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

Why Some Churches Decline While Others Grow

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

While some Australian denominations are in rapid decline, others are growing. Within each denomination, some local churches are growing rapidly while others are declining. A new model of different types of congregations offers an explanation of decline and growth, both at local level and for denominations.

Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead worked at the Religious Studies Department at Lancaster University and over a period of some years conducted a major study of religion and spirituality in the city of Kendal. The study was to test the theory that there had been a major change in culture which was bringing about what they described as a ‘Spiritual Revolution’. At the heart of the theory was the idea that there had been a major change in the ways English people saw themselves and their lives.

While Woodhead and Heelas argue that all churches see truth and goodness not in terms of the cultivation of the unique self but in terms of obedience to God, they actually relate to ‘subjective-life’ differently. It makes sense that, in a culture which is dominated by personal subjectivity, churches which take the subjective self seriously may have a greater attraction than those churches which ignore it.

The theory of Heelas and Woodhead would appear to explain some aspects of the Australian situation but the weakest part of their theory is their expectation of growth among churches of experiential humanity. There is little evidence of their growth in Australia.

The mainstream Presbyterian, Uniting, Lutheran and Catholic denominations are declining most rapidly. However, within these denominations are some evangelical and charismatic churches which are declining much less rapidly. The evangelical Anglican Diocese of Sydney, for example, is holding its own in terms of church attendance, while other parts of the Anglican Church in Australia are in rapid decline.

Young people also place much importance on having exciting experiences: such as performance in drama, special holidays, winning a sporting contest, or more extreme experiences like bungy jumping. Wellbeing is seen not just in terms of comfort, but also in terms of having different and stimulating experiences and times of fun (Hughes 2007, p.49).

Parents want their children to develop good values. Hence, church-based schools are increasingly popular in Australian society, even though church attendance is declining. Church-based schools are seen as encouraging such values, both through their structures of pastoral care and discipline and through their explicit teaching.

Contrary to all four authors, the churches are proving resilient. Churches do address the subjective life of individuals in many ways, such as through music, drama, and community, as well as through various forms of meditation and prayer. Nevertheless, there is some validity in the theories of Heelas and Woodhead, and those churches which adjust to the culture of ‘subjective-life’ are more likely to see growth than those churches that fail to acknowledge that dimension of Western culture.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 1-8

Attitudes to Abortion and Approaches to Ethical Issues

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Sixty per cent of Australians believe that abortion is acceptable in most circumstances. Many others say that it is acceptable in some circumstances, such as if there is a serious defect in the baby. Some Australians say that abortion is not acceptable under any circumstances. According to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 7.5 per cent of Australians say that abortion is always wrong when there is a defect in the baby, and an additional 7.3 per cent say it is almost always wrong. This article explores Australian attitudes and the different approaches to ethics that underlie these attitudes.

While 14.8 per cent of Australians consider that an abortion is always or almost always wrong even if there is a defect in the baby, another 15.5 per cent of Australians consider that it is wrong sometimes, perhaps depending on the seriousness of the defect. Another 60 per cent of Australians say that it is not wrong at all in such circumstances

Attitudes to abortion are related to people’s views of human life. Those who consider that life begins at conception and that it is sacred, or of great worth, irrespective of its quality, will consider the termination of the life of an unborn baby as unacceptable. Such views of the sacredness of human life are most common among people who identify with a religion. Among those who identified themselves with a Christian denomination in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 23 per cent said that abortion was always or almost always wrong, even if there was a defect in the baby.

While many Australians have never thought through the specific issues related to abortion, their views are influenced by the ways they think about moral issues in general. Two-thirds of Australians (67%) indicated that they looked for moral guidance primarily in the consequences of actions. However, there were a variety of ways in which they looked at the consequences.

