A new survey by research company McCrindle reveals an alarming gap between how the church and the community perceive each other, but there is hope the gap can be reduced.
The Church Communities Australia Report was commissioned by World Vision and designed to equip local churches to engage more effectively with their local communities. Of those surveyed, 1,024 people across Australia responded, along with 105 church leaders (made up of World Vision church partners).
Both groups were asked a number of questions relating to these hot button social issues: child protection, refugee rights, human rights, climate change, gay marriage, decriminalising drug use and abortion access.
What emerged was a discrepancy between what the church thought were the points of concern in the community and what the community considered major issues.
“The church underestimated the community’s view on four key areas: climate change, gay marriage, particularly decriminalising drug use and abortion access,” says social researcher Mark McCrindle.
The number one issue for both groups is child protection, while the general public ranks ‘decriminalising drug use’ as equal second greatest point of concern, something the church leaders ranks second last. The other equally important point of concern is refugee rights, which church leaders slightly overestimated. Interestingly, those surveyed from the general public didn’t realise how supportive church leaders are of refugee rights.
The survey also revealed that Australians want the church to stay out of policy debates, particularly regarding climate change, abortion and gay marriage. Around 40 per cent of those surveyed don’t wanting the church to have any role at all in policy debates on those topics.
Social Researcher Mark McCrindle says the survey is one of the most revealing he’s done on behalf of the church, due to the method of surveying both groups about the same issues.
“I haven’t come across this methodology before of surveying two groups about how they see each other. It’s a unique approach that gives some interesting insights.”
One of the sharpest results to emerge was how irrelevant Australians feel the church is to their lives. The survey shows they don’t think the church can assist in areas of mental health, social life, relationships, career, finances or physical health. Only around one in every 3-4 people think the church can assist with the spiritual aspect of life.
“The community is now able to meet spiritual needs through yoga, through listening to uplifting music, attending a motival seminar, reading a book,” says Mark. “That’s the breadth of input in the spiritual life of Australians outside church … That’s where Australians have moved to.”
He thinks the results are a reflection of how the church is perceived – as a religious organisation, an insitution.
“The church does see itself as able to make a difference … the sad part is that there was such a massive gap between the church leaders who said they can help in those areas and the individuals who just didn’t see how the church could help in those areas.”
So how to bridge the gap? Mark says it’s not about changing the gospel message. In fact, Jesus is still a popular figure, and the majority of Australians believe he was a figure in history. The issue, he says, is with how people perceive the church, and it all starts with language.
“Other commentators and communicators have been more talking the language of society when they speak about emotional wellbeing and purpose and significance and the sacred. They’ve been more articulate and engaging and accessible than has the church.”
Not all is lost though. Mark points out that 61% of Aussies still say they’re Christian on the census, we have chaplains in hospitals, prisons, tax exemptions for the church, and many other freedoms which indicate a warmth towards Christianity. But he says, we shouldn’t just let the downwards trend continue without stopping and thinking about how to make the most of the times.
“There’s a stewardship requirement. Here we are in this country of peace with [freedom of religion]. But with this social license comes a great responsibility to make sure we are making a contribution and having an impact.”
Image: Frank de Freitas via FlickrMore