Time to listen to Australians' opinions about church
How religious are Australians? How do they view the church?
For the past 20 years, the NCLS Research team has used surveys to listen carefully to the attitudes of Australians.
It has not always been a comfortable experience, yet when we pay attention to the views of those who are not the ‘insiders’ in church, it is one way to show that we try to love God and love our neighbour.
Only four in ten Australians agree that ‘religion is good for society’. The 2019 Australian Community Survey run by NCLS Research also found that around four in ten (36%) were neutral or unsure, whereas some two in ten (23%) disagree that religion is good for society.
Attitudes to religion in society appear to have regained more of a positive rating, over the past year. In 2016, some 39% of respondents agreed that 'religion is good for society'. This dropped to only 33% in 2018, and then rose again to 41% in 2019.
This trend may concur with the timing of investigations into the institutional church, including the Royal Commission into institutional responses to historical abuse within churches.
Yet…it is complicated. While levels of confidence in the institutional church are low, when asked about their personal attitude towards Christians, 88% of Australians are either positive or neutral. Some 27% are very positive, 30% are somewhat positive, and another 31% are neither positive nor negative. This shows a difference in attitudes towards the church as an institution, compared with attitudes towards individual Christians they may know personally.
With regard to connecting with God, four in ten Australians surveyed (40%) agree that they have their own way of connecting with God, without church or religious services. Church leaders may need to be aware that a substantial group of people in their local neighbourhoods practice their faith in connecting with God, but do not see a need to be involved in a church worship service, in order to do so.
There are many ways to understand how religious or spiritual a person is.
The 2019 Australian Community Survey found that Australians are moderately religious or spiritual, in that:
Such findings show the active practice of prayer or meditation by around a third of Australians. Around three in ten report having had a mystical or supernatural experience, about which they had no doubts it was real. Six in ten respondents profess a belief in God or a higher power and just under half report the salience of faith or spirituality in guiding their life decisions.
Views about Jesus varied amongst survey respondents.
The erosion of basic historical knowledge about Christianity is most evident in the fact that only 57% of Australians say that Jesus Christ ‘was a real person who actually lived’. Some 22% of Australians believe Jesus Christ is a mythical or fictional character and 21% don’t know what they think.
In the ACS, Australians were asked: “To what extent do you see yourself as a religious person?” and “To what extent do you see yourself as a spiritual person?”.
More detail on the religious and spiritual profile of Australians in available in our article Religious, spiritual, neither or both? 4 groups of Australians.
So, if churches seek to strengthen their connections with the wider community, what are some clues that Australians provide?
While it can be seen that the relationship between church and community is complex, that issues of mistrust in the institution exist, and that some see church worship services as irrelevant to connecting with God personally, there is evidence of openness to being invited to church.
The research provides some starting points to inviting others to church. This will be explored further in our next eNewsletter in April 2019, "Five clues to inviting people to church".
Dr Ruth Powell explores the latest 2019 Australian Community Survey results on the spirituality of Australians. Four clusters of Australians are outlined in their approaches to spirituality and religion.
Stand in the shoes of Australians, as you come to understand a little more about their attitudes, beliefs, practices and perspectives.
Dr Ruth Powell, Sydney, 22 November 2019.
The relationship between churches and the wider Australian community is explored in this presentation by Dr Ruth Powell, in November 2019. Drawing on the most recent Australian Community Survey findings by NCLS Research, it examines connections, openness and attitudes towards local churches in Australia.
Dr Ruth Powell, Sydney, 22 November 2019.
This Q&A session from the Australian Community and Church Summit includes insight from mission practitioners on helping churches connect with their local neighbourhoods.
The panel gives their reflections on effective ways churches connect with their communities; social trends around faith; and what churches can better understand about 'loving your neighbour'.
Rev Simon Hansford (UCA NSW), Pastor Paul Bartlett (ACC NSW), Simon Smart (CPX), Dr Ruth Powell (NCLS Research) and Mark McCrindle (McCrindle Research), Sydney, 22 November 2019.
A dynamic presentation of free online Census data for any location. Click on the map or type in an address to get an immediate visual of who lives in that area. Great for church planting, community service outreach, neighbourhood support.
Sam Sterland, Sydney, 22 November 2019.
NCLS Research presentation slides- Dr Ruth Powell.
The Australian Community and Church Summit, Melb: 8, Bris: 14, Syd: 22 Nov, 2019.
Powell, R. Sterland, S. and Pepper, M. (2019). 2019 Australian Community Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.