Australian Culture and Society

World Youth Day: What Differences Does It Make?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

World Youth Day has become the largest regular gathering of young people in the world. Conducted every two to three years, World Youth Day regularly attracts more than one million participants, including thousands of young Australians.

Young Australians have participated in each of the international World Youth Days. During the early history of World Youth Day this involved fewer than thirty pilgrims, mostly drawn from Antioch youth groups or similar groups and movements. As awareness of the event grew amongst Australian Catholics, so did their level of participation. With the public encouragement and support of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference there has been a significant increase in the number of Australian pilgrims attending World Youth Day, especially from the year 2000 onwards.

Seemingly innate to human nature is the desire for connectedness and solidarity with others. This experience of bonding is deeply satisfying, fulfilling an innermost human need. Catholic anthropologist Victor Turner (1972) identified that this experience of communitas, as he termed it, can emerge at large gatherings, especially those which are religious in nature or are underpinned by ritual.

There is a dearth of evidence indicating that communitas is experienced in a diverse range of events which attract young people, and are at times symbolic of the youth culture. These include rock concerts, rave parties, festivals and the pilgrimage phenomena. Participants describe the experience of ‘ecstasy’, ‘acceptance’, ‘unity’, ‘love’ and ‘a special buzz’. Turner used the term ‘flow’ to identify the special moment when participants entered a unique and absorbing sense of consciousness. The new-found level of consciousness is not only deeply rewarding and fulfilling on a personal level but is a moment of connectedness, unifying one with others, leading to a ‘melding of selves’ (Tramacchi, 2001, p.174). Research would strongly suggest that World Youth Day is a fertile environment for the emergence of communitas.

The impact of World Youth Day cannot be underestimated. It is described by many as life-changing, and credited with strengthening and revitalizing peoples’ faith journey and witness. The great challenge as noted by Rymarz (2007) is the longevity of the impact of the ‘transformative encounter’, especially after the initial enthusiasm and euphoria of the week-long event has dissipated.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 4, Pages 9-12

Australian Megachurches

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

If one defines a megachurch as one with more than 2,000 attenders on a typical Sunday, then Australia had about 21 such churches in 2012. While they constitute a very small proportion of the more than 15,000 churches in Australia, they account for about 5 per cent of all people attending a church on a typical Sunday. Sam Hey, a lecturer at the Christian Heritage College, has completed an excellent doctoral thesis on the megachurches, which has now been published as a book. It is highly recommended for those interested in the development of church life in Australia.

The megachurch movement began in the 1980’s. It occurred at a similar time to the development of regional shopping centres. With increased accessibility to cars for transport – in other words, having more than one car in the family – different family members could travel independently of each other to church. Most of the mainstream denominations had established their churches across the suburbs at walking distance from each other. However, in the 1970’s and 1980’s new Pentecostal churches were planted which served much larger areas.

While the megachurches are products of social change, they were not passive in relation to their contexts. Each of these megachurches was led by strong, charismatic leaders who ‘pursued innovative responses to the religious needs of their times’ (p.15). Hey notes that, in Australia as in North America, most of the megachurches reached ‘megachurch size’ under a single leader known for their charismatic leadership (p.94). In a number of cases, senior leadership of the megachurch has been passed from father to son. Hey argues that these leaders exhibited great confidence in their leadership and visionary thinking, while maintaining a sense of humility by pointing people to God as the source of their confidence (p.95).

It is highly unlikely that megachurches will take over the religious life of Australia and Hey suggests there will be a further plateauing of their growth (p.279). Some people will look to them for their experiential emphasis on faith, for the professionalism of their activities and the variety of programs they offer. While the ‘consumer’ orientation was a major factor in their growth, maturation leads to responding to
its negative aspects such as the over emphasis on individualism, unquestioning certainty and superficiality (p.281). The development of engagement with society through education and social welfare, Hey believes, will contribute to their long-term growth and survival (p.281).

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 4, Pages 7-9

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

Should The Federal Government Cut Social Spending Or Pay Higher Taxes ?

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

As the budget-time looms, the Federal government is faced with the dilemma: to cut social spending or to charge higher taxes. It has been a constant challenge for governments as they have attempted to balance their books. However, the challenge is increasing as we try to give greater assistance to some of the most poorest people in the community such as those with disabilities, and as the proportion of retired people in Australian society increases.

The adult Australian population was asked whether they thought the government should reduce income tax or increase social spending in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes in 2009. In the wider population:

  • 49% were in favour of increasing social spending,
  • 27% said it depends, or were unsure, or could not choose, and
  • 24% were in favour of reducing taxes.

