Rural Church Life

Which churches use email?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

There have been extraordinary technological advances in the ways that people communicate with each other. Are there some churches that are more likely to embrace these trends and use new electronic methods to communicate with attenders?

In the 2006 National Church Life Survey churches were asked about their email and internet use. Some 56 per cent of Australian churches that took part in the 2006 NCLS said that they use electronic mail (e-mail) or the internet to communicate with attenders. A sample of churches was used for a study of those churches which take advantage of this technology.

In the general community, younger people tend to adopt technology more quickly than older people. This is also true in churches: those with younger age profiles were more likely to use email. As the average age of congregation attenders increases, so there is an increase in the likelihood that congregations use email and the internet.

In general, those with higher levels of education are more likely to use technology. Again, this pattern was found within the churches. The education levels of attenders made a significant difference. The higher the proportion of attenders with bachelor’s degrees in a congregation, the more likely the congregation will use email and the internet.

Suburban churches were most likely to use technology, followed by urban areas and lastly, rural congregations. However, the actual age of the congregation (years since it was formed) and the age of the building had very little effect on email usage.

In conclusion, because e-mail usage is linked mostly to the age and education of attenders, any congregation can adapt to the new technological if its attenders wish to use it.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 1, Page 15

Possibilities of Leadership in Rural Catholic Parishes

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

With the declining number of priests available, many Catholic dioceses are investigating various ways of organising their parishes. The issue is similar to that faced by many denominations. Catholic parishes, however, have some issues not faced by some Protestant denominations in that priests have an irreplaceable role in celebrating the sacraments. Priests are central to parish life in the Catholic Church and there has not been a tradition of lay people as leaders of worship services. However, two case studies suggest that the patterns of leadership can change and may even strengthen parish life as they do so.

In February 2010, the Christian Research Association undertook a case study in the far west of Victoria. In 2006, Fr Andrew Hayes had been appointed to serve as the sole priest across what had once been four parishes: Coleraine, Casterton, Edenhope and Balmoral-Harrow-Tarryoukyan. The area for which Fr Andrew was responsible is more than 250 kms from one end to the other. It involved ten centres where Mass is said.

Fr Andrew’s method of dealing with the task had been to focus on the roles that he alone could fulfil. He had worked out a timetable of Masses throughout the ten centres so that, in the major Mass centres, there was one Sunday and one week-day Mass each week. In this, Fr Andrew had the assistance of one retired priest. The Masses were supplemented by ten lay-led assemblies with six of the Mass centres holding one or two such services each month.

One of these areas was administration. Fr Andrew made it clear to the various parish committees that he could not attend all of their meetings and they would need to make decisions without him. There was a long tradition that the priest’s approval was needed for any administrative decision, such as the repair of property or a special social evening for the church. Hence, some parish members were reluctant to take that responsibility.

Another area in which lay responsibility could be developed was in pastoral care. While the priest might be available for emergencies, his work needed to be supplemented by the pastoral care offered by others. Certainly much pastoral care occurs throughout rural areas through the natural bonds in small communities. However, between the emergency care provided by the priest and the natural care offered in rural communities, there was a need for something more structured, with people taking time of the lay people to lead them.

Not surprisingly, given the long tradition of emphasis on the centrality of the Mass in Catholic life, a number of people in the region had misgivings about lay-led Assemblies. Some would travel many kilometres every week in order to attend Mass, often far outside their local communities.

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

Reviewing Church Life

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Reviews of church life take place in many ways such as through an ‘Annual General Meeting’ within a local church, when the leaders for a region gather such as in a Synod, or when researchers do an analysis of church life. All such reviews make certain assumptions about what ‘church life’ should be about. The Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania has been thinking about these assumptions and suggesting some new ways to conduct reviews.

When the reports of the various activities are gathered together and a church meets for its Annual General Meeting, the assumptions are often around numbers. Did the numbers attending the children’s club or the Bible study increase or decrease? Often, most prominence is given to the financial numbers. Anxiety is often expressed about the levels of financial giving and whether a church is ‘in the black’. While financial viability cannot be ignored, the calling of a church is not fulfilled by being financially viable. Nor is the essence of being a church measured by the numbers of people who sit in the pews.

The Uniting Church, in conjunction with the Christian Research Association, has developed a survey which will be sent to all churches in the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. While some factual information is requested, such as details of services of worship and mission activities, certain evaluations are asked of the Church Council. Thus, the body with responsibility for leading the church is invited to reflect on the various ways in which the local church is being equipped for and is entering into God’s mission.

All forms of review can be helpful to a local church. Over coming months, many churches will be using the reports from the 2011 National Church Life Survey as these are released to reflect on their life. No doubt, many churches will be inspired by these reflections to develop various aspects of their life and mission.

Criag Van Gelder, an American church consultant, has suggested that the self understanding of the church has developed through three paradigms. These are: The Established Church, Corporate Church and Missional Church.

