The Church and Family Life in Australia

The following paper was delivered by Stephen Reid at the 6th International Lausanne Researchers Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in April 2011. Whilst the paper looked at family life in the Australian context, comparisons to other countries was possible through analysis of data from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and the World Values Surveys (WVS).

Australia has seen significant changes in family life over the last few decades. The composition of family households is changing steadily, as are many of the issues facing families. In Australia in 2006, family households made up 71.7 per cent of the 7.1 million households, down from 73 per cent ten years earlier. As the following table shows, the proportion of households comprising of couples with children continued to decline from 36.6 per cent in 1996, to 34.3 per cent in 2001, and then down to 32.8 per cent in 2006. By contrast, lone person households rose from 22.8 per cent to 24.4 per cent during that same period.

In Australia, while church attenders generally have more conservative attitudes on certain issues than those who don’t attend, church attenders vary considerably in their attitudes. There can also be huge differences in the attitudes of people within denominations, particularly the larger denominations, such as Catholic or Anglican. In society, the ideals of family life, marriage and relationships, and the reality of life can be quite different. There are some indicators showing that the basic structures of community life in Australia are not always functioning well.

Another indicator that the basic units of social life are often not experienced as satisfactory is the issue of loneliness. For many people, living alone is a lifestyle choice. But for many others living by themselves means loneliness. Many people who live alone would prefer to spend less time alone. In a 2006 time use survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 37 per cent of 25-44 year olds living alone said they would prefer less time by themselves. For those aged 65 or older living alone, one-quarter said they would prefer less time alone.

Certainly the church has made a significant contribution to family life in a number of ways, including:

  • family-friendly focus of events and worship,
  • children-oriented ministries,
  • marriage seen as a sacrament, binding for life,
  • lower rates of divorce among attenders,
  • provision of rites of passages

While churches may have contributed to lower rates of divorce, there has been a cost. People who are separated or divorced often feel their situation is not acceptable to a church and it is common for people to cease attending church at the time of separation.

In the past parents have looked towards the church in assisting them to instil values and beliefs in their children. Perhaps more than ever the church has an important role in promoting values. The competing demands placed upon families today are very different from what they were just a few decades ago. Social networking, global mass media, work/family balance, and technology have all contributed to the changing face of what is family. Change will continue. Families come in all shapes and sizes – even within the church.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 2, Pages 9-11

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