Australia's population is increasingly well-educated. The growing proportion of Australians with tertiary qualifications is a good indicator of this trend. In 1971, only three percent of people between 20 and 64 held a bachelor's degree or higher qualification in Australia. In 2001, it was just under a fifth. By 2011, the figure had increased to over a quarter.
Also, the gender gap in education is closing. Increasingly, women are catching up and overtaking men in educational qualifications. For instance, the numbers of women aged 18 to 34 currently participating in education outrank men in the same age bracket.
Church attenders are significantly more educated than the wider population, even in light of the national trend towards higher education. One-third of churchgoers aged 15 and over have completed a bachelor's degree or a higher. A further 25 percent have completed a trade certificate, diploma or associate diploma.
The disparity in formal education between the church and the national population becomes more apparent when the age profile of churches is considered. Younger people are generally better educated than the older generations - yet younger people are under-represented in churches. Despite this, the proportion of churchgoers with tertiary qualifications still remains about 10 percent higher than the national figure.
The national trends and discrepancies between church and community pose several challenges for churches.
On the one hand, churches are faced with the challenge of reaching and developing an increasingly well-educated population, especially when it comes to women. Churches can expect women in their church and wider community to be as well-educated, if not more so, than men. This is particularly the case for younger generations who are currently under-represented in churches. A local church might host events that encourage people to explore the Christian faith further and to ask questions in a supportive and thoughtful environment. Short courses on different topics might also be beneficial. These approaches can present the Christian life to people in a way that is not only practical and relevant to daily life, but also intellectually robust and satisfying. Churches can also give people opportunities to make practical use of their learned skills in various church activities, benefiting the broader community.
On the other hand, churches should be aware of factors that may exclude people with lower levels of formal education from participating in church life. Over the coming years, the next generations will take on more leadership roles in local churches. These people are likely to be highly-educated. As a result, they will be comfortable with abstract concepts and accustomed to using complex language and specified terminology. However, these methods of thinking and communicating are not accessible to all. Churchgoers that are not as highly educated, including older people, may not have the tools to engage with content that is overly conceptual. Instead, church leaders should intentionally use concrete language and illustrations that appeal to people from various educational backgrounds. Churches can find ways of demonstrating how a person's faith can be practically outworked.
Clearly, churches face a growing challenge in engaging a community that is diverse in its levels of education, particularly across the generations. Each local church can identify opportunities and challenges specific to the make-up of its own local area and church body.
NCLS Research has released a new profile of local communities as part of their 2014 Community Connections resources for local churches. Based on national census information, the profiles are uniquely tailored to each individual church within Australia and contain valuable information that can help churches understand their communities and respond to current trends.
See more about NCLS Community Connections Packs)
See Comparing Church and Community: A demographic profile.
NCLS Occasional Paper 19.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Education & Work: Higher Education Graduates in the Labour Market, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/2f762f95845417aeca25706c00834efa/e1a27d207c960e79ca256e9e00286295!OpenDocument
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Education and Work, Australia, May 2013, Table 8. Released 29 November 2014. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/6227.0May%202013?OpenDocument
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Education and Work, Australia, May 2013, Table 3. Released 29 November 2013. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/6227.0May%202013?OpenDocument
4Mollidor, C., Powell, R., Pepper, M. & Hancock, N. (2013) Comparing Church and Community: A demographic profile. NCLS Occasional Paper 19. Sydney: NCLS Research, 4.