They used to go to church …

23 Apr

I'm reading Tom Frame's well researched book on 'unbelief' in Australia called Losing my religion (UNSW Press, 2009). The title is a bit misleading, because it's not at all about Frame losing his religion. The first section is a detailed presentation of data about religious affiliation in Australia since 1788. It concludes with some really confronting material about why people stopped going to church or don't go to church.

The National Church Life Surveys and the National Social Science Surveys have, since the 1990s, given us interesting data about church attendance and shifts in church affiliations. One interesting aspect Frame reports is that a high proportion of Australians who say they have 'No Religion' (18.7% in the 2006 census) are people who had some formal religious affiliation or formation earlier in their lives. This presumably means attending a Sunday School or some other kind of 'Christian Education' as it was widely called in earlier decades.

Intriguingly, the largest proportion of these are people whose early experience was in the Uniting Church and the smallest proportion are those who attended Baptist groups.

It is very difficult to infer anything from this data, of itself. But what is helpful is a study done by John Bellamy and his research team, on 'Why people don't go to church'. We might add the word 'any more'—at least for the most frequently stated reasons. But I will return to that.

Frame introduces this segment with his own interpretation: Bellamy's study 'explained that four of the five leading reasons reported for non-attendance were not directly related to what happened within a church building on Sunday.' This seems to me a curious introduction to the data:

    'The leading reason was that  worship services were considered boring or unfulfilling (42 per cent).

    The next four reasons were: the respondent did not have Christian beliefs (35 per cent); the respondent did not share the Church's moral views (35 per cent); the respondent felt there was no need to attend Church (34 per cent); the respondent preferred doing other things (31 per cent).'

(Frame, Losing my religion, page 102.)

I no longer have the data with me, but I recall that when it came out one of the interesting things this study revealed was that many of these respondents had a significantly out-dated view of what 'church services' were like. The changes in all kinds of services, from Catholic Mass to Evangelical services, in the last decades, have been quite significant. The use of different music, data presentation and communal participation has been widespread, and overall a very positive shift.

What do we have to learn from this? Many things, I guess. One of them is that we need to consider what things people might prefer to be doing on a Sunday. I remember reading a study by Francis William Newman, brother of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who argued in 1851 that many people in industrial Manchester of that time would be better off going for a walk in the hills, rather than sitting in a smoke-filled auditorium on their one day of rest. Newman had abandoned the faith of his youth and was critical of organized religion. But his comment from long ago raises the question which is very real for many today who struggle with what we now call 'work – life balance': Is 'church' in competition with keeping fit, healthy and having time with family or friends? It is staggering how many people are out exercising, and enjoying creative and re-creative activities at the time of church services.

This is, of course, a false dichotomy: it's not that church is 'against' fitness, re-creation. It's a question of timing. It's also about what Bellamy's study called people's preference.

Still, there is that fact, which Frame seems to slide away from too easily, that what happens inside church buildings is nominated as the most frequent reason for non-attendance. If we add to that the view that 'there is no need to attend', which seems to imply that people of some religious opinion have concluded that 'church' as such has little to contribute to their lives, we do have some serious challenges here.

I am interested in these questions, and have been for a long time. It is significant that a large majority of Australians still call themselves believers, indeed Christian believers, and a similar proportion report activities such as praying  regularly, but such a small proportion of those attend church. I think we have a lot to learn from this, and I believe we need humbly to reflect on what it means for us.

And we need to work on some answers! We have known about these dynamics for a decade or two now. In fact, much longer, as Frame's study shows. There is a major missional and theological task here.

One thought on “They used to go to church …

  1. I am reading Frame at the moment also. It seems to me that the question is no longer “how do we get people back into church?” but one around engagement with the deep questions of meaning and purpose which are part of the common human struggle, and into which the gospel breaks with light and hope.
    I sense that we have lost track of the conversation, still continuing to speak an archaic language filled with symbols and metaphors which people inside the church understand, but which no longer resonate with those outside of the church, people who have no context for interpreting and embracing them.
    At the same time, Sunday morning is the one “down time” moment during most people’s weeks, and often the only discrete family time. What does it say when they come to church and we send the family members off in different directions?
    Good questions Frank

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