Factors in Declining Church Attendance

The number of Australians attending church services is declining. Data from the ISSP (International Social Survey Programme) shows that, between 1993 and 2009, the proportion of Australians attending a service of worship monthly or more often dropped from 23 per cent to 16 per cent. Occasional attendance (less than monthly) also dropped from 42 per cent to 36 per cent. In turn, the proportion claiming they never attend services of worship rose from 33 per cent to 43 per cent. What might be some of the underlying factors and transitions influencing these trends?

Tiffen and Gittens (2004) say the current religious landscape in Australia is one of gradual degeneration. Religious traditions and practices are less frequently observed, and more often neglected or declined outright asimbuing and offering meaningful expressions of existence, in terms of beliefs, experiences , interests and values. Between 1993 and 2009, the percentage of the population saying they had ‘no religion’ rose from 27 per cent to 43 per cent, and the rate of identification with a Christian denomination declined from 70 per cent to 50 per cent.

Of those who identified with a Christian denomination, just over a quarter attend church services monthly or more often (29%), while the remainder only attend occasionally (44%) or not at all (27%). This indicates that identification, whether meaning membership or association, does not necessarily lead to regular attendance, and occasional or rare attendance is more common.

Among those who claimed ‘no religion’, more than three-quarters never attend services of worship (78%), just under a quarter attend occasionally (22%) including a few who attend frequently. This indicates that the claim of no religion does not necessarily lead to no attendance.

The beliefs, interests, experiences and values, and thus the traditions and practices, of one generation are not necessarily those of the next. Almost three in ten currently attend church monthly or more often (28%). Among those born after World War II, around half of that proportion attend, with less than one in ten of those born in 1980 or after attending monthly or more often.

The gradual shift from local communities to regional communities and a more individualistic way of life, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, has impacted on the interrelation between church and society. Many younger people approach religion and spirituality as commodities that can be used and let go whenever needs, interests, emotions or values require.

In summary, there is no one factor that accounts for declining attendance. Rather this trend seems to be occurring because of an interplay of factors (religiosity, spirituality, ageing, upbringing, life stage), underpinned and shaped by particular societal transitions (individualism, experientialism).

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 2, Pages 6-9

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