Research Materials

A range of articles on many topics related to religious faith and church life in Australia are to be found below. You may search these articles for a particular topic using the search facility in the left-hand column

* Australian Culture and Society
* Congregational Life
* Religion Internationally
* Clergy and Theological Education
* Ethical Issues
* School and Education
* Social Capital
* Spirituality
* Rural Church Life
* The Church Serving the Community

Spirituality, Care and Wellbeing in Education

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Late 2009, Springer Publishing House released a huge two volume collection of essays on spirituality, care and wellbeing in education. The volume is timely as schools and other institutions increasingly find themselves grappling with issues of mental health and wellbeing. Despite the Australian government’s focus on Naplan and elementary measures of literacy and numeracy, psychological issues and issues of meaning and relationships continue to occupy teachers’ attention.
There is a need in every society to deal with the deeper issues of what life is about and how, as humans, we relate to others, the environment and the divine. The first volume of essays focusses mainly on the psychology of religion and spirituality. The second volume is primarily about educational programs and environments in promoting holistic learning and wellbeing. This review will focus on the second volume.

What is evident from the various essays is the multitude of ways authors are thinking about spirituality. Indeed, some of the authors note that this diversity in thinking is one of the major problems in tackling spirituality in the educational context. Several essays tackle spirituality in an esoteric way. Jennifer Gidley, for example, talks in quasi-Hegelian terms about the evolving of human consciousness in which new modes of thinking emerge. She suggests that four values emerge from the literature as foci for the developing forms of education: love, life, wisdom and voice.

Zehavit Goss sees spirituality primarily as the human search for meaning, which for some can take place in the religious approach of ‘a supreme power or entity situated beyond human control’, but which can also take secular forms (p.564).

In terms of content, Gidley sees great value in the study of inspirational teachings and wisdom literature, in artistic classes in painting, drama, movement and voice exploring imagination, inspiration and group spirit. She wants subject material to be studied in relation to its broad contexts, and children to be led to contemplate it and be inspired by it. She sees great importance in developing ecological awareness by practising the care for plants, small animals and other sentient beings (p.542). She argues that one of the most effective ways of cultivating wisdom in education is through ‘utilising complex thinking and creativity to represent knowledge from multiple perspectives while showing their integral interconnectedness through our creative artfulness’ (p.548).

‘Spiritual education’ can also occur in the context of counselling. One of the chapters in this book explores the issues of ‘self-injury’ among adolescents. It notes the increasing prevalence in many Western societies of self-injury through such methods as cutting or burning the skin and sticking needles or pins into oneself (p.963). It notes that such activities often occur when there is a state of emotional turmoil when the person is overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. At other times, young people engage in such activities when they feel an emotional deadness. Some people experience the self-injury as soothing their agitations, or jolting them out of numbness and helping them to feel alive (p.967).

There are many resources for spiritual development within our religious traditions, but they are not the only source. Spirituality can be explored through art and music, through engagement with nature, and through many kinds of literature, for example.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 11-14

Catholic Religious Institutes in Australia

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

In 2008, the National Council of Catholic Religious Australia commissioned the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Pastoral Research Office to survey all Catholic Institutes of Clerical Religious, Religious Brothers and Religious Sisters in Australia. The work was commissioned to get an up-to-date picture of the membership, to consider trends for the future, and to understand more fully the important role that Catholic religious play in the Australian Church and society. Not since 1976 had there been a comprehensive study of religious institutes or personnel. The 1976 study asked major superiors to complete a ‘Religious Personnel Record Card’ for each member of the order. The 2009 study was based on a survey of religious institutes, not of the individual members of the orders or congregations.

At the start of 2009, there were around 160 Catholic religious congregations, orders, societies and associations in Australia, with a total membership of around 8,400. Religious sisters made up 70 per cent of the total, with clerical religious (religious priests) making up 19 per cent, and religious brothers 10.5 per cent. By comparison, the previous study conducted in 1976 showed there were 17,029 religious, although membership numbers had already peaked in 1966 at 19,413.

