COVID shows there is room for a new reformation by a re-shaped church

Research reveals disruption could spark long-lasting change

Grant Dusting – Director of Strategy for the McCrindle research company – on why the pandemic has left room for a ‘new reformation.’

As social researchers, we spend our time studying the social and demographic landscape to understand emerging trends and advise organisations on how to adapt for an ever-changing future. So 2020 has kept us on our toes!

We conducted several national studies through the year to understand how Australians have been affected by the challenge and change that the COVID-19 pandemic has created.

Our research shows many Australians have been feeling anxious, frustrated and vulnerable as a consequence of the health, economic and social impacts of COVID-19. We also found that two in five Australians have felt the biggest negative impact of COVID-19 socially, missing the human connection with family and friends.

In times of crisis and social and economic disruption, people tend to reflect more deeply on what really matters. Half of Australians say they have thought more about the meaning of life and their own mortality this year. This deepening of the inner life has seen an increase in spiritual and faith activities, with one in four Australians saying they have engaged in more spiritual conversations and 28 per cent reporting they have been praying more.

In a time when society has had to quickly respond to the practical realities of a COVID-19 world, churches have had to pivot, too. As part of a national study on the emerging trends for the Australian Church, McCrindle interviewed more than 30 key leaders of Christian denominations, churches and prominent parachurch ministries from across Australia. These interviewees represent different Christian traditions but expressed similar observations on the challenges and opportunities of this cultural moment, and how the Church of Australia needs to respond to effectively serve Australia’s diverse communities. [NOTE: we use the capitalised ‘Church’ to denote the collective of churches across Australia, and the lowercase ‘church’ when referring to local expressions.]

The insights from these leaders and an accompanying national survey of 1,000 Australian churchgoers have been compiled into The Future of the Church in Australia, a report available to download. Commissioned by a group of Christian leaders, the report is intended to help church leaders understand the soul of Australia in 2020 and reveal key trends which will shape the Church of the future. Here’s a quick snapshot of the key insights.

Australians are disillusioned with the Church but are spiritually hungry

Christian leaders feel Australians have become disillusioned with the church as an institution. They point to public breaches of trust from church leadership – and church culture often being detached from the everyday Australian experience – as key causes of this disillusionment and apathy.

While Census data shows a decline of Australians identifying with Christianity (from 64% per cent in the 2006 Census, to 52 per cent in 2016), data collected by the National Church Life Survey shows the proportion of Australians regularly going to church has remained steady during this same period (15 per cent in 2006; 16 per cent in 2016).

Even amid this context of disillusionment, church leaders are seeing a spiritual hunger in Australia consistent with the research data. Despite Australia’s relative wealth and stability (by global standards), church leaders believe people are searching for meaning and fulfilment that isn’t being found elsewhere.

The Church needs to engage the community

While Australia is full of churches large and small, leaders believe the size of a church is of less importance than whether a church is seeking to truly understand and engage their own local community. Also, will it bring a unique contribution to its neighbourhood? What that could look like is reflecting the diversity of their own geographic context, as well as considering what a church can do ‘between Sundays’ to serve the needs of their community.

Embracing digital disruption

Just as Australians have shifted to virtual meetings for business and social occasions, churches too have been forced to adapt to new digital technologies.

Many have been using platforms such as Zoom and livestreams for their services to operate ‘church online.’ This has presented opportunities to engage new audiences such as those who may not be comfortable entering a physical church building, or those in new geographic areas who can now engage in a digital form of community. Like the future of the office and events, there is broad recognition that the church of the future will be a hybrid, combining physical gatherings with digital platforms to engage as many people as possible.

A ‘new reformation’ moment

The Protestant reformation in the 16th Century was enabled by the invention of the printing press – putting the Bible into the hands of church members for the first time.

Church leaders sense we are currently in a similar reformation moment, where COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for taking responsibility out of the hands of paid ministers and clergy, and prompting the average churchgoer to take initiative and responsibility for their neighbourhood.

About 38 per cent of churchgoers say they have been more active in ministry during COVID-19. Also, 47 per cent have invited more people to church online than when they were attending church in person pre-COVID.

Raising up diverse leaders

Church leaders agree there is work to do in improving diversity among church leadership. As Australia becomes increasingly diverse, the Church needs to reflect the diversity of age, gender and culture in the community it seeks to serve. Female leaders and indigenous leaders are specific cohorts that are currently under-represented, and there are already efforts to ensure that role models exist to inspire new generations that there is a place for them in the church.

The Church is in a unique position to meet the spiritual and social needs of Australians, providing community and purpose in a context of increasing social isolation. An effective Church of the future will be one united in vision, authentic in approach and adaptable to change.

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