Censuses get a bad rap in the Bible. Israel is told several times not to hold a census – and is punished severely by God for doing so. But the number of their fighting men is recorded several times, on several occasions with God’s approval it seems.
As you fill in the 2021 Australian census you will come across the one optional question, the one that asks if you have a religious affiliation.
This seems to be the only question where people seek to campaign.
There’s an atheist campaign on social media saying people should only say they have a religion if they are serious about it. On the other hand, some Christians have said we should urge people who feel even a bit religious to affirm it.
As the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney said, there will be people who are more religious than they think.
But, perhaps the least contentious campaigning around is by a couple of churches urging people to select “other” and fill in “Pentecostal” – the Australian Christian Churches have been saying that, and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches have also suggested their members should select “other” and write in “independent evangelical”.
And then there’s those of us who are mixtures.
Free will Presbyterians (okay, that one is a joke).
Certainly, it is true that churches with a long history have a census advantage. The Anglicans will score millions in the census, the Pentecostals a few hundred thousand – but there are many more people who attend a Pentecostal church than an Anglican one – in fact, a couple of hundred thousand more. And Pentys have told me they have been asked to write in their names for the last four censuses.
So, what would you suggest people do with this question?
One idea suggested by many Christians, including the former Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen is that there should simply be a “Christian” option not the denominational ones. So maybe go to “other” and write in “Christian.”
Or tick other and say “Almost Christian,” or “thinking about being Christian,” or even “sort of Christian.” There have to be plenty of people like that.
There has been a steady decline in religious adherence as measured by the census. Christianity was selected by 52 percent of Australians at the 2016 census, 74 percent in 1991 and 88 percent in 1966.
So it is extremely likely that for the first time the 2021 Australian census will report a less than 50 percent result for Christianity.
This time around the no vote will be assisted by a donkey vote – the no option being placed first which might be enough to guarantee Christianity dipping below 50 percent. But that would have happened anyway.
That will not be a matter of rejoicing for Christians., to put it mildly. Yet we know it is coming.
More importantly, God knew it was coming.
So as Martyn Iles of the Australian Christian Lobby puts it, just tell the truth. Especially if Jesus is your saviour.
So what might Jesus say? maybe “You can’t add a single believer to my flock by worrying. Fear not, little flock.”
And then he’d point out that the census will prove one thing. The supply of atheists may have grown, but “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” (John 4:35 NIV)