Younger people tend to look more to the consequences of actions than to authorities for ethical guidance. Excluding those who did not respond, 64 per of those over 60 years of age said they looked to the consequences, compared with 79 per cent of those under 30 years of age. Overall, there was no difference between males and females in the extent to which they turned to authority or to the consequences of actions, even though there were some small differences in the details of their ethical approach.

For most Australian adults, ethical guidance is found in looking at the consequences. These consequences are often unclear: hence, the variety of opinions. Nevertheless, in relation to abortion, many people make their decisions according to what they perceive the consequences might be.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 17-20

Belief Among Catholic Secondary Students: 2005 and 2011 Comparisons

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

A recent Pointers article (Hughes, 2011) discussed the widespread decline in the religiosity of young people in various countries, including Australia. In many countries there is evidence to suggest that there has been an increase in secularisation in society, and certainly in Australia, change in the nature of religion and spirituality. Examination of two large ‘matched’ samples of students from different points of time may shed some light on more general cultural changes.

Having undertaken surveys of more than 4,100 students in 30 Catholic schools in four dioceses in 2011, the Christian Research Association can compare the most recent data to data from surveys conducted among a similar number of students between 2005 and 2008. With two different cohorts of students, we can investigate changes in student’s attitudes and beliefs. Is interest in religion really declining among students today? Are changes in beliefs affecting their private and public religious practices? Do changes in beliefs affect satisfaction in life and sense of purpose?

For the majority of students life is about enjoyment and making the best of it. This attitude of 86 per cent of students has not changed since 2005. However, around 15 per cent of students are ‘hurting deep inside’ and struggling to find where to get help (a slight drop from 17 per cent in 2005). Many students are happy with their lives even though, for some, life lacks a sense of purpose. In the 2011 surveys, students indicated greater confidence in what they believed than did students in 2005. Just under one third of students (30%) said they found it hard to know what to believe about life compared with 44 per cent of students in 2005.

In 2011, when asked about their belief in God, there were only slight changes: 38 per cent of students stated that “there is a God who is a personal being involved in the lives of people today”, compared with 40 per cent in 2005. In the 2005 surveys, 9 per cent of students did not think there was any sort of God, compared with 10 per cent in 2011. However, among Australian students born of Australian parents, belief in a personal God dropped from 37 per cent to 34 per cent between 2005 and 2011.

In 2011, fewer students (25%) said they were attending church services monthly or more often, compared to students in 2005 (30%). However, there was also a decline in the proportion of students who never attended: from 41 per cent in 2005 to 37 per cent in 2005. The increase has been in occasional attendance (39 per cent in 2011 compared with 29 per cent in 2005, as shown in Table 1).

Students are now more inclined to question the authority of the church. In 2005, 24 per cent said it was generally or definitely wrong to question church authority, and by 2011, around 17 per cent said that it was wrong. However, there was only a slight change in the affirmation of the statement ‘I think we should just believe and not question our beliefs’ (26 per cent in 2005 and 25 per cent in 2011). While there are some significant differences between young people from the two rounds of surveys, the latest results suggest that students continue to construct their own beliefs and spirituality for life without necessarily adhering to the teachings of the Church or school.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 9-12

Belief in God: Is the ‘New Atheism’ Influencing Australians?

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The ‘New Atheists’ was a term coined in 2006 to describe three atheists who were writing popular books promoting atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (Blackford 2012). Certainly, Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, sold many copies in Australia as well as overseas. Atheists have started mass advertising campaigns to promote their views. But are they having much impact?

The idea of God has certainly become contentious in contemporary Australia. In 1949, there was little disagreement: a Gallup Poll reported that 95 per cent of Australians believed in God. Today, Australians hold a variety of views. The 2009 Survey of Australian Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University among 1718 adult Australians found that just under half the population (47%) believed in God. Among that 47 per cent, there was considerable variation in the levels of confidence. Just 25 per cent of the Australian population said they had no doubts that God exists. The remaining 22 per cent were somewhat tentative in their belief. Some said they had doubts, but generally believed. Others said they believed some of the time but not at others.