Van Gelder’s distinction draws attention to the fact that churches have and do see themselves in very different ways. In reviewing church life, attention must be paid to what is the calling of the church. There is always a tendency for people’s thinking to be shaped by the ways that other organisations operate around them. There is a tendency for churches to take on characteristics similar to other organisations in their cultural environment and to be shaped by them. However, the calling of the church is distinct and a review of church life must attend to that distinctiveness.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 13-15

Opening the Doors: Teenage Participation in Local Churches

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Over recent decades, the involvement of young Australians in worship services has been declining. However, analysis of surveys of students in Catholic schools has shown that many young people who do not attend services of worship are involved in churches in other ways. The most common form of involvement is through sporting clubs, but others are involved in small groups, social welfare and social justice activities, in music and drama. This pattern reflects the individualistic and consumer-oriented way in which young people decide upon their involvements. It is a reminder to the churches that if they want to engage young people today, they need to open many doors to them, not just the door to worship.

Changing Patterns of Involvement: For many years, the decline of the involvement of young people in religious practices has been tracked. Dr Marcellin Flynn conducted four studies in Catholic schools over a period of twenty-six years. Among Year 12 students (in their final year of secondary schooling) who identified themselves as Catholic, he noted a significant decline in the proportions attending Mass monthly or more often between 1972 and 1998.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Christian Research Association conducted surveys in a number of Catholic schools in three dioceses in Australia. In one particular diocese, a number of these schools was surveyed again in 2011 using a very similar instrument. In terms of Year 12 students, the pattern of decline in Mass attendence observed by Flynn appeared to be continuing. When we look at the sample as a whole, we find that 25 per cent of these students in Catholic schools attended Mass or other services of worship monthly or more often. However, 31 per cent of the students were involved at least once a month in at least one or other of these activities and did not attend Mass monthly or more often. Indeed, 13 per cent of the total sample said they were involved in one or more of these other church activities but never attended Mass.

The Demographics: Of those who were not attending Mass at the time of the survey but were attending these other activities, 26 per cent indicated that they used to attend Mass when they were in primary school. Thus, they have decreased their attendance since that time, but are continuing to be involved in other activities in the church. However, 42 per cent said they attended Mass less than monthly while in primary school and 32 per cent said they never attended Mass when in primary school.

Conclusions: In a consumer-oriented society, churches need to open many doors to young people. They cannot rely on all young people coming first to worship. Additional activities such as youth groups, sporting groups, discussion groups, music and drama and social justice and welfare activities will be attractive and will provide an opportunity for the expression of Christian values and the building of Christian community for young people who are not attracted by services of worship. Given the fact that many young people are finding their way into church-related activities apart from through worship suggests that there is great potential there to make and develop church connections. These other activities can contribute to the growth of faith, as well as to personal and social growth.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 3, Pages 1-4

Religion Around Australia: Changing Populations

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

In regards to religious identification, different geographical areas throughout Australia have always revealed different pictures, particularly when one compares the capital cities to non-urban areas. States and Territories differ. Inner city areas can be different from the suburbs. Urban areas are different from rural areas. Different geographical areas have their own histories and traditions, and different denominations are stronger in some areas than in others.

Each decade sees Australia increasingly urbanised. Between 2006 and 2011, the population of the capital cities grew by 9.2 per cent. While populations in some farming areas are declining, overall, the population outside the capital cities also grew, albeit at a slower rate: 6.7 per cent, partly due to the mining boom. Of those people living outside the capital cities, two-thirds (65.6%) identify with a Christian denomination. This compares with just 58.8 per cent of the population in the capital cities.

Between 2006 and 2011, 316,000 people immigrated to Victoria from overseas. By far the largest group were 62,300 Indians contributing to 97 per cent growth in the Hindu community and an even larger growth in the Sikh community. Nearly 44,000 arrived from China and Hong Kong, 24,500 from the United Kingdom, 21,000 from New Zealand, 14,000 from Sri Lanka, 12,300 from Malaysia, and 11,400 from the Philippines. 341,000 people immigrated to New South Wales from overseas in the five years from 2006 to 2011. The largest groups were Chinese (51,000), followed by Indians (43,000), United Kingdom (33,000), New Zealanders (20,000), Philippinos (14,000) and Koreans (12,000).

Tasmania had the slowest growth rate of all States: 3.8 per cent. It received few migrants from outside Australia compared with other States: just 10,400 between 2006 and 2011. There were similar numbers from China and from the UK (1,300 from each) and 800 from India. With a slow growing population, it is hard for the Christian community to grow. Indeed, it was the only State in which the numbers identifying with a Christian denomination actually fell (by 4 per cent).

