Religion Internationally

Examination of Growth in the Church of England in Britain

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

The Church of England recently commissioned a major research program looking at church growth in its churches throughout Britain. The research asked where the church is growing, and why some churches grow while others decline. A series of reports was released and are available on the Internet at http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk. This article is based on the summary report and the page numbers refer to pages in that report.

The report begins by noting that there are several dimensions to growth including the following:

  • the holiness, transformation and commitment of members and churches (growth in depth of faith);
  • the number of disciples of Jesus Christ (growth in numbers);
  • the fruit of social righteousness and a transformed society (growth in the outworking of discipleship).

However, while growth in depth of faith and in the outworking of discipleship is mentioned, the major focus is on numerical growth.

The report emphasised that there was no single recipe for growth. Rather, there was a number of ingredients which were linked to growth such as: Context, leadership, a clear mission and purpose, self-reflection, willingness to change and adapt, active engagement of children and teenagers, and many more.

A number of churches had developed teams of people to plant new churches. In most cases, a larger church provided some financial and other resources with the expectation that the new church would become self-supporting within three to five years. The research identified several models of church planting. However, it noted that such planting activities commonly involved entrepreneurial and innovative approaches. It was important that they were relational and incarnational, welcoming, and involved families. Most plants focussed on local people, volunteering, attempting to be a healing presence, and used small groups in the growth.

Overall weekly attendance in 42 cathedrals across Britain grew by 35 per cent between 2002 and 2012. In particular, there was a doubling of the numbers of week-day attenders. It was suggested by the cathedral deans that growth was associated with the quality of worship, music, preaching, the hospitable and friendly atmosphere, exploring new patterns of service, spiritual openness and emphasis on families and young people (pp.21-22). It is notable that in a study of the attenders of four cathedrals, just half of the worshippers were regular in their involvement. It would appear that increasing numbers of people were dropping in occasionally.

There are also many factors that contribute to the decline of churches, such as: Failure to retain younger generations, amalgamation of congregations, burdensome buildings, stagnation, inappropriate leadership and unwillingness in congregations to change.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 2, Pages 9-11

Global Religious Trends

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The religious trends occurring in Australia are not typical of the rest of the world. The Atlas of Global Christianity, a new book from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, plots the global trends.

Close to one-third of the world’s population identify themselves as Christian. This proportion has changed little in the last century. However, where they are to be found has changed considerably. In 1910, most of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. Today, most Christians live in South America and Africa. The balance changed sometime in the 1980s. There are also large numbers of Christians living in Asia, particularly China and India. They are not a high proportion of the population there, but because of the very large number of people living in those two countries, the small proportion of Christians amounts to far higher numbers of Christians than found in many Western countries, including Australia.

It is interesting to note that atheism and agnosticism have grown very substantially over the last century from about 4 million to about 778 million. However, they reached their peak in the 1970s and began to decline. Part of the decline had to do with the collapse of Communism. The actual numbers of atheists and agnostics are continuing to decline at the present time with rates of growth below 0%. In this regard, the trend in Australia is very different from the world-wide trend.

Not only has the location of Christians changed, but so has the balance of theological orientation. The greatest movement has been the rise of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians. While many people would see the Pentecostal movement beginning in 1906, there were certainly precursors to it and the Centre for Global Christianity numbers Pentecostals/charismatics in 1900 at just under 1 million. The number of Pentecostals/charismatics has grown to around
600 million, now representing more than one quarter of all Christians.

Roman Catholics remain the largest group, making up just over half of all Christians. The second largest group are the Pentecostals, followed by the Independents, Protestants, Orthodox and Evangelicals.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 4, Pages 1-2

Religion and Youth: World Perspectives

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

The riots in London have raised the issue again as to what is happening in Western culture. Many people have been asking what has gone wrong. There will be no simple answer. The structures of contemporary society need to be re-examined. One may also ask if such events demonstrate a rootlessness, a lack of purpose and altruism which religious faith would normally be addressing. In 2010, two major books were released on the study of religion and youth. Both books spell out clearly the decline of religion among young people and the decline of religious influence on behaviour. One was a collection of essays edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, and simply titled, Religion and Youth. The second book, edited by the Italian sociologist, Giuseppe Giordan, was the first in a series of annual reviews of the sociology of religion and was entitled Youth and Religion.