It has been the clear policy of the Liberal party to reduce taxes and reduce social spending. This has been evident in many decisions the Federal government has made over the last six months, and, no doubt, will be evident in the nature of the budget they bring down in May.

But it seems that many of their supporters will be disappointed: not least the church attenders. According to this survey, 44 per cent of all church attenders think of themselves as Liberal of National Party voters, compared with just 27 per cent Labor and 1 per cent Greens. (Family First received 6 per cent of the vote of church attenders.)

However, church attenders are keen to see an increase in social spending rather than cutting of taxes (51 per cent to 21 per cent with 28 per cent unsure). They are more keen than people who do not attend church to see an increase in social spending. Even among those church attenders who see themselves as Liberal party supporters 52 per cent agree with increased social spending and just 22 per cent want to see taxes cut.

Why have these church attenders been supporters of the Liberal party if they do not agree with their fundamental orientation to financial management? It seems likely that it is related to the fact that they see the Liberals are seen as more socially conservative and ‘pro-family’ than Labor or the Greens. While they may be happy with the anti-gay marriage stance of the Liberal government and some of its other policies regarding family life, they are likely to be unhappy with its long-term directions in financial management.

More details of this issue and many others are to be found in the Christian Research Association’s book, Life, Ethics and Faith in Australian Society: Facts and Figures. This book can be pre-ordered. The e-book is available from Wednesday 16th April 2014 and the hardcopy on 1st May 2014.

Philip Hughes

Youth Ministry

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

A recent book from the USA, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, is built on the observation most American young people who are engaged in religion are ‘luke-warm’ about it. They see God as wanting people to be good, nice and fair to each other, but God is not involved in their lives, except to help them serve problems. The author, Kenda Dean, argues that young people are reflecting the attitudes in their families and in their churches. She suggests that young people are not articulate and passionate about the Christian faith because they have not heard a high level of articulation or experienced a high level of passion in their homes or in their churches.

However, Dean does not take into account the research which indicates that young people do not simply copy what they hear and see. They develop it in their own way, to meet their needs and to fit into the picture they have of what life is all about – a picture which is described in the ‘midi-narrative’ of young people. Dean’s suggestions for youth ministry should be taken seriously. Certainly, the faith of parents and church can have a significant impact. It is important to ask if young people have opportunities to express faith, not just verbally but through engagement in projects and mission? Are there opportunities for learning and deepening their sense of what the Christian life is about? Are they engaged to contemplate the deep questions of life? One of the key questions for youth ministry is the extent to which we help young people to find answers … and the extent we focus on those processes which encourage the asking of questions.

For a full review of Kenda Dean’s book, Almost Christian, see:

Australia And Canada Compared

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Both Canada and Australia are major destinations for people wanting to migrate. The top three countries from which migrants are entering Canada are China, India and the Philippines. These are also major sources of immigrants to Australia – although Australia adds the United Kingdom and New Zealand to that list. As in Australia, the migrants to Canada are having a large impact on the Christian churches there.

As in Australia, Canadian churches are also finding it difficult to connect with younger people. The Canadian research, Reginald Bibby, notes that therehave been significant changes in attitudes to religion over recent years. He argues that the response to this must be ‘better ministry’: addressing spiritual, personal and relational interests and needs.  He believes that ‘better ministry’ may well be able to touch the many people who are in ‘the ambivalent middle’: who identify with a Christian denomination but who are not active.

For more details on the comparisons and Bibby’s summary of the implications, see Pointers Vol.23, no.1 (March 2013). Click here to purchase the version for downloading:

Missing Christians

Monday, March 4th, 2013
According to the Censuses, the number of Australians identifying with a Christian denomination increased from 12.76 million to 13.15 million between 2001 and 2011. Over that period, 766,758 migrants had arrived in Australia who identified with a Christian denomination in that same decade. With these migrants, there should be at least 13.5 million Christians in Australia instead of 13.15 million.
Indeed, we can go further that that. The Census also tells us that 1,390,104 children were born over the decade from 2001 and 2011 who were identified with a Christian denomination in the 2011 Census. Adding the children born and the migrants to the 2001 Christian population gives us almost 15 million people – 1.8 million more than the 13.15 million the Census counted in 2011.
We estimate that, of the 1.8 million people ‘missing’, it is likely that close to 1 million have died. We also estimate that at least 200,000 were overseas at the time of the Census – either having emigrated out of Australia, or on holiday. However, there remain between 500,000 and 600,000 people missing. Further analysis shows that most of these people were aged between 10 and 34.
We estimate that 525,000 people who identified with a Christian denomination in 2001 ticked the ‘no religion’ box on the Census in 2011. The growth in the number of Christians in Australia is occurring largely because of migration. It is masking the significant outflow of Australians to ‘no religion’.
For the details of this analysis, see Pointers Vol.23, no.1 (March 2013).

