Reading the ‘Signs of the Times’

It is an understatement to say we live in changing times. Not only do we experience change, we see the effects on our families and communities. It takes faith to hold on to the truth that God has it in hand, and we need not worry.

The gospels recount an incident where the religious leaders of the day came to Jesus and ask him to give them a sign to confirm he was from God. He rebuked them saying they were good at reading the weather, but couldn’t read the obvious signs of the times. His implication was that they didn’t understand him, his ministry or the times they live in. You can read the story here.

Perhaps it is the same for us. We too have difficulty interpreting the times in which we live.

Last year, the entire population of Australia participated in a census, the results of which were released only last week.

The media were quick to pounce on the resulting figures regarding religion in Australia. They enthusiastically reported how the figures show a rise in those declaring they have ‘no religion’ (from 18.7% in 2006 to 22.3%) and how the numbers reporting affiliation with a Christian religion declined (from 63.9% to 61.1%).

Based on these figures many were quick to conclude, even pronounce, how the figures were a demonstration of the continuing demise of religion in Australia. Yet is that an accurate interpretation of the “sign”?

Reading the figures
Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and Associate Priest St John’s Anglican Church East Malvern, in Melbourne, suggests otherwise. In an article for Eureka Street, a publication of Jesuit Communications, he concludes that while figures show a decrease in the numbers of religion adherents, they also reveal increasing religious vitality.

For example, except for Anglican, Uniting and Presbyterian denominations, religious groups have increased in numbers even though their percentage of the population has decreased. In other words they have grown, just not as quickly as the population as a whole.

During the five years since the last census those calling themselves Christian increased to 13,150,600 up from 12,582,800. Over the same time Catholics increased by about 300,000, Pentecostals by almost 20,000, Eastern Orthodox by around 10,000 and Baptists by over 35,000. While those Christians nominating “other” rose by close to 200,000. Migration continues to influence the growth of non-Christian religions with Buddhists rising to 2.5% of the population and Muslims 2.2%. Both Buddhists and Muslims now outnumber Baptists (1.6%) and Hindus (1.3%) outnumber Pentecostals (1.1%).

Bouma’s conclusion is that “while ‘non-religion’ is growing, religion is certainly not dying out”. In fact, the increase in those choosing ‘no religion’ suggests those who say they are religious are doing so out of conviction. In other words, they more likely to be serious about religion than not.

In an interview with ABC radio Bouma stated,

“Religion’s been a low temperature affair in Australia for a long time … so those who become ‘no religion’ don’t feel like they’ve moved much perhaps. But those who are left in churches and those who are in new emerging religious communities are very much more likely to take their religion more seriously.”

Another insight into the figures is that “cultural Christians,” i.e. those with a nominal commitment who never attend church, are “being more honest” and ticking the ‘no religion’ box. The result is that the census reflects what many have suspected for a long time: many who say they are Christians are not necessarily followers of Jesus.

So while the latest census figures could cause some Christians to despair and give rise despondency, are there are other ways to read the “signs of the times?” Bouma’s suggestions give new insights and open up new possibilities. Perhaps the figures have some good news after all – we just need to read them correctly.

My prayer is that God will grant us the grace to read the census and the changing times we live in through ‘kingdom’ eyes; that we will see past the negative connotations of our media commentators, and catch a glimpse of God at work in our families and communities.

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