For most people, it probably isn't that hard to think of things that are more interesting than looking at the statistics from Australia's yearly census. Like watching paint dry, or counting how many red cars you go past on the way to work.
But, some of us are stats geeks, and for us it can be fascinating. The census lets us what sort of country we live in, and—to a degree—what life is like for our neighbours and fellow citizens.
For many of us, our idea of the makeup of the country is taken from our immediate circle of acquaintances or from the media we consume, but the reality can be very different. As well as a reality check, the census also gives us an idea of how Australia is changing, and what our future might look like. This is very useful stuff for anyone trying to engage with society, and that most definitely includes the church.
The 2016 census managed to get people talking even before the numbers came out. Server crashes on the night saw a blame game played by the government and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). As entertaining as that was, once the numbers came out in early 2017 there were some actual statistics that got everyone talking (which I am sure was a huge relief to both the government and the ABS), and are still being examined.
For the first time, those who chose "no religion" make up a higher proportion of the population than any single religious denomination. At 29.6% this is creeping towards a third of the population! To give you a point of comparison, the Catholic Church managed 22.6% and the Anglican Church 13.3%. Combined, Christianity still has a narrow majority at 52.1% of the population, but seeing as "no religion" has doubled since 2001—and other faiths continue to grow—that majority may not last much longer.
Rejoicing and Lamentations
Reactions to this shift depends on how you feel about Christianity, and religion in general, and its place in our society. I've seen a fair bit of rejoicing from those who see faith as holding society back and impeding progress, or are suspicious of the influence religion has on our political arena. For them, this is a sign that Christianity is in decline, and becoming increasingly irrelevant every year.
Many Christians find it deeply worrying, or even a sign that we are losing the battle for hearts and minds. For them, these numbers are bad news, and in some comments you can detect a hint of panic—even a casting about for someone to blame, from a conspiracy to the Muslim threat.
A Dose of Reality
Personally, I think both of those perceptions are wrong and based on flawed conclusions. To me, these results are more than just a wakeup call for Christians, they should actually inspire us and stop us wasting our time on efforts that are a result of out of date ideas. There are a number of conclusions that we should be taking away from the Census, and they are no cause for panic.
Firstly, the Census should help dispel the myth that we live in a Christian nation, and that the values of Christianity are shared by those around us. Like most Western nations, we have a legacy of institutional Christianity that invites lip service by public figures, but is an impediment to personal faith.
Comfort in Complacency
This makes us complacent, leading us to believe that our values don't need to be communicated or defended, that they are simply accepted as true by the world around us. That might be true in our echo chambers, but Australian society at large is moving further and further away, and often aren't just neutral but actively opposed to what we hold as important.
Secondly, I don't believe the decline in those identifying with a Christian denomination, or the increase in the "no religion" crowd, means that Christianity is actually fading away. I would actually contend that the number of people who actually believe probably hasn't changed, or is even growing.
Not the Only Game in Town
How can this be? Simple. For a long time, going to church was more than just a religious observance, it was a societal expectation. I like to think I am not that old, but even a few decades ago, people expected you to attend church on a Sunday, it was just the done thing. People who didn't excited comment, now it's more the reverse.
Churches were community hubs, the place where towns or neighbourhoods would gather for more than the Sunday service, but for dances or day care or a place to meet a future partner. But, like sporting clubs or service organisations such as Rotary, the church has suffered from huge range of activities competing for a share of people's leisure time—we are spoilt for choice.
Adjusting the Thermostat
But why is this good news, you may well ask? Because it means, now more than ever, the people in our churches are there because they want to be, not because of peer pressure or from simply not having anywhere else to be. It means less lukewarm congregations made up of people who can't wait to get it over with and get home. And, it means less lip service in society to "Christian values", so that the Church knows where it really stands and what it has to do to change our society.
Above all, the key message Christians need to take from the Census is that now, more than ever, we know exactly where our target audience is. They are not hidden amongst our congregations, camouflaged by a superficial Christian veneer of societal expectation. They are out doing the things they actually want to do, in the places they actually want to be. The challenge for us to go out and meet them there.
David Goodwin is the Editor of The Salvation Army's magazine, Warcry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html