Religion Around Australia

Thursday, September 6th, 2012
The population of Australia increased at a faster rate between 2006 and 2011 than in the previous five years: by 8.3 per cent compared with 5.8 per cent. However, the growth in population varied significantly from one part of Australia to another. This variation in growth has had a significant impact on the religious change in each State.

the population of Australia increased at a faster rate between 2006 and 2011 than in the previous five years: by 8.3 per cent compared with 5.8 per cent. However, the growth in population varied significantly from one part of Australia to another. This variation in growth has had a significant impact on the religious change in each State. Here are some details of the two fastest growing States: Western Australia and Queensland.

Western Australia

The population of Western Australia grew by 14.7 per cent between 2006 and 2011.  Because of the overall growth in population, the number of Christians also grew in Western Australia more rapidly than in any other part of the country, with a growth of 12 per cent. Among the fastest growing groups were:

  • 37% among Pentecostals,
  • 28% among Baptists,
  • 27% among Seventh-day Adventists.
The Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans also grew faster in Western Australia than in any other State:
  • 14% growth in Catholics,
  • 11% growth in Lutherans,
  • 9% growth in Eastern Orthodox
  • 5% growth in Anglicans.
Other religions also grew rapidly, especially Hinduism which grew by 158 per cent.
Queensland saw the second highest growth in population with an increase of 11 per cent in the five years from 2006 to 2011.
Queensland has long had higher proportions of people identifying with Christian denominations than have the other States. In particular, larger proportions of Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists live in Queensland than in any other State. However, growth rates were not as high in these denominations as in Western Australia. Between 2006 and 2011, Pentecostals, for example, grew by only 7 per cent. Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists grew by 17 per cent, Catholics by 10 per cent and Anglicans by 2 per cent.
For more details of the variation around the States, see

The Persistence Of Religion: What The Census Tells Us

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012
When the 2011 Australian Census figures were first released on 21st June 2012, the percentage of Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box made headlines. Newsreporters noted how Australia had become more secular. On talk-back radio, people either celebrated or lamented the increased numbers of atheists in Australia. However, the real story of the Census is somewhat different: it is a story of the persistence of religion.
Between 1971 and 2011, the population of Australia has grown from around 13 million to more than 21 million people. At the same time, the number of Christians identifying with a Christian denomination has grown from 11 to 13 million. One of the big factors in the growth in the population has been the flow of immigrants into Australia. Increasingly, those migrants have been people from Asia rather than Europe. Their influx has led to a large increase in people of other religions, from less than half a million people to more than 1.5 million.

Over the past decade, the total number of Australians identifying with a religion has risen from 13.7 million to 14.7 million in 2011. However, the population has grown faster than this, which means that the total proportion of Australians identifying with a religion has declined a little. Between 2001 and 2006, there was a decline of 3.3 per cent in the proportions of Australians identifying with a religion. Between 2006 and 2011, that change was just 1.2 percentage points (a decline from 69.5 per to 68.3 per cent of Australians). In an age in which there is increasing realisation among people that they can choose whether to identify with a religion, the large majority (almost 70 per cent) of Australians continue to make that identification and this is just 1.2 percentage points less than in 2006. The imminent demise of religion has been very much exaggerated.

For the full story of religion in the Census, see Pointers Volume 22-3.

2011 Census Data

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The Australian Census data for 2011 was released at 11.30 am on Thursday 21st June 2012.  Out of 21.7 million Australians, 13.2 million identified themselves as Christian. This was higher than the number who identified themselves as Christians in the 2006 Census, although representing a slightly smaller percentage of the population:  61 per cent (2011) compared with 64 per cent (2006).

The number who identified with other religions was 1.7 million. This represented an increase from 2006, which Hinduism the fastest growing religion in Australia. Australia has become a little more ‘multi-faith’, reflecting that many recent immigrants have come to Australia from South Asia.

The number indicating that they had ‘no religion’ was up from 3.7 million in 2006 to 4.8 million in 2011. This represents an increase from 19 to 22 per cent of the Australian population. Most of this increase has come from people who did not answer the question in 2006, but who indicated they had no religion in 2011. The religion question has always been optional. However, the percentage not responding to it has fallen from 11 to 8 per cent of the population.