The report indicates that the decline in membership will continue. Congregations have struggled to attract new members. Significantly, most new members have come from overseas or from migrant communities in Australia.

Although many religious people consider that one never really retires from religious work, just over one-quarter (26.1%) were described as ‘fully retired’. Given that 26.6 per cent were 80 years or over that is remarkably low. The reality for many religious people is that retirement means reducing the workload, never giving it up completely. Indeed, many “retired” religious people are still actively and energetically involved in their congregation and local communities.

As a consequence of declining numbers, the last decade saw much change in arrangements for the ownership, governance and operation of institutions owned by Catholic religious congregations. Between 1999 and 2009, more than 50 institutions previously owned by religious congregations were sold or closed. Ownership or governance was transferred to another congregation or Church agency in a further 60 cases. The report indicates that there will continue to be much change in the years ahead. Some of the congregations have lay partner associations

The reality that the report shows is an ageing and decreasing population of religious people, declining numbers entering religious life, and a future that looks bleak.

What will be the shape of religious life in years to come? Will it continue to evolve and adapt as the need arises, as it has over the last few decades, or will the decline become more rapid leading to eventual extinction?

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 6-7

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

Access and Values: Functions of Religion in Australian Society

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Religious faith has many functions within people’s lives and within society. For example, it can give hope and comfort, promote social justice and equity, encourage compassion and trust. Most of these functions can be summarised under two headings. On the one hand, most religions encourage belief in a power beyond ourselves, and provide access to that power. Thus, religious faith is about worship and prayer. On the other hand, religions provide guidance on social and personal behaviour: they point to certain values. Thus, religious faith is about how we live. It may be noted that there are additional functions which cannot be subsumed easily under these headings. For example, religious organisations develop communities in which people find identity and belonging.

There is little change over the 20 year period. Approximately 35 per cent of the population indicated that religion was of high importance in both 1989 and in 2009. The group who said that religion was of moderate importance has shrunk slightly from 27 per cent to 24 per cent of the population. However, during this period, belief in God (including those who doubt and those who believe sometimes) has fallen from 65 per cent of the population to 47 per cent.

The continued importance of religion in providing values is one of the reasons why so many Australians support Christian schools and chaplaincy in schools. They continue to believe that it is important for their children to pick up the right values in the school or in church youth activities. On the other hand, these people do not see frequent church attendance as necessary. Many Australians feel that they can be ‘good people’ without going to church.

The data also reminds those who lead religious services, however, that most of those who attend do not simply want a reiteration of values. They are there to meet with God.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 3, Page 16

Who’s Coming To School Today?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

In March 2009, Brisbane Catholic Education began the largest single data collection ever undertaken in Australian Catholic schools. Over 27 000 surveys were returned from students in years 3,6,9 and 12, their parents and all staff in Catholic schools as well as a significant number of parish priests.

The vast majority of students come from homes in which at least one parent identifies as Catholic. The parent respondents identified as 63 per cent Catholic (with a predominance of mothers filling out the survey) while 52 per cent of the “other” parent or guardians were also Catholic. This can be compared with the student population at the time which was 68 per cent Catholic, serviced by a staff of whom 82 per cent identify as Catholic.

The clear perception of students from years 3-12 is that their school makes a concerted effort to look after them and cares about their welfare. The questionnaires were designed to reveal the core strengths of these Catholic schools by asking respondents to rate various items that they felt the school does best. For instance, for Years 9 and 12, their parents and the staff, the choices provided 15 options ranging from “providing high quality facilities” to “relating to students as individuals”, “encouraging respect for authority” and “managing bullying successfully”.

The faith dimension of the parents did, to a large extent, mirror that of the staff. Responses to the survey were analysed using factor analysis which facilitated the development of a number of scales: faith, social (awareness) and a scale unique to the students which we termed “struggle and doubt”.

The importance parents have placed on academic success was determined to some extent by their own educational background. Parents with university and post graduate qualifications tended to place a much higher importance on religious education while those with only some secondary school or having completed only secondary school placed a higher importance on the school providing a pathway for future employment.

