Are Christians and the church on the nose?
Karl Faase sees the glass at least half full
It’s common to read that the church is on the nose in Western culture and especially in Australia. Commentators regularly reflect on the parlous state of the church and its poor reputation. This is referred to so often that it has become accepted as a valid and fair opinion. The question to ponder, though, is whether this is accurate.
There are plenty of reasons to believe this is true. The Christian church in Australia has been plagued over the last five to ten years by its involvement in two high-profile community discussions, the first of its own making, the second thrust upon church leaders. The Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a serious “own goal” by the church. While many denominations may feel they have been unfairly tarnished by the actions of other larger church institutions, the truth is that the Christian church as a whole has been damaged by this appalling lack of judgment (and criminal behaviour!) by many church leaders. In general, our community understands that actions by certain individuals do not reflect the values of the larger organisation. What people struggle to comprehend is when leadership of church institutions and denominations seem to have turned a blind eye to the behaviour of a few and the lives of children and their families have been devastated.
The second issue has been the community-wide discussion on same-sex marriage that culminated in the postal survey last December. This created an enormous amount of heat and vitriol towards anyone who dared to stand against the push by pro-activists. Name calling and derogatory articles were written against those who opposed the push. It was the Christian church and its leaders in various places that were the vocal and prominent opponents to this shift and bore the brunt of the backlash.
These two community debates, as well as the regular criticism that the church is out of date and “on the wrong side of history” (whatever you think that means!) have led many commentators to assert that the church is perceived negatively by the community at large. Once that assertion is made, all sorts of scenarios about the future of the institution are extrapolated. Added to these predictions are also many ideas about how the church must redeem its position in the community to create a positive future. It is not surprising that much of this commentary comes from the usual sources in the mainstream media.
But is this view that the church is on the nose and thoroughly dismissed and discredited accurate? While there is no doubt that there are issues, research suggests it is not as bad as many make out.
In 2017, Olive Tree Media, in conjunction with several other ministry organisations and McCrindle Research, released the Faith and Belief Research on Christianity and the Church in Australia. Faith and Belief asked questions of a representative group of people about Australians’ responses to Christianity and the church and the outcomes were not as negative as many assume.
First, when asked about religious affiliation, 45 per cent stated that they identified as a Christian. This is 6 per cent lower than the 2016 census but is still a remarkably high number. When the 2016 census figures were released much was made of the fact that Christianity had fallen to 51 per cent from 62 per cent in 2011 – well down on the over 90 per cent numbers of the 1940s and 1950s. While it is true that the number has fallen, it is also true that when asked, half of the Australians polled identified themselves as Christian.
In the Faith and Belief Research, McCrindle wanted to clarify where those who were not Christians, by their own self-identification, sat on a modified Engels Scale. This was from -1 (very close to belief) to -7 (as far from faith as you can imagine). When asked directly, 38 per cent stated that they were Christians. Many of you reading this article will suggest that they all are not Christians from a biblical perspective of the definition of a Christian and that would be a fair comment. But this was not a theological test – it was a question about perception of their personal belief.
Of the remaining 62 per cent, 24 per cent landed in the -1 to -3 category, meaning they were affirming of the Christian faith. This means that 62 per cent of Australians either believe they are Christians or are positively disposed to Christian faith and belief.
Something that you will hear the commentariat inside and outside the church say is that everyone believes Christians are judgmental and hypocritical but is that accurate? The Faith and Belief Research asked Australians if they know any Christians and 92 per cent said they did. This does leave 8 per cent or 1.5 million Australians who don’t know one Christian. Those who knew at least one Christian were asked to choose from a list of 20 words those that best described the Christians that they knew. On the list were positive words but so were the not-so-positive words such as “hypocrite” and “judgmental.” The outcome was that the top five words used to describe Christians in Australia were all positive – “caring,” “loving,” “kind,” “honest” and “faithful.” Even number six was reasonable, that being “traditional.” “Hypocritical” was on the list but well down, coming in at number ten by just 17 per cent of the responses. The assertion that Australians believe Christians are hypocritical and judgmental and a menace to the community is simply not representative of the facts.
Even the local church received a positive response. This is to be taken with some caution because when asked what they knew about their local church, 56 per cent said they knew nothing to very little (this is a challenge to all church leaders!) but when asked about the influence of their local church, 44 per cent said it was positive and only 9 per cent said their local church had a negative influence.These figures are not commentary or opinion – these are responses from real Australians on what they actually think. There are two takeaways from these responses.
The first is the difference between the concrete and the abstract. These terms come from Nick Spencer from Theos ministry in the UK. He did similar research and noted that when people were asked about the church and Christians in general their response was often negative. When asked about specific Christians they knew and specific local churches they were aware of, the response was positive. In the abstract, Christianity may have a negative response, but in the concrete, it changed to being significantly positive.
The second take-away from the research is to be careful not to accept what we read at face value. There are many inside and outside the church whose positions are bolstered by peddling a negative view of the church. There are those inside the church community looking to create radical change in theology, values or practices in the church.
The best way to create this change is to manufacture the worst image possible of the church to garner support for radical change. I believe change is needed. I believe the church must continue to review and renew its practice and leadership, but I do not believe that the research reveals a position so dire that unsubstantiated claims for making big change are worth pursuing. This calls for caution and care. There are plenty in the commentariat outside the church who want nothing more than to close down the institution of the church and run every last Christian leader and voice out of the public square. The best way to achieve this is to create as negative as possible a picture of the church in the community so that every step can be taken to push the church to the margins. As many have written, the margins are not all bad. That was where the early church started and where God through his Spirit has created remarkable expansion of the church – the growth of the church in China being a relatively recent historical example.
While it is true that the margins are not to be feared, cowering from public engagement because we believe the rhetoric that the church is disliked and dismissed by the general populace is quite possibly unfounded. The church will not be a force in the future if we do not continue to challenge and reassess what we do. But let’s be sure we do that from accurate information, not just ideas pushed by people who are long on agenda and short on facts.
Karl Faase is CEO Olive Tree Media. Faith and Belief Research available for free at www.faithandbelief.org.au