The census figures also highlight the significant impact immigration has on Christian numbers. During 2001-2011 a total of 770,000 immigrants nominated themselves as Christian. Without them, the numbers Christians in Australia would have gone backwards. More than that, they are some of the most regular and consistent attenders of church.
As a percentage, twice as many immigrants attend church monthly, 29%, compared with 15% of other Australians. They are a major cause of growth in some denominations (including Baptists) and decline in others (Anglican, Presbyterian and Uniting) where few immigrants attend. In fact, a sizable minority (41%) of all regular church attenders between the ages of 18 and 65 are immigrants.
Not surprisingly, NCLS (National Church Life Survey) results indicate that “immigrant-friendly” denominations and churches are more likely to grow, and areas where immigrants are unlikely to settle, rural areas, are growing least.
It is not only significant but affirming to see how Jesus continues to build His Church in Australia. There is much for us to celebrate and be thankful for. In fact, Hobart Baptist Church is a strong beneficiary of these trends. We are a multi-cultural congregation with regular attenders coming from many different countries. Some of us emigrated many years ago from counties in Europe and more recently our growth has come through those of us from Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand.
There is a sad side to this. The growth of Baptist churches through immigration does tend to disguise a quite uncomfortable truth. It shows that we struggle, even fail, to connect with non-immigrant Australians.
In fact, as the Christian Research Association points out, religious affiliation is affected not only by immigration but by generational change, suggesting that Australians long exposed to the process of secularisation are most likely to put themselves in the “No Religion” category on the census. The number of these has increased strongly from 15% in 2001 to 22% in 2011. Not surprisingly, but sadly, there were 28% of people aged 15-34 reporting they had no religious affiliation.
Recently Melbourne’s Age newspaper recounted a story by Gary Bouma, emeritus professor of sociology at Monash University in Melbourne and an Anglican priest. While lecturing about religious diversity in Australia he mentioned how in the 2006 census four times as many people said they were witches than Quakers. “The looks on their faces showed something was wrong,” he said, “then it dawned. I asked, ‘does anybody know what a Quaker is?’ There must have been 150 of them and not one hand went up.”
While the census tells the church that there is much to celebrate, it also reminds us that there is also a lot of work to do. Let’s keep praying that God will strengthen and support us in the work we have been called to.