There’s doom and gloom about the declining church among Christians living in Western cultures. It’s understandable. In Australia, for example, the percentage of the population that identifies as Christian slid from 95 per cent in 1911 to 61 percent in 2011. Drill down into that 61 per cent, as research from McCrindle’s demographers has done this year, and the reality that emerges is grim. Once people are permitted to choose “spiritual but not religious” as an option, the percentage of self-identified Christians drops to 45 per cent. And if we ask some tough questions of this group we discover that the percentage of Australians who attend church at least once a month is 15 per cent. Divide them roughly in half again to separate the pew-warmers out from the actively involved and you end up with the very modest figure of 7 per cent.
But while McCrindle’s Faith and Belief in Australia report tends to confirm Christians’ worst fears it also contains glimmers of hope: a new openness to spiritual concerns and some pointers for Christians keen to see their unchurched friends find hope and meaning in Jesus. Let’s bust some myths.
Myth #1: Young people aren’t interested in God
While only a third of 23-37 year-olds identify as Christians, compared to nearly two thirds of people aged 72 and older, a clear majority (61 per cent) of these younger “Generation Y” Australians say they’re comfortable talking about religion and spirituality. When it comes to Generation Z (7-22 year-olds), the level of comfort is even higher, at 65 per cent. Older generations are less comfortable, but only to a low of 49 per cent.
This is a shot across the bows for “tried and true” evangelistic methods that worked well in the past. They may still work for some in the older generations for whom they were first designed. But such an approach neglects the fact that it is younger people who are most open to spiritual engagement.
"Across all age categories the number one prompt to think about spiritual issues is a personal conversation."
Myth #2: It’s socially inappropriate to talk about religion
As a Christian, you might be wary of broaching religious topics with your unchurched friends. Perhaps the loan of a book or DVD might be a subtler and more effective strategy? McCrindle’s numbers suggest that while this is a reasonable approach, it’s unlikely to be the best. What prompts people to think about spiritual things? In some ways the answer is predictable. Younger people’s musings about God and meaning are more likely to be triggered by something they see on social media. Older people say they’d be more spiritually impacted by a death in the family or other major life crisis. But across all age categories the number one prompt to think about spiritual issues is a personal conversation (with the exception of the Baby Boomers, aged 53-71, who rank conversations at a photo-finish third place).
The effectiveness of a personal conversation about spiritual issues with a friend is likely to have a deeper impact if that friend can see that your lifestyle and relationships match your rhetoric. McCrindle reports that 44 per cent of non-Christians surveyed said that their attraction towards religion increases when they see a person who genuinely lives out their faith. In contrast, the biggest turn-off for these non-Christians was hearing from public figures and celebrities about their faith. So maybe hold the Ben Carson in-depth interview DVD for now.
Myth #3: People are stuck in their ways and don’t want to change
Actually, this myth is mostly true. But there’s a surprisingly large proportion of the Australian population—26 per cent—who say they’re open to changing their religious views. The breakdown of this 26 per cent is predictable in some ways, but intriguing in others. About 27 percent of people who already identify as Christians are willing to explore changes to their beliefs and religious practices. Fair enough. And only 14 per cent of non-Christians who are “cold” to Christianity are open to changing their religious views. (Perhaps “only 14 per cent” is the wrong way to put it—that’s a fairly large number for a group of people who openly identify themselves as resistant to Christianity.)
But the real surprise comes when we consider the non-Christians who say they’re positively disposed towards Christianity—40 per cent of this group say they’re open to changing their religious views. This is the group evangelists refer to as the low-hanging fruit.
The truth of the matter
But it seems that, for many nominally Christian or non-Christian people, a professional evangelist is not the best solution. The not-so-secret secret is genuine friendships with people living genuine Christian lives who have a willingness to open up naturally about their faith and the difference Jesus has made to them. The research is in. The challenge has been laid. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit and you.
To read the full McCrindle Faith and Belief in Australia report, visit faithandbelief.org.au.