The picture in northern and western Europe is very largely of a loss of interest in institutional forms of religion. In France, there is a widespread lack of interest in institutionalised religion, except among religious minority groups such as the Muslims. Nevertheless, there are many who still maintain some sort of belief. For example 36 per cent of young people agree that ‘there is a God’, and another 29 per cent affirm ‘there is some sort of spirit or life force’. While 35 per cent of French young people reject both God and a higher power (Giordan, p.181), most French young people are not strongly antagonistic to religion and many still come back to religion for some personal rites of passage.

The reasons for the decline are explored in greater depth in the book Religion and Youth. Richard Flory and Donald Miller begin the book by noting that those who were born after 1975 have grown up at the forefront of the digital revolution. They suggest that this revolution has placed multiple options in front of young people. They note that religion has become a choice in which denominational labels are relatively unimportant. Religious authority is internal rather than external, as in the hierarchy of a church. They value religious experiences more than religious beliefs and have the sense of being on a journey rather than in a static community (Collins-Mayo et al., p.10). They distrust institutions of many kinds, including both political and religious, and distrust their leaders (Collins-Mayo et al., p.11), although they do participate in some institutions, usually focussing on the relationships they find within. They live with residual fear, of economic collapse, environmental disaster or terrorist attack (Collins-Mayo et al., p.12).

While there has been general decline in religious involvement, there remain many small groups within European and other societies with high levels of belief and practice. A group of scholars from the Netherlands argue that, in their country, ‘the Christian churches have lost even more of their former appeal and legitimacy than almost anywhere else in the Western world’ (Giordan, p.289).

One of the themes in both books is immigrant young people. The common theme is that, in various ways, immigrant young people must negotiate between the heritage of their families and the social context in which they now find themselves. Such negotiations are not always easy and the outcomes vary from one situation to another.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 3, Pages 1-8

Faith at the Olympics

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

“Doctors and scientists said breaking the four minute mile was impossible, that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.” Roger Bannister’s witty comment on his own achievement captures much of the significance, wider context and even celebrity orientation of sport in the modern world.

In July, August and September 2012, the attention of a vast viewing audience will be focussed on individual athletes at the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. The Olympic Games have provided an opportunity for witness to the Christian Faith, from the individual witness of people such as Eric Liddell, brilliantly encapsulated in the 1980 film Chariots of Fire, through to informal chaplaincies, and now an official chaplaincy (which also encompasses other faiths).

An interesting development in the last few years has been the deliberate focus on social justice issues, and highlighting the need to be socially responsible at the Games. This has arisen from increasing concern with a variety of social issues that are prevelant today especially in Europe, such as human trafficking and prostitution, the environment, fair trade, and peace. Additional to those are issues such as increased homelessness and equity, which are often created due to the demand for accommodation and resources for the Games themselves.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales is involved with More Than Gold, and has also established its own office – Catholic 2012 – to consider how best to engage with the world of sport in the run up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Catholic 2012 sees that sport and spirituality go hand in hand and that ‘God is very much interested in what we do with our bodies’. The purpose of the office is to engage alongside the sporting world at every level, from those involved with the professional world of sport, to those who are passionate amateurs, and equally and as importantly to those who feel that their sporting days are long over, or in fact never began.

Thus, in several ways there will be a significant Christian involvement during the London Games. While there will be a focus on the achievements of the athletes and the spectacles of the ceremonies, churches and para-church groups will be taking the opportunity to encourage people to consider that there is more to life than gold.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 15-16

Notes from an American Study of Youth Ministry

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Over the last decade or more, a project entitled ‘Exemplary Youth Ministry’ has been in progress in the United States. Results from the study were published in 2010 in The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry: Leading Congregations toward Exemplary Youth Ministry. While there are many differences between the American and Australian contexts, not least in the numbers of churches that can afford paid youth leaders, there are some findings that are important for youth ministry in Australia.

The study that took place in the United States was large and comprehensive, being funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment. It involved churches from seven denominations: Assemblies of God, Evangelical Covenant, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church (USA), Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and United Methodist Church.

The first major issue in the research was to determine what would count as characteristics of ‘vital Christian faith’ among young people. Seven dimensions of a vital Christian faith were identified as part of this picture: Seeking spiritual growth, possessing a vital faith, practising faith in community, making the Christian faith a way of life, living a life of service, exercising moral responsibility and possessing a positive spirit.

