Aussie Attitudes to Christianity

Karl Faase
Karl Faase, Senior Pastor at Gymea Baptist, Sydney, since 1996

Late last year Olive Tree Media (lead by Karl Faase from Gymea Baptist Church, Sydney) released survey results that inquired into attitudes among Australians toward Christianity and why Aussies don’t readily accept Christian faith.
Results show that despite 61% of Australians calling themselves Christian at the last census (2011), 60% say they don’t in fact know a Christian. This seems to confirm the hunch that many tick the “Christian” box even though they no longer, if ever, have taken it seriously. Not surprisingly, the survey reveals that half of the Australian population have fixed ideas and are not at all open to exploring or investigating other religious views and practices. Karl Faase concludes that this leaves only 20% of the Australian community who genuinely “are open to spirituality and the idea of the existence of God.”
However, this 20% still struggles to connect with the Christian church or faith. The survey found that even among those who consider themselves ‘spiritually open’ there are blockages in “attitudes and beliefs that they hold towards the church and Christianity.” These include questions of science, the existence of suffering, a perceived hypocrisy in the church, and the perceived failure of Christian leaders. Faase suggests these “belief blockers are creating an almost impenetrable wall to faith.”
My guess is that you find nothing new in these survey results. Like me, your experience confirms there are many among our acquaintances, families, and friends for whom discussions about faith, belief, church and Christianity are no-go areas. You too have felt the “impenetrable wall” and like me are somewhat surprised when someone is willing and wanting to have an open discussion.
How do we respond? Over the past months each Sunday at Hobart Baptist we have been making our way through the Book of Acts. We have been observing the church in its infancy as it learnt what it meant to be the church in response to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. In many ways we are just like those early Christians. They too lived in a society of “impenetrable walls.” They too experienced a community where most did not want to explore or engage in conversation. And just like them, we too are learning what it means to be church.

“We too are learning what it means to be church . . . 

Although we live in a different part of the world, at a different time and in different circumstances, it is still the same Jesus we follow, and it is this Jesus that is still at work in the world. In our exploration of Acts, we have seen time and again how the journey of the early church was an ongoing response to what God was doing. Whether it was on the day of Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira’s demise, persecution of the believers, the conversion of Saul, or Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius, the early church had a job of keeping up with the actions of the Holy Spirit around them.
In asking “how do we respond?” to the challenges we face in our day, we can turn to Acts and see that the answer lies in seeing where God is already at work in our world. When Jesus was challenged for healing a cripple on the Sabbath he responded saying he only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).
Jesus’ example is helpful for us. It gives us a model as to how we can respond to the challenges we face today. The Olive Tree Media survey suggests that only one in five people are genuinely open to listen . . .
So may God grant us the grace and insight to know what it is God is doing in our Aussie communities and to lead us to those whose attitudes are open to Christian things; may he grant us the courage to be bold; and give us the wisdom and strength to respond just as Jesus would.
Stephen L Baxter

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.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h34aNRbajPE&w=560&h=315]
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.

Australia and NZ Stop — ANZAC Day memories

WWI Charge
On the battlefront during WWI

This week I was taken again by the outpouring of emotion we see each year as Australia stops for Anzac Day.
The evening news bulletin showed men and women, young and old, taking the pilgrimage to Gallipoli with one grown man declaring it was the most significant day of his life. That the commemoration endures, when not so long ago that some declared it was about to die, could point to a hunger for spirituality that remains for many Australians.
Biblical scholar, and former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, suggests spirituality is something like a hidden spring that continues to bubble up despite our materialism and secularism. Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay seems to say similar in his book What Makes us Tick —The Ten Desires That Drive Us, where our “desire for something to believe in” makes his list. He writes that regardless of the debates “about the possible meanings of ‘God’… there is a powerful human desire to believe in something in the realm of the non-material.” Although people are attracted to memorialising Anzac Day for many reasons, it could be that for some it is this hunger for spirituality that we see at work. It is interesting to ponder why this is might be so.
Despite the enduring popularity of Anzac Day, there are those who are not drawn into its commemorations. Many a returned soldier has never marched preferring to bury the past and allow nothing, not even Anzac Day, resurrect the memories and the trauma. As one reflected recently, “I don’t like Anzac Day, my father returned from war an alcoholic, he was a gentleman sober, but violent when drunk.”
Post traumatic stress, as we now call it, didn’t have a name then and was never diagnosed at the time. Australia lost many young men in both WWI and WWII, but not only on the battlefield. There were too many who returned physically and or mentally wounded. The scars of war are still carried today by wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren.
There are others, who despite the scars of war, stop on Anzac Day to remember family members and the prices they paid. Without idealising war, they remember in the midst of their pain. They are confronted with the futility of war, but thankful for the giving of lives in the hope of making for a better world.
This perhaps comes closer to the ‘spirit’ of the Anzac. Although not commonly acknowledged, the diaries and the stories of the first Anzacs reveal how faith and religion were part of Gallipoli with many finding comfort in Scripture, song and prayer as they confronted the possibility of dying.
Then as Australians began to erect war memorials across our country in every rural town, they found inspiration from Jesus and quoted in King James English with Jesus’ words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Even at our modern Anzac Day commemorations we still sing the old hymns as we search to find reverence and meaning in our services.
Perhaps here is the spiritual link—the giving of oneself for others. Anzac Day commemorates what others did on our behalf and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we commemorate what Jesus did for us. Perhaps it is here that Easter and Anzac Day overlap and why Australians find Anzac Day strangely moving and spiritual.
Have you ever attend an Anzac Day March? What was your experience? Did it make you stop and think?
I’d be keen to know your thoughts!
Stephen L Baxter