In times of deeply challenging social isolation such as these, many people may consider questions of meaning, belonging and connection to something larger than themselves.
Some may be contemplating the presence or existence of God and others could be returning to, or continuing, their practices of spiritual or religious faith, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this light we explore views, attitudes and beliefs about God and Jesus. Using results from the 2019 Australian Community Survey, a sample of Australians' views are explored.
In understanding how important God or Jesus may be to many, we hope to provide enlightening information that will help you and your church to foster conversations of hope, faith and love, as they arise with people in your local community. Checking any pre-conceived ideas of how much the average Australian knows or believes about particular Christian tenets of faith, is useful to do, in order to come to a place of deeper understanding of people around you, with whom you might dialogue with.
According to the 2019 ACS by NCLS Research, varying levels of belief of both God and Jesus exist, even amongst those Australians that describe themselves as Christian. As 'belief' might develop as a process over time, the need for churches to create a place of belonging in which newcomers to church can explore faith is highlighted by the findings.
According to the 2019 ACS, around six in 10 Australians believe in a God, spirit or life force. Some 29% say they believe in a personal God and 32% say they believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Around two in 10 (21%) do not believe and 18% remain unsure. Those aged 50-64 express the lowest levels of belief. Not only do less of this age group consider there to be a personal God, when compared to other age groups; they represent the highest percentage of Australians that deny any sort of spirit, God or life force.
When asked whether they view Jesus Christ as real or fictional, over half (57%) of Australians surveyed, hold the understanding that Jesus Christ was a real person, whereas 22% understand him to be a myth. A fifth of persons surveyed (20%) expressed uncertainty. Of those Christians who do not regularly attend church, some 15% believe Jesus was mythical or fictional.
Of those Australians who do not think that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, 26% believe he was or is God in human form, 26% a prophet or spiritual leader, and 20% a normal human being. Those aged 65 years or older are the most likely age group to consider Jesus to be God, while those aged 50-64 are most likely to think of him as a prophet or spiritual leader and least likely to view Jesus as God in human form. Christians who attend church regularly and take Jesus to be real are by far the most likely to consider Jesus to be God in human form.
In the 2019 ACS, a sample of Australians were asked their thoughts on the Christian Bible's story of Jesus rising from the dead. Results show that just under half of people (47%) said they believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead, including 23% who take the Biblical account as literal word-for-word and 24% who do not believe the Bible story should be taken literally. A third of Australians (34%) do not believe Jesus was resurrected.
Those aged 65 years or older are the most likely age group to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. They also believe in the Biblical account of the resurrection, markedly greater than any other age group. Out of the various religious groupings, church attending Christians overwhelmingly represent the largest number who take the Biblical account of the resurrection as literal.
There is a mix of beliefs regarding God and the specifics of Jesus' existence, amongst Australians. Results from the 2019 ACS demonstrate large differences in belief across different groups of society.
Demographically, there are patterns of belief across the topics of God and Jesus that emerge in the different age groups. Those who are aged 50-64* are the least likely to profess belief in God and Jesus, aspects that are commonly considered as central tenets of the Christian faith. They are least likely to believe in a personal God or the divine nature of Jesus. This could be due to the big shift in church attendance and spirituality that came in the 1960’s – when this generation were born. The age group that most holds to the divinity of Jesus and his physical resurrection are aged 65 and over*. This can likely be accounted for in the regular attendance of religious services that is part of the psyche of this group and subsequent acceptance of beliefs promoted in these spheres.
(* age stated at the time of the survey in Nov 2019)
Amongst the mixed and divided opinions that Australians hold, those who describe themselves as Christians form the majority of believers of the existence and divinity of Jesus and the Biblical account of his resurrection. While this is no new revelation, the proportion of church attenders who do not hold to these ideas – such as the number of church-attending Christians who take Jesus to be a myth or fiction - is still notable. Though the reasons for this varying belief are not determined in the survey, it raises questions as to what this portion understand about God.
The varied results that are seen when asking Australians about beliefs in God and Jesus are clearly seen, as is the level of uncertainty. In the space between those who outright deny all aspects relating to God and Jesus, and those who are fully committed to these beliefs, is a large number who are unsure or who adhere to varying aspects, such as belief in a spirit or life force, or seeing Jesus as prophet or spiritual leader.
The variety of beliefs emerging from the ACS findings reinforces the missional imperative for churches to seek to understand the views and beliefs of 'one's neighbour', in order to love those in their surrounding community and perhaps invite them to church activities.
Other research by NCLS Research confirms that newcomers to church life 'belong' before they 'behave' or 'believe'. Many people come to church and belong to the congregation, seeing it as their spiritual home, before they develop their own beliefs and behaviour around the person of Jesus. As such, it appears that faith formation is a process and belief can develop over time.**
The need for churches to create a place of belonging in which newcomers to church can explore faith is highlighted by the findings. Fostering relational conversations with those who are curious about the Christian faith can be something churches might consider, as they relate to people in their community or invite them to church.
More information about factors that affect Australians' openness to being invited to church will follow in the next eNews edition.
* N.B. Age of respondents quoted in this article were stated at the time of the survey in Nov 2019.
** Research findings on Newcomers in churches can be viewed in Video Presentation "Clue 5 to help churches connect with Australians" (ref 01min:36sec) or in Presentation Handout "Australians and Church" (ref slide 35).
Powell, R. Sterland, S. and Pepper, M. (2019). 2019 Australian Community Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.
Results from the 2018 Australian Community Survey by NCLS Research