There was significant agreement among all respondents about social justice values. The two questions on this scale were “I am concerned about justice to the poor and disadvantaged” and “I care about the natural environment.”

The challenge for the future will be to maintain the “strong Catholic identity” of these schools. Schools are often the only point of contact for many with the Catholic Church and there is significant loyalty to the Catholic “brand”, with over 60 per cent of the year 12 students stating they would send their own children to a Catholic school. On the other hand this does not translate into regular church attendance either by parents or students.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 3, Pages 14-15

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

Dropping Out of Church

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The major entry point into the life of the church is in childhood. Most people who attend church today began their attendance as young children, under the influence of their families. However, as has always been the case, many children cease to attend, some before they reach the end of primary school, others in secondary school, and others after their years of schooling. A few return to church when they have their own children. Others return when they feel a personal need for what the church can provide. Many never return. From the perspective of keeping the involvement of people in the life of the church, the most important time is through the teenage years. The following article provides some further data on drop-out rates.

About two-thirds of all Australians aged 50 and over have a memory of attending church frequently when they were 11 or 12 years old. Most of those who did not attend every week went to church occasionally. This would suggest that up to about 1970, two-thirds of Australian children were attending Sunday School or church, at least for a short period in their lives. The big changes occurred in the 1970s when it became less common for children to attend a church. There has always been a significant ‘drop-out’ rate. Indeed, many older Australians remember that they were taken to Sunday School by their parents, but their parents did not go to church themselves. There was an expectation that the children would pick up Christian values in the Sunday School, but they did not need to continue to attend church.

There are many factors which influence the decisions of children and young people to attend or not attend church. Among the most important are the influences of family and friends. In the background are cultural factors: the general sense among young people that this is something about which they can make choices, the awareness that other people do or do not go to church. In many non-Anglo communities which have a strong communal culture, young people continue to attend church. Many of these factors are beyond the control of the church.

However, there are some factors over which churches may have control. The extent to which they encourage the development of groups in which children have a place is important. Young people who find friends at church are more likely to continue to attend than those who do not develop circles of friends at church. In the long-term, young people continue to attend because they find something meaningful within the life of the church, something that contributes to their sense of what life is about.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 19-20

Factors in Church Giving

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The average Australian household spends a total of $1236.28 every week. The major items are housing ($223.14), food and drink ($204.20), and transport ($192.87). The household also spends $161.44 on recreation, including holidays, $32.35 on alcoholic drinks (not included in the total for food and drink), and $12.57 on tobacco. On average, Australian households give $2.97 to churches or other religious organisations and $4.26 to charities each week (Household Expenditure Survey 2009-10).

Many denominations are worried about their income. As numbers of attenders shrink in most denominations, so finances also shrink. It is also likely that, in some places, finances are shrinking faster than attendances. In other words, people who are attending are giving less to their churches.

Some researchers have argued that people will be ‘free-riders’ if they can be. In other words, if there are no controls on giving, they will not give, but will enjoy the benefits of the church without contributing. The challenge for the church is to minimise ‘free-riding’. This is much easier to do in small churches than in larger churches. In larger churches, it is more likely that the non-contributing person will not be noticed (Whitehead 2010, p.641).

Another way of minimising ‘free-riding’ is to have high costs of joining, or, in other words, to raise the standards for belonging to the group. Those churches which have stricter expectations of members, or which demand a long period of teaching before admitting members, or which demand a very public sign of commitment such as adult baptism, minimise ‘free-riding’.

Rather than small group membership monitoring giving, it seems more likely that involvement in small groups leads to a higher level of ownership of the life of the organisation. In a small group, people are not anonymous. In face-to-face contact, they feel a part, not only of the small group, but also of the larger group. As their involvement in the small group is noted by other members, they feel some responsibility in their involvement, and a greater sense of ownership for the life of the whole organisation.