Overall, the historical patterns of religious identity throughout the states and cities of Australia are slowly changing as new immigrants add to the picture. A big challenge for churches and denominations is how to minister in an ever-changing demographic and religious environment. The Census data provides an important tool for local churches as they seek to understand their community and ministry within their local context.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 3, Pages 6-8

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

Postmodern Forms of Religion in Asian Islam

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Over the past 50 years, Western forms of religiosity and spirituality have changed markedly. The individualism and consumerism of the post-traditional age have had great influence on the way that religion is expressed. As illustrated in the article on megachurches in this edition of
Pointers, Pentecostal and charismatic megachurch growth has arisen in an age of ‘free market’ religion in which individuals have sought for that expression of faith which best suits their needs, rather than being attached to a denomination that is part of their heritage and a church which serves the local area. This has encouraged many churches to become ‘seeker sensitive’ in the ways they present their services. While the focus of research on change has occurred in Western countries, and in relation to Christianity, there have been some similar movements in Asia. At the International Society for the Sociology of Religion conference held in Turku, Finland in June 2013, the University of Western Sydney researcher, Prof Julia Howell pointed to growing new expressions of Islam in Indonesia.

In the last ten years, two new expressions of Islam have grown in influence in Indonesia: mass prayer rallies and television presentations of Islam. Both of these are led by charismatic leaders, appealing to mass audiences, and while they are focussed on strengthening commitment to Islam they attempt to be somewhat ‘seeker-sensitive’ in their approach. In strengthening commitment, Prof Howell argues that both seek to create intense personal experiences of faith, often using music and prayer, in a way which is reminiscent of Pentecostal revival meetings. Prof Howell suggests that, while they increase awareness of and levels of commitment to the worldwide fellowship of Muslims, they ‘problematise’ religious belonging, forcing people to make choices about their levels of involvement.

However, in post-modernity, the experience of being close to God has become much more important than the law and the exact form of belief.
Such experiences are mediated by prayers and singing which have become very important in both these forms of Islamic revivalism as well as in the Pentecostal and charismatic forms of the Christian faith. The people who are best able to mediate such experiences are not scholars and religious experts.

While there are parallels, there are also differences which arise out of a very different context. The Islamic preacher can safely assume all his listeners are Muslims, and therefore the focus can be on enhancing commitment to Islam. In the West, the popular preacher must grapple with a pluralistic environment in which many have little commitment to any religious faith.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 4, Pages 15-16

Religious Concentrations in Australia

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

No religious group is spread evenly throughout Australia. For each religious group, there are areas in which they are more concentrated and other areas where they are less so. One might expect that such concentrations have to do with vitality of local religious communities. However, the patterns tell us much more about history of settlement and the ways people make decisions about faith.

The current patterns of settlement of religious groups have depended a lot on the employment opportunities available for the immigrants when they arrived. Early settlers mostly brought agricultural skills and settled in rural regions. Since World War II, most migrants have looked for work in manufacturing or in professional fields and have found housing that was suitably located and affordable.

While it is easier to live among people who are similar in beliefs and values to oneself, a major factor in people developing positive attitudes towards people who come from different backgrounds is personal interaction. Getting to know personally people of other faiths generally leads to higher levels of tolerance (Kehrberg 2007). Because Jews and Muslims live in highly concentrated areas, it makes it less likely that other Australians would meet them, and this could contribute to the development of negative attitudes towards them.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 4, Pages 1-6

Possibilities For Leadership In Rural Catholic Churches

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

With the declining number of priests available, many Catholic dioceses are investigating various ways of organising their parishes. The issue is similar to that faced by many denominations. Catholic parishes, however, have some issues not faced by most Protestant denominations in that priests have an irreplaceable role in celebrating the sacraments. Priests are central to parish life in the Catholic church and there has not been a tradition of lay people as leaders of worship. However, two case studies suggests that the patterns of leadership can change and may even strengthen parish life as they do so.

The first case study was undertaken in far western Victoria where one priest has been appointed to look after four parishes. The area for which the priest is responsible is 250 kms across and involves ten centres where Mass is said. The priest has focussed on those roles that he alone could fulfil and has encouraged lay people to take more responsibility for other roles. In taking greater responsibility for the life of the parish, some lay people reported an increased sense of their own ministry and of growing in faith.

In another case study in Victoria, the small parish was given the option of closing (and joining with a larger rural city congregation) or taking responsibility for the parish themselves. They decided to look after the parish themselves. Through a process of discernment, the parish appointed three people to be in charge of liturgy and sacraments, administration and stewardship, and community connections. A retired priest visits the parish every fortnight to say Mass. On other occasions, lay-led Assemblies of Communion and the Word take place. The result has been increased vitality in the parish. In particular, there is a high level of involvement of young people. People in leadership reported that they had grown in faith. Some of the success, however, is due to the fact that the lay people were mentored into these roles by a Sister of the Good Samaritans.

For further detail of these studies, read Pointers Vol.21, no.1. Click here to purchase and download.