The study found that in churches with a strong youth ministry, this ministry was integrated into the life of the church as a whole. They found that these churches had an effective Christian education programs in which there was clear teaching about how to be a Christian. These churches also taught people about Christian perspectives on moral issues and helped people to apply their faith to decisions about what’s right and wrong. At the same time, they involved people in helping others through community service, making use of each member’s talents and abilities within the congregation and in the wider community. These churches also had an emphasis on mission.

While the overall life of the church and intergenerational activities are critical for the development of youth ministry, age-specific activities also play a significant role. Young people in those churches with a strong youth ministry were very positive about the youth ministry itself. The specific content of the youth ministry programs was not of critical importance, but the ethos developed within the youth activities was. In Australia, the influence of parents on their children’s religious faith has also been found to be very strong. It was found in surveys of 3000 students in Catholic schools that, when both parents were attending church monthly or more often, 90 per cent of the children also attended monthly or more often, and only 2 per cent said they never attended. When neither parent ever attended church 90 per cent of their children did not attend frequently and 10 per cent of their children attended monthly or more often. The practice of the parents was, by far, the strongest influence on the practice of the children.

The quality of the leadership in the local church is also important for the overall quality of the youth ministry. While giving young people responsibility can be positive for their faith, these young people needed to be mentored in their roles.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 9-13

Commonalities and Differences: The Midi-Narrative of Students in Australia and India

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

In 2006, a British team studying young people born in 1982 or after (Savage, Collins-Mayo et al. 2006, p.7) adopted the term ‘midi-narrative’. They distinguished ‘midi-narrative’ from ‘meta-narrative’. A meta-narrative, they said, was a story on a grand scale about how the world works. In contrast, they said: “the world view of our young people operates on a more modest scale of the here and now, rather than something beyond. Yet it is not an individualistic, mini-narrative. It is communal on a small scale (me, my friends, and my family): a midi-narrative” (Savage, Collins-Mayo et al. 2006, p.38).

Similarly, in Australia, there is little agreement or clarity on how the world works. The ‘meta-narrative’ of former times has faded. However, there are clearer ideas and more commonality in young people’s discussion about what their own lives and lives of those around them are about. There is a widely accepted ‘midi-narrative’ that most young Australians recognise and own for themselves (Hughes 2007, p.170).

While there are many similarities and some differences between young people in Britain and Australia, one might anticipate that, in other cultures, the ‘midi-narrative’ plays out differently and religious faith operates differently. Research amongst young people in Thailand found that most Thai young people, whether they were Buddhists, Christians or Muslims, thought that religion was important and provided moral principles to help them be good people (Hughes, Suwanbubbha et al. 2008, p.364). These studies indicate that there are strong midinarratives among young people in many cultural contexts.

In my visit to India in October 2012, I had the opportunity to talk with four groups of young people. In exploring the midi-narrative of these young people, my discussions with these students began by asking them to describe what was the ‘good life’: what young people want in life and what makes life worth living. All groups of students affirmed that the heart of a good life was relationships with friends and family. Students also spoke about the qualities of these relationships. A good life was found where there was love and acceptance of each other, where people supported each other. Some students spoke about the importance of communication and trust, respect and understanding.

Most of the girls at the Indian college were Hindus. One was a Christian and another was a Moslem. None of them felt that religion or spirituality made any difference to their understanding of a good life or the sort of society in which they wanted to live. They saw religion as being about tradition, family and culture. In practice, it meant participation in festivals. At that level, they were happy to be involved.

The patterns of primary responses among these students in India were similar to those of students in other parts of the globe. At the heart of a good life are relationships with friends and family and feeling good about life. Religion may be fading in contemporary societies in many parts of the world, but that is occurring in different ways. For some young people it is an individual matter and may be personally rejected or embraced. For other young people, it is part of the heritage which has little impact on the ‘midinarrative’ of contemporary life, but which remains a significant component of identity.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 13-16

‘Almost Christian’: Reflections on Youth Ministry from the USA

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

One of the major pieces of recent research on youth and religious faith in the USA was the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted by a team led by Christian Smith. The findings of the study in 2005 were published in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. One of the team members, Kenda Dean, Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, was given the task of applying the findings to the work of churches and youth groups. Her book was published in 2010: Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.

Dean begins with the major findings of Soul Searching. Three out of four American young people consider themselves to be Christian (Dean 2010, loc.207*) and think that religion ‘is a very nice thing’ (loc.144). She describes them as ‘worshipping at the church of benign whatever-ism’ and describes their religiosity as ‘luke-warm’. Teenagers are not in rebellion against religion, she says, rather they are simply not engaged with it. The predominant attitude is ‘whatever-ism’ (loc.523). Dean argues that this insipid faith has developed among teenagers because this is the faith that their parents and churches display. At the heart of the problem, she says, is that ‘churches have lost track of Christianity’s missional imagination’ (loc. 690).

