A survey released by NCLS Research suggests that young people, in particular, are becoming more active in Australian churches, despite the steady nationwide decline in Christian affiliation. As cultural pressure mounts, we are slowly getting a more accurate picture of the true Church in Australia.
There were several intriguing developments — some of which really made me scratch my head, but only one of which I will cover here.
One of the key findings of the Survey relates to church attendance. This research is helpful in supplementing the official ABS Census data.
In fact, in my opinion, church attendance is a better indicator of real affiliation than the ABS Census data.
This is because it presumably requires a greater level of commitment to attend church than it does to call oneself a Christian. Someone who is willing to (at least) warm a pew once a month is more likely to be a genuine Christian than is someone who is willing to tick a box during a census.
Anyway, here are three interesting points from the survey:
1. Church Attendance Is on the Increase
According to the new research, church attendance has been steadily increasing over the past three years (from 2019 to 2021). As of 2021, about two in 10 Australians (21%) attend a religious service once a month or more.
Interesting, the group most likely to regularly attend church were young adults (Gen Xers – aged between eighteen and thirty-four).
An astonishing thirty-two per cent of regular religious services attendees are Gen Xers.
I don’t know about you, but I assumed that older people would be the most likely to faithfully attend church, while people my age diligently partied and gamed (or, more likely, slept in until 11:30 AM on Sunday morning).
This research proves me wrong, however. In fact, those over 65 years old were the smallest group in terms of regular church attendance. I would surmise that concerns around COVID-19 have something to do with this.
But what’s the significance of increasing church attendance?
Arguably, due to increasing cultural pressure and stigmatisation, it is an increasingly good indicator of genuine faith. Generally (unless I am mistaken), going to church is no longer ‘trendy’ or socially advantageous.
Therefore, while Australian Christian affiliation is steadily decreasing, the percentage of those who identify as Christian and also attend church is on the increase.
Of course, even today church attendance is not an accurate indicator of spiritual maturity. To this day, people can easily get away with being ‘pew-warmers’ — or as philosopher Dallas Willard creatively called them: ‘consumers of religious goods and services’.
Nevertheless, the NCLS findings are likely a far more accurate reflection of the state of the Australian Christian church.
2. Young People Are Attending Church More Frequently
According to the new data, 40 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 never attend religious services. About twenty-eight per cent would attend only several times or less per year. In contrast, thirty-two per cent of Gen Xers attend once a month or more frequently.
Once again, the contrast between Gen X and the Baby Boomers was striking (I’ve highlighted the most obvious differences):
- Baby Boomers (65+): 52% never attend religious services
- Gen Xers (18 to 24): 40% never attend religious services
- Baby Boomers (65+): 29% attend less than several times per year
- Gen Xers (18 to 24): 28% attend less than several times per year
- Baby Boomers (65+): 2% attend between one and three times per month
- Gen Xers (18 to 24): 15% attend between one and three times per month
- Baby Boomers (65+): 17% attend weekly or more
- Gen Xers (18 to 24): 17% attend weekly or more
So, it seems that young people are both less likely to never attend religious services and far more likely to attend almost regularly than their older counterparts.
Given their greater overall likelihood of attending churches, young people are also proportionally far more likely to be absent for one or two weeks a month.
Older people, on the other hand, seem to be more clearly split between faithful attendees (weekly or more) and nominal attendees (several times or less per year): there is little in between (monthly).
3. Young People Are Getting Involved in Church
A final interesting observation made by the NCLS related to the level of church involvement.
About 30 per cent of Gen Xers had tried to get involved in a church in the past five years. This is about 10 percentage points higher than the average across all age groups.
Interestingly, this also correlates closely with the overall percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds who attend church.
This suggests that young people are not just pew warming. They realise that to be involved in the life of the church is more than just receiving teaching and participating in praise and worship.
These findings encourage me. Church attendance is on the rise, and — contrary to the stereotype — people my age are leading the charge.
Moreover, young church attendees are very willing to participate in the life of the church, suggesting they are committed to more than just showing up.
My big concern is that people my age are not being appropriately equipped — spiritually or intellectually — to face an increasingly hostile, complex and temptation-ridden world.
Western churches tend (increasingly) to be sharply divided between hyper-experiential and hyper-doctrinal variants, but neither of these models is able to adequately prepare young people for the onslaught they will inevitably face outside the church — in their work, social lives and university experiences.
In my humble opinion, young people like myself need to be intensively trained in discipleship to Christ (Matthew 28:18-19), character formation (Romans 12:1-2) and apologetics (1 Peter 3:15).
We need to be critical thinkers who can process the litany of anti-Christian worldviews that face us in politics, the media and entertainment.
We need to be discerners who can wisely navigate this technology- and entertainment-saturated world without falling into sin, bondage and ineffectiveness (1 Corinthians 6:12).
As it becomes less “convenient” to affiliate with Christianity, nominal “name-only” Christians will continue to fall out of the picture.
But be encouraged! The true church in Australia is being revealed.
Photo by Rodolfo Quirós.