ‘City of Churches’, only a quarter of inner-city residents are Christian.

Pilgrim Church Reverend Sandy Boyce says the trend is taking a toll on congregations across South Australia.

“The Uniting Church, like most other denominations, is struggling with declining numbers,” Reverend Boyce said.

“A number of congregations have had to close their doors, and that’s a source of great grief for those congregations who have supported and encouraged ministry in that place for a long time.”

The declining number of Christians is a trend which can largely be attributed to Australia’s younger generation.

Of those who identified as not religious in the 2016 census, 39 per cent were in the 18–34 age demographic.

Research by the National Church Life Survey also indicates the Church congregation is ageing.

Approximately 63 per cent of all churchgoers are over the age of 50, while only 13 per cent fall into the 15–29 age bracket.

Former Uniting Church youth worker Craig Mitchell says this has been a long-term trend which the Church has not responded to well enough.

“There’s been a marked decline in the number of young people attending the Uniting Church and that’s been a trend for at least 20 years,” Mr Mitchell said.

“In terms of engagement, most churches that I see now don’t have any viable or vibrant ministry of young people.

“They don’t have groups, they don’t have particular programs or activities… I think what happened sometime in the last 20 years is that a lot of Churches just gave up.”

The Uniting Church of Australia is a progressive organisation with a strong focus on social justice.

They have been vocal advocates on issues such as Aboriginal rights, gay rights, environmental protection, asylum seeker protection and multiculturalism.

But the Church has an image problem at the moment.

The fallout of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church has raised public distrust in religious leaders.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse found that 2,113 Christian leaders were involved in cases of abuse, and the ongoing trial of Cardinal George Pell continues to place the Church in a negative light.

Political conservatism within Christianity is also adding to its disconnect with young people.

Widespread Christian opposition to homosexuality and abortion, as well as the prominence of the evangelical right-wing in America, has further distanced the Church from a socially-liberal younger generation.

Mr Mitchell says many progressive churches struggle to overcome this negative perception.

“The Church is viewed as conservative around social issues, sexuality, the environment (and) possibly politics—we already know that young people are not conservative on those issues,” Mr Mitchell said.

“Certainly for those people who view the Church from the outside… they will assume that the Church is out of step with society and probably not a place where their views would be welcome.”

So how does the Church revitalise itself to reverse a demographic trend which threatens its very existence?

21-year-old Phoebe Paine is a choir scholar at Pilgrim Church.

She said the music program at the Church is a fundamental part of why she comes.

“I think the choir is such an integral part of what happens at the Church,” Ms Paine said.

“I’m somewhat a person of faith; I was brought up in the Catholic Church, but I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the openness of the Uniting Church as well.”

Another choir member, 24-year-old Charlie Kelso said her reasons for going to church are not related to any type of Christian faith.

“I’m here for the music and the social aspect,” Ms Kelso said.

“I’m not religious in any organised sense, I’ve never been christened or baptised. “I’ve been at other churches… but I prefer the sense of community and people here because it’s much more open and welcoming and fun.”

 

For Reverend Boyce, it is clear the Church needs to increase its appeal as a welcoming community where there is a positive message and a place for everyone.

“It’s always intriguing to me when people come through the doors at Pilgrim… many people report what they feel is an unexpected sense of welcome and hospitality,” Reverend Boyce said.

“[It] is a surprise for them because they imagine what Church is like: that it’s judgmental, exclusionary and so on.

“What many young people are looking for is a capacity to serve, a capacity to exercise their voice for justice.

“When the Church engages with those issues and shows concern for the common good… I think there’s a connection that transcends age groups.”

 

Originally published as: “21-year-old Phoebe Paine is a choir scholar at Pilgrim Church. She said her reasons for going to church are not related to any type of Christian faith. […] Another choir member, 24-year-old Charlie Kelso, said she probably would not go to the church if it was not for the music program. “I think the choir is such an integral part of what happens at the Church,” […]

Edited June 9 

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