Dean says parents have the most influence on the faith of their children. One must begin by encouraging parents to take their faith seriously (loc. 1932). The problem is, Dean says, that many parents lack confidence in articulating their faith. Dean takes up the finding in the National Study of Youth and Religion that young people are mostly inarticulate about the Christian faith. She suggests that to develop a vibrant faith, young people need to learn the language of faith.

Dean notes that one in three American teenagers takes part in a crosscultural service project before finishing high school (loc. 2743). Dean suggests that if such occasions are approached as learning opportunities rather than times to ‘fix’ the problems of other people in a patronising way, they can assist in providing an opportunity for a new self-awareness (which Dean describes as ‘detachment’). They can provide an opportunity to disentangle the self from everything that would distract us from Jesus Christ (loc. 2775).

Where young people believe in God, they often think of God being there to watch over them, rather than they being there for God. The dominant desire in life is for fun and friends, and living for the well-being of others is not prominent in their thinking. It is also true, as Dean states, that parents have by far the greatest influence on the formation of faith.

The book also raises some important questions about factors in the spiritual growth of young people. Within the context of church and youth activities, it will be important to examine what sorts of relationships are being formed between mature Christian adults and young adults and how these relationships impact on the lives of young people.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 9-12

A New Day for Religion in Canada and Australia?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Reginald Bibby, who has long been the authority on religious trends in Canada, has suggested that there is ‘a new day for religion in Canada’. For too long, he says, there has been a focus on the declining religious organisations and the assumption that their plight was the plight of religion as a whole. However, with accelerated immigration, the global vitality of religion is having a dramatic impact on the state of religion in Canada. At the same time, the country as a whole is not embracing religion, leading to what he describes as ‘polarisation’. There are many parallels between Canada and Australia.

Bibby says that, in Canada, weekly church attendance dropped from 60 per cent to 31 per cent of the population between 1945 and 1975. However, since 1975, it has only dropped a little, from 31 per cent to 25 per cent. The mainline Protestants have been hardest hit, he notes: the United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches along with the Roman Catholics in Quebec. The Boomer generation, born between 1945 and 1965, turned away from the church in large numbers, although about 20 per cent remained involved. Their children and grandchildren have continued to drift away from the churches.

Australia, like Canada, is a major destination for people wanting to migrate. The major source countries for immigration to Canada are China, India and the Philippines, which are also among Australia’s top sources of immigrants. However, Australia also adds to the list the United Kingdom and New Zealand. As in Canada, two-thirds (65%) of the growth in the Australian population between 2001 and 2011 came through immigration. Of those immigrants, 43 per cent were Christian, 29 per cent identified with another religion, and 24 per cent had no religion (Hughes 2012, p.3). Hence, the impact of immigration on the increase in population in Australia has been very similar to its impact in Canada, but its impact on Christian groups a little less.

Religion will not disappear in Canada, says Bibby. However, the question is which religious groups will be prominent in the future. While immigration will have a considerable impact, so also will the performance of religious groups, and their inclination and ability to respond to what people want and need.

As in Canada, many Australians are in the ‘ambivalent middle’, not sure about faith and the churches. These people may respond to well-conducted forms of ministry. People are certainly looking for what will address their spiritual, personal and relational needs and interests. However, it is more likely that Australians in the ‘ambivalent middle’ would be open to short-term involvements in church-run activities for exploring faith or nurturing the spirit. Such short-term activities may become the pathway to longer-term involvement, but commitment to a congregation is unlikely to be the door to faith.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 5-6

Researching the Church at the Local Level: Reflections from the Lausanne Researchers Conference

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

While several papers at the 6th International Lausanne Researchers Conference focused on overall issues in Worldwide Christian mission, a number of researchers presented papers outlining issues in research at the local church level. Each of the papers presented a local context for church ministry: the vitality of local evangelical churches in Rio de Janeiro, alternative models of church development and planning in Germany, and the inclusiveness of churches to disabled people in Brazil.

