As social researchers at McCrindle, we spend our time studying the social and demographic landscape to understand emerging trends and advise organisations on how to adapt for an ever-changing future. Throughout the year, we conducted several national studies to understand how Australians have been affected by the challenge and change that the COVID-19 pandemic has created. Our research shows many Australians have been feeling anxious, frustrated and vulnerable as a consequence of the health, economic and social impacts of COVID-19. We also found that two in five Australians have felt the biggest negative impact of COVID-19 socially, missing the human connection to family and friends.
In times of crisis and social and economic disruption, people tend to reflect more deeply on what really matters. Half of Australians say they have thought more about the meaning of life and their own mortality this year.
This deepening of the inner life has seen an increase in spiritual and faith activities, with one in four Australians saying they have engaged in more spiritual conversations and 28% reporting they have been praying more.
In a time when society has had to quickly respond to the practical realities of a COVID-19 world, churches have had to pivot, too. As part of a national study on the emerging trends for the Australian Church, McCrindle interviewed more than 30 key leaders of Christian denominations, churches and prominent parachurch ministries from across Australia.
These interviewees represent different Christian traditions but expressed similar observations on the challenges and opportunities of this cultural moment, and how the Church of Australia needs to respond to effectively serve Australia’s diverse communities. [Note: we use the capitalised ‘Church’ to denote the collective of churches across Australia, and the lowercase ‘church’ when referring to local expressions.]
The insights from these leaders and an accompanying national survey of 1,000 Australian churchgoers have been compiled into The Future of the Church in Australia, a report which is freely available to download. Commissioned by a group of Christian leaders, the report is intended to help church leaders understand the soul of Australia in 2020 and reveal key trends that will shape the Church of the future.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the key insights.
Christian leaders feel Australians have become disillusioned with the church as an institution. They point to public breaches of trust from church leadership and church culture often being detached from the everyday Australian experience as key causes of this disillusionment and apathy.
While the Census data shows a decline of Australians identifying with Christianity (from 64% in 2006 to 52% in the 2016 Census), data collected by the National Church Life Survey shows the proportion of Australians regularly going to church has remained steady in this same period (15% in 2006; 16% in 2016).
Even amidst this context of disillusionment, Church leaders are seeing a spiritual hunger in Australia consistent with the research data. Despite Australia’s relative wealth and stability (by global standards), Church leaders believe people are searching for meaning and fulfillment that isn’t being found elsewhere.
While Australia is full of churches large and small, leaders believe the size of a church is of less importance than whether a church is seeking to truly understand and engage their own local community and bring a unique contribution to their neighbourhood. This means reflecting the diversity of their own geographic context and considering what a church can be doing ‘between Sundays’ to serve the needs of their community.
Just as Australians have shifted to virtual meetings for business and social occasions, churches too have been forced to adapt to new digital technologies. Many have been using platforms like Zoom and livestreams for their services to operate ‘church online’, and this has presented opportunities to engage new audiences such as those who may not be comfortable entering a physical church building, or those in new geographic areas who can now engage in a digital form of community.
Much like the future of office space and large public events, there is broad recognition that the Church of the future will be hybrid, combining a physical gathering with digital platforms to engage as many people as possible.
The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century was enabled by the invention of the printing press, putting scripture into the hands of church members for the first time. Church leaders now sense we are seeing a similar 'reformation' moment, with COVID-19 acting as a catalyst for people taking more responsibility for things like evangelisation and community-building. This year has seen churchgoers rely less on clergy, and has prompted the average churchgoer to take more initiative and responsibility for their own spiritual growth.
We found that 38% of churchgoers say they have been more active in ministry during COVID-19 and 47% have invited more people to church online than when they were attending church in person pre-COVID.
Church leaders agree there is work to do in improving diversity among church leadership. As Australia becomes increasingly diverse, the Church needs to reflect the diversity of age, gender and culture in the community it seeks to serve. Females and indigenous people are specific groups that are currently under-represented in Church leadership, and we've seen efforts over the last few years to ensure that role models exist to inspire new generations that there is a place for them in the Church.
The Church is in a unique position to meet the spiritual and social needs of Australians, providing community and purpose in a context of increasing social isolation. An effective Church of the future will be one united in vision, authentic in approach and adaptable to change.
Download The Future of the Church in Australia report here.
Melbourne Catholic30 January 2023
Fiona Basile24 January 2023