For every person who had moved from not believing to believing in God, four Australians had moved in the opposite direction.

There are some significant patterns in belief across the population. As shown in Figure 1, many more older people than younger people believed in God. Among those aged over 80, nearly half believes in God and have no doubts. Among those people in their 60s and 70s, it was close to one-third of the population. Among those aged 31 to 60, it was approximately one-quarter of the population. Among those aged under 30, only 14 per cent said they believed in God without doubts.

There was also considerable difference in the levels of belief in God in different occupational groups (Figure 5). The lowest levels of belief were found among professionals. Low levels of belief were also apparent among technicians and those in trades and machine operators and labourers. Higher levels of belief were found among managers, those involved in community and personal service, sales and clerical and administrative work.

Have the ‘New Atheists’ been a significant part of the story of change in belief in God? There are several reasons to believe they have not had much impact. The first is that there has been a relatively even decline in belief since 1993, well before they began their campaigns. The only piece of evidence which might suggest that the decline has become more rapid in recent years has been the sharp decline in belief in God among young people.

For many people, trust in science has also contributed to the decline in belief in God. Religion and science do not necessarily conflict. Many scientists believe in God. On the other hand, science does paint a rather different picture of the world than does religion. The fact that some people reject the general picture of evolution, for example, in the name of religion contributes to the sense that there is a conflict between religion and science.

A bigger issue for most Australians is whether one needs to believe in God: whether God can make a difference to one’s life.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 1-7

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

When we think of homeless people we often think of those on the streets, dishevelled in appearance, roaming the rubbish bins for food, a blight on the social landscape which we wish would just disappear, or at least hide themselves from our view. In effect, however, homelessness is much broader, and any understanding of it certainly requires more deeper vision than that first image conjures up.

In ‘Life after Homelessness’, an article in a recent publication from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Australian Social Trends, Mar 2012), people were defined as having had an ‘experience of homelessness’ if they had previously been without a ‘permanent place to live’ for one or more of a variety of reasons. Family or relationship breakdowns, financial problems, tight rental or property markets, or violence and abuse are some of the more common reasons for homelessness.

Based on data from the 2010 General Social Survey, ‘Life after Homelessness’ examined a range of socio-economic indicators of those who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness in the previous 10 years, but who were no longer homeless. In general, those who had been homeless were much younger than the overall population – 55 per cent of all who had been homeless in the past 10 years were aged 18-34, compared to 11 per cent of those aged 55 and over. After removing the effect of age, the study found that the homeless were less educated, with one-third not having gone beyond Year 10 at school nor obtaining a non-school qualification above Certificate II level. Homeless people were also more likely to report being unemployed, or not in the labour force, and were twice as likely to report that their main source of personal income was a pension.

In December 2008, the Australian Government released a White Paper on Homelessness, in which it set itself a target to halve homelessness and to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020 (FAHCSIA, The Road Home). Its measures aim to strengthen the provision of services to homeless people, and importantly, to help reduce some of the factors associated with becoming homeless in the first place. The issue of homelessness is financially and socially expensive, and the report correctly points out that “homelessness” is not just a housing problem, but has many drivers and causes. Investing in services to support and prevent homelessness not only benefits those who find themselves without a permanent place to live, but the entire community.

Historically, the Christian churches in Australia have been at the front line in tackling social issues, such as homelessness. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many denominational institutions preceded government departments in setting up services for the homeless. Today, collectively, all denominations together form the largest non-government provider of community and welfare services in Australia (Shaping Australia’s Spirituality, p113). The Australian churches and its associated service organisations continue to play an important role in working alongside government and private industry in reducing the prevalence of homelessness and assisting those who find themselves without a place they can call home.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 7-8

God’s Activity in Miracles

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Over the years, the understanding of miracles has changed. A miracle was an unusual event or a ‘wonder’, something out of the ordinary which was also a ‘sign’. Indeed, in several passages in the New Testament, the terms ‘miracles’, ‘wonders’ and ‘signs’ are used together (Acts 2:22, 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4). In most cases, the miracle was an event which signified God’s accreditation of the person through whom these events occurred. This was the significance not only of the miracles performed by Jesus, but also by the early followers of Jesus. The rejection of the miracles in New Testament times was often a rejection of what the event signified rather than a rejection of the idea that the event  occurred.