Jair Ribeiro, from the Paraclete Institute in Rio de Janeiro, is researching the vitality of local churches using survey questionnaires founded on a theology of the church. Ribeiro presented a model for evaluating local churches in the city using a questionnaire comprising 25 questions divided into five dimensions: fellowship, proclamation, service, worship and witness. These five dimensions for evaluation have been developed by a number of scholars, and are an expansion of a similar model using four dimensions of church ministry: testimony (martyria), service (diakonia), communion (koinonia) and teaching (kerygma). Importantly, the foundation for the models starts with Jesus Christ as the basis for the mission, and sees the church (the people) going out into the world.

Rainer Schacke has been investigating tools for church development and missiological research in churches in Germany. Using a tool called Sinus milieus, the research approach aimed to describe the attitudes and behaviour of the population against the background of changing values (Sinus Sociovision, 2005a, Information on Sinus-Milieus 2005. Heidelberg: Sinus Sociovision). Sinus milieus is a commercial tool developed in Germany primarily as an aid to targeted marketing.Schacke’s presentation focused mainly on looking at the model applied in the study and asking whether it is an appropriate instrument for contextualisation in local churches. Schacke argued that the Sinus milieus model could be integrated into church development strategies, and that it could easily be implemented into international and intercultural mission research, due to its transferable framework across cultures.

With a particular interest and concern for the deaf, Souza (who has spent 10 years working with the Brazilian Deaf Community) suggested there is as much inaccessibility to the Gospel with many of Brazil’s disabled, as there is with the many ‘unreached’ tribal groups throughout the country. Using a case study of Brazil’s deaf, Souza examined a number of issues, including accessibility policies in churches in Brazil, and the Brazilian Sign Language Bible translation project. He believes there is a necessity for greater understanding of disabled people groups, and for cross-cultural forms of expression that address the statement that ‘it is reprehensible to continue allowing the disabled to be “invisible” to mobilization and evangelism efforts.’

The research presented by these three speakers grappled with local church issues – how to make local churches become vital and inclusive communities within their own settings. The issues are equally relevant to Australian churches. Understanding the vitality of churches is not just a matter of understanding the internal dynamics of church administration, organisation and leadership, but has to do with its alignment with the overall mission of the church, how the church relates to its context and its inclusiveness of people who live within and around it.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 2, Pages 6-7

Global Trends in the Changing Context of Mission: Reflections on the 6th Lausanne Researchers Conference, Sao Paulo

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Early in April 2011 about 40 church and mission researchers met in the 6th Lausanne Researchers Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Among those who joined us were ten Brazilian church leaders and researchers. As with previous conferences, it was a good opportunity to share our own research and to find out what others were doing in various parts of the globe.

As the ‘Global South’ becomes the centre of the Christian faith, the economic power supported by huge populations in China, India and Brazil, increasingly drives the global economy. The political situation is in flux in many parts of the world, most vividly in North Africa and the Middle East. There are also changes in the basic assumptions people are making about life, community, and faith, particularly in the Western world. In many ways, the mission patterns of the past have become irrelevant.

Most of the world’s large cities are now highly multicultural. This was evident in Sao Paulo itself where approximately 6 million people are of Italian descent, 3 million of Portuguese descent, 1.7 million of African descent and 1 million of Arabic background. Sao Paulo is also said to be the largest Japanese city outside of Japan with 665,000 people of Japanese descent.

Benita Hewitt (2011) of Christian Research (UK) spoke of the diversity among Evangelical Christians in the United Kingdom, a group often treated by the media as highly homogeneous. The study involved surveys of 17,000 people who attended Christian festivals throughout the United Kingdom. The survey confirmed some expectations: that evangelicals prayed more frequently, had stronger views on right and wrong, and placed more emphasis on evangelism and on the authority of the Bible than non-evangelicals. However, the survey also found that there were many areas in which there was not a strong consensus, such as on the issues of abortion, assisted suicide and homosexuality. It also found that there were widely differing views among evangelicals of women in leadership and the compatibility of evolution and the Christian faith. There was a lot of uncertainty about hell. The study noted that the African evangelicals who have become a significant sector of evangelicalism in the UK were significantly different in some respects from other evangelicals.

In some countries, the decline in religion is partially offset by an increase in spirituality. Many young people see themselves as spiritual, rather than religious. In 19 out of the 40 countries surveyed in the ISSP, more young people than older people saw themselves as spiritual. In the other 21 countries, more older people than younger people saw themselves as spiritual (fig.2 ) It seems likely that ‘spirituality’ means different things in different countries.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 2, Pages 1-5