Look at this photo.
This is a photo of the crowd at the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL)’s ‘The Truth of It’ event in Cairns, North Queensland.
There are many who will dismiss the significance of this photo and event. Apparently, if you are in New South Wales or Victoria anything in Queensland can be deemed as irrelevant – but that is unwise.
This event in Cairns was on a recent Tuesday night. Over several similar events in Queensland during the past few weeks, ACL has drawn 7,000 people. All these meetings were mid-week, the speaker was not a visiting overseas superstar but an Australian (ACL CEO Martyn Iles) – and all the venues were packed.
In fact, Wendy Francis, ACL Queensland coordinator, reported that in many cities the demand was so great that they had to keep increasing the size of the venues to hold those who wanted to attend. Attendance numbers included Brisbane, 1400; Toowoomba, 1400; and Sunshine Coast, 900.
So why does this matter? What difference do crowds make? Why should we even consider this?
The only people who think that gathering large numbers of people at a mid-week meeting is insignificant are those who have never tried to build a public event. It is hard to draw a mid-week crowd, and it’s even harder when the speaker is a known Australian. Few organisations can build these sorts of numbers.
There are people who will point to the following of an organisation like GetUp and suggest that the numbers at ACL events are irrelevant, but remember GetUp’s support is all online; they have few public gatherings and events.
If ACL are able to build this level of support, it may demonstrate a growing shift in Christian allegiance, support and focus.
It’s worth considering why all these people have attended these ACL events. While social media has a plethora of suggestions the answer may be fairly simple – the subject matter being dealt with. The ACL team were exploring issues which included hate speech, navigating cancel culture, intersectionality, identity politics and transgenderism. These are subjects that few pastors or Christian leaders feel competent to speak on. Many would have attended to gain insight on these contentious issues.
These events and the number of people who attended point to a gathering momentum of Christians seeking to push back against the current cultural tide. The culture wars are having their impact and many quiet, church attending and Bible believing Christians want to see a robust response. They seem tired of the nuanced responses from many city-based Christian intellectuals and they feel that the careful and winsome response is having little impact.
I understand that there are many who are uncomfortable with the approach that ACL takes. Fair enough. But smug dismissal of what ACL has been able to achieve in building a following is a bad case of denial.
It’s worth remembering that there are very few, if any, Christian ministries in Australia that come even close to this engagement. I think there are many leaders who are deluded by online engagement of their ministry or communication. People listening to podcasts, following and commenting on social media, linking to webinars or joining Facebook groups is not particularly significant – because clicktivism is easy.
Clicks show little commitment and a minor amount of engagement.
On the other hand, leaving your home in winter, even in Queensland, to attend a gathering and to show your support demonstrates actual commitment to a cause. If ACL are able to build this level of support, it may demonstrate a growing shift in Christian allegiance, support and focus.
It seems to me that you can disagree with ACL and their approach all you like, but dismissing engagement at this level without asking what may be behind it is unwise. This may be an indication of a cultural moment, a shift in the Christian community. It is too early to make a call but it is certainly worth watching.
Karl Faase is CEO of Olive Tree Media.