The future of the church is ice cream
New cross-denominational report points to the power of local connection
Australians have a spiritual hunger and local churches can meet that need by uniting in their diversity, according to a national report released yesterday.
The Future of the Church in Australia by McCrindle Research distils the input of 30 Christian leaders from various denominations and states, who were interviewed in May and June.
Among this broad, cross-denominational survey group are Compassion CEO Claire Steele, Archbishop for the Catholic Diocese in Melbourne Peter Comensoli, Tasmanian Anglican Bishop Richard Condie, Revitalise Church Lead Pastor Joel A’Bell, C3 Founder Phil Pringle, church planting network Geneva Push’s executive director Scott Sanders, and Alpha National Director Melinda Dwight.
“If there is one theme that I could embed in every church leader, it would be confidence that Australians are spiritually hungry,” Dwight tells Eternity about findings from a report commissioned to analyse Australia’s changing social and religious landscape. According to the McCrindle report, the COVID-19 pandemic only increased a “spiritual hunger” trend fuelled by “family breakdown, declining mental health and rising loneliness.”
“If there is one theme that I could embed in every church leader, it would be confidence that Australians are spiritually hungry,” – Melinda Dwight
For Dwight – who has seen the introductory Christian course Alpha adapt to running about 1200 online courses around Australia this year – local churches are best placed to meet this appetite, by embracing their own distinct flavour.
“There are lots of flavours of ice cream and that hasn’t negated our desire for ice cream,” Dwight uses a tasty analogy to indicate how churches can provide different versions of the same core offering.
“I’ve travelled around much of the Church world and it’s too beige. Everything is the same.
“There is an opportunity to find out who we are and the unique way we can reach our community. So, not being threatened by the fact that there is a diversity of churches. We have to say, ‘who are we called to be and what’s our unique contribution?’
“I hope that builds confidence in local churches to say we have a mission and underlying this, I would love it if we thought that what we have in common is far greater than what divides us. Let’s not compete, let’s co-operate.”
Russell Evans, Global Senior Pastor of Planetshakers, agrees in the report: “If I was trying to minimise growth in the church, I would get everyone to speak a totally different language that no one understands. That’s what the church is doing.”
The leaders in The Future of the Church in Australia report share a desire for relationship and unity, according to Dwight (who helped organise the various leaders to be involved in the report). Other key findings include church leaders realising the opportunities of digital connection, that church members (not only staff) should be empowered to evangelise and disciple, and improved pathways for raising leaders are required.
“If I was trying to minimise growth in the church, I would get everyone to speak a totally different language that no one understands. That’s what the church is doing.” – Russell Evans, Global Senior Pastor of Planetshakers
While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed plenty, Dwight and the other leaders surveyed indicate how the pandemic forced a “mutual understanding” of issues “to the surface.”
The new report also confirms that community Christian leaders know how the Australian public has lost trust in the capital ‘C’ Church and its institutions.
“It’s been a challenging few years for the Church,” says Dwight. “We’ve had Royal Commissions, institutionalised church finding challenges with resources – and things like that. You’ve also got the decline in attendance, Millennials who don’t want to share their faith – so you’ve got this whole sort of trend affecting everyone. So, probably [all churches] have been coming back to ‘what’s core business? What should we be doing?’”
As Wayne Alcorn, Australian Christian Churches National President, puts it in the report: “Jesus is our message, but people aren’t hearing the message because there have been so many other messages about the church.”
As the report notes, Australian Census data indicates affiliation with Christianity has trended down. In 2006, almost two thirds of Australians (64 per cent) identified with Christianity. One decade on, that proportion decreased to 52 per cent (2016). Over the same period, the number of Australians identifying with ‘no-religion’ rose from 19 per cent (2006) to 30 per cent (2016).
“I think the Church is already going down the track of engaging with its local community but I think we need to build on that.” – Melinda Dwight
With loss of trust in Christian organisations being one factor in this decline, Dwight believes living out your faith locally is the powerful road back to connection and relationship. “The research over the years has been showing that people separate organised ‘anything’ from an individual person. So someone might say, for example, ‘I really hate the … Church and I hate the institutions but, boy, I like Melinda.”
“People change their views based on personal relationship which is why nine out of ten people still come to anything, because someone invites them. Earlier research by McCrindle found two out of three people would come to church if someone invited them.”
The Future of the Church in Australia report sums up this opportunity as: “The gospel is too valuable for Christians to take a retreating position and stop sharing it with society. In order to rebuild trust, Christian leaders believe the church needs to be serving the community in the hardest places with a spirit of humility and authenticity.”
Dwight believes the report is for any Christian who wants to apply its findings to their context. “I think the Church is already going down the track of engaging with its local community but I think we need to build on that, because we are the only infrastructure that has the capacity to really reach the community.”
“We know who the people are and where they are …”