Many people will hesitate to join a church in which there are high demands on them, financially, in terms of time, and in other ways. Even the development of a small group culture in a church where everyone is expected to be part of a small group may discourage some from attending at all. On the other hand, it will encourage others to contribute more to the life of the church.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 16-18

Faith and Film in a Visual Age – a reflection

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The Christian church has long used mediums other than the printed word to tell its story. Story-telling has taken many forms, and in certain historical periods there has been significant use of painting and graphic art. In medieval times, forms of theatre were developed with religious plays, mostly arising from the Catholic mass. By the 15th century, mystery plays had emerged. Their description has its origins not in ‘mystery’, but as in the idea that these plays were ‘acts’. The Genesis stories were often told this way, for example.

In the 20th century, film took over as the pre-eminent visual art. Terry Lindvall’s research presented in Sanctuary Cinema (2007) records the significant number of Christian evangelists and teachers who used visual mediums of photography, art, lantern films and then celluloid to present Christian stories from the Bible early in the century.

Many churches and denominations gave up the idea of making films, and some came to categorise film as the ‘devil’s work’. Perhaps ironically, the portrayal of religion in film occurred mostly in Hollywood as media moguls realised there was money to be made in religious pictures. Hollywood produced some great epic religious films, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over the last 50 years Christian film has continued to develop, though a focus has often been on films which were biographical in nature, sometimes of famous Christian missionaries and events. The well-known founder of Times Squares Church, David Wilkerson, was played by Pat Boone in The Cross and the Switchblade, a film seen by many youth groups in the 1970s.

There appears to be little going on in terms of major Christian film production in Australia. There have been significant short film festivals. Events like Ignite (like a Christian Tropfest), which started in 2004, have given people an avenue to produce material:

How and why we use contemporary social media are areas the church needs to consider. In order to simply provide a point of connection with people today, there are three basic forms of media that local churches need to consider. Websites are a major way church-goers find out about a local church when they come into an area. Video sites provide simple and cost effective ways of illustrating the work of a local church and significant ministries. They can take the form of a short (very short) sermon, a comment on a contemporary issue in the community, or a profile of an outreach and community service.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 12-15

Social Networking among Secondary Students

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The Christian Research Association is currently undertaking surveys of students in Catholic schools. The surveys seek to discover ‘how students put life together’. Over 3700 students in Years five to twelve, from 24 schools in three dioceses, have completed the survey on-line. Analysis of a number of questions about social networking, that is, the use of on-line programs such as Facebook, Linked-In and Google+, designed to build and reflect social networks, has revealed some
interesting findings among secondary school students.

Young people find their sense of peace and happiness in many different ways. Many spend time with friends or family, many listen to music, watch DVDs or play sport. Some use their creative abilities and paint or do craft, while others get close to nature by going on a bushwalk or down to the beach. For a few young people praying or meditating, or attending church or youth group contributes to happiness. There are also a few young people who drink alcohol or take drugs as they search for peace and happiness. In addition to these activities, some young people see social networking as making a major contribution to happiness. Around 38 per cent of students indicated that using social networking sites was very important in finding a sense of peace and happiness.

When asked how often in the previous 12 months they had used social networking sites (apart from what they did at school), almost three quarters of students stated they had used it often. Frequent use of social networking was higher among females than males (76 per cent compared with 69 per cent). A higher proportion of males than females had never used social networking (13 per cent compared with eight per cent). Table 1 provides further detail.

Using responses from a number of different questions from the survey it is possible to categorise students into social networking “types”: The Convinced Networker, the Frequent Networker, the Positive Networker and the Tentative Networker

The surveys asked several questions about students satisfaction with various aspects of life. In most respects, the different Networking types were little different in their levels of satisfaction. Only in one area were the differences statistically significant: the Convinced Networkers were more satisfied with their friends.

Ask a young person today how many friends they have, and the response they give will no doubt reflect the friends they have face-to-face contact with many times a week, those they see a number of times per month, and perhaps those they catch up with not as regularly. Most young people today will also count “friends” they may never have met, about whom they know very little, and with whom, if they met them in the school yard or other social place, they may have little in common.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 8-11