In the 17th century, as science developed as a system for explaining the patterns of natural events, the idea emerged that miracles might be in conflict with science. Certainly, miracles had been seen as extraordinary events. But if science was an ‘uncovering’ of the natural laws, miracles indicated a suspension of those laws. A miracle therefore required that God suspend the laws of nature or intervene in the ways that the universe had been deemed to operate.

However, if an observation is made which does not fit previous generalisations, the usual response is to check the observation. Was the observation incorrect? This is what has happened in relation to many so-called miracles: the understanding of science has caused many supposed ‘observations’ to be challenged because they do not fit our general understanding.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University in 2009 included a questions about belief in miracles. It is interesting to note that less than half of the population had a definite opinion about miracles either positive or negative. Around half the population was not sure what to believe, although the majority felt that miracles were unlikely.

Comparing the responses in 1983 and 2009, one finds that the proportion who definitely believe in miracles has remained about the same, but there has been a decline in those who probably do. The most striking change is that a high percentage were not sure whether they believed or not in 1983, but in 2009 a high proportion were quite sure that they did not believe in them. The proportion who probably or definitely did not believe in miracles had risen from 23 per cent in 1983 to 53 per cent in 2009.

The Australians most likely to believe in miracles are those who have strong religious commitments. However, among those who attend church monthly or more often just a little more than half said they definitely believed in miracles. Another 23 per cent said they probably did.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 1-6

Pilgrims or Tourists? The Origins of World Youth Day

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

An initiative of the late Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day has become the largest regular gathering of young people in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands, and on occasions, millions of participants. The size and scale of the event has resulted in its comparison to the Olympic Games and it has also necessitated significant organisational and logistical effort and financial support (Norman & Johnson, 2011, p.372).

Much research was showing that a growing number of young people were abandoning ‘institutional religion’, rejecting the core principles and teachings of religious traditions (Horell, 2004; Hughes, 2007; Crawford & Rossiter, 2006) and questioning the existence of God. However, Pope John Paul II believed that they were in fact yearning for the transcendent, desiring a relationship with God.

In an effort to rejuvenate the faith practice and Christian identity of western societies, World Youth Day was intended to be a systematic approach to reach out to and actively engage young people in the life of the Church, especially amongst those who were disconnected. 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 or similar groups and movements.

The very structure and nature of World Youth Day is underpinned by the practice of pilgrimage and since its very inception participants have been described as pilgrims. The motivations for going on pilgrimage are many and varied. It has been suggested by some sociologists that given the increasing number of people who experience feelings of dislocation and rootlessness in post-modern society, pilgrimage can provide an opportunity to search for personal consciousness, meaning in life and connectedness with others (Graham & Murray, 1997; Lowenthal, 1997; Olsen & Timothy, 2006).

Prior to World Youth Day XXVIII in Madrid the author conducted extensive research with pilgrims from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, as a means of ascertaining why young people are drawn to the international gathering and to identify their attitudes towards faith, religious practice, community and self. The author’s research (2010-2013) indicates considerable differences in the attitudes of school aged pilgrims towards faith, religious practice, community and self when compared to the views and perceptions of the adult pilgrims. While they are less connected with Church, they are by no means disaffected or indifferent to the Gospel message.

Many of the school pilgrims consistently referred to a ‘sense of searching’, to describe their understanding of self and their relationship with God. When he initiated World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II may well have had in mind St Augustine’s words, ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ (Confessions, Chapter 1), and their particular relevance to young people.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 2, Pages 17-19