Why Some Churches Decline While Others Grow

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

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