One of the things we’ve been struck by since moving to Melbourne is the distinctives of our home town, Adelaide.
Lots of people know Adelaide as the City of Churches. It’s not that Adelaide had an especially high number of church buildings, but Adelaide was the first place in Australia where all kinds of denominations and religious groups were permitted.
These days, Adelaide is in one sense like any other Australian city: Christianity is generally struggling to interact with Australian society; many churches are in slow but sure decline.
But the Christian landscape in Adelaide is unique. Here are some reflections — anecdotes and generalisations to be sure, but this is the vibe!
Setting the scene
Compared with the eastern centres of Australia, Adelaide feels like a big country town. The city stretches north-south along the coast. From the city centre, the beach is just 30 minutes to the west, while the hills (countryside) are just 30 minutes to the east. Adelaide is not just physically spacious but open and knowable in a personal sense, despite its population of 1.2 million. By contrast, Melbourne and Sydney are dense urban giants — both are in the world top 100.
Whether it’s due to Adelaide’s size or something else, Adelaide’s Christian tribes are small compared with those in Melbourne and Sydney. More or less all denominations are clearly struggling with decline. There is little sense of even holding steady, as there may be in other Australian capitals. Consequently, broader groupings struggle to get critical mass, like the evangelicals. Yet, at the same time, most denominations have at least a couple of thriving churches — Anglicans, AOG, Baptists, Churches of Christ, Lutherans, and Uniting Churches — and there is also a range of large community churches.
What does this mean? Christians in Adelaide generally don’t have the luxury of a local viable church in their ‘home’ denomination, so they often seem to choose their churches because they are thriving, not on the basis of denomination. As a result, many Christians in Adelaide have spent time in a number of denominations, and even if they haven’t, they are mixing with Christians who have. I guess my own experience is pretty typical: I grew up in a Uniting Church, went to a Lutheran high school, then joined an Anglican church and an interdenominational student group.
Adelaide City is clearly the smaller cousin to the eastern centres. The positive side effect is that Adelaide Christians may find it easier to look beyond their own backyard. Adelaide Christians can see the world outside their own brand, frequently finding common ground with different flavours of Christians, and identifying themselves as Christians first, rather than (say) evangelicals. This is an Adelaide distinctive that we’ve not really seen elsewhere in Australia. In contrast, we’ve been surprised by the strength with which Christians in Melbourne and Sydney sometimes assert that their own cities are the place to be! Adelaide Christians have a comparatively broader horizon.
This broader horizon means that Adelaide Christians can be extremely good at working together across denominational lines. Christians of all flavours get together to run city-wide community events like Schoolies Festival, Big Week Out, and the festival Another Way To Love. Other genuinely interdenominational efforts include CE Camp, Evangelical Students and Grace Conference. This kind of commonality also shows up in the Facebook group, Adelaide Christian Scene. An older example is the high school Pedare, founded in 1986 when two Uniting Churches teamed up with two Anglican churches — amazing! It’s also no surprise that Adelaide is the original home of Planetshakers. A lot of Adelaide Christians are determined to get beyond parochial concerns and denominational squabbles, and the results are very exciting. I suspect that Christians in Melbourne and Sydney could learn a lot from this!
Sometimes, the broader horizon of Adelaide Christians goes in tandem with a keen sense of mission. One great example of this is our friend Dave, who’s just made this excellent post about mission. Maybe it’s just the circles we move in, but in my experience, Adelaide’s ministry-minded Christians are higher quality: more mobile, more committed, more incisive. Because the pickings are slimmer and the resources are fewer, trainee ministers quickly learn that their work counts, and that they must make it count. In MTS circles, Adelaide ministry apprentices must be the cream of the crop. The only apprenticeships are full-time ones. Adelaide trainers are under pressure to pick trainees who will deliver, and the trainees are under pressure to rise to the challenge. There is support — it’s not some back-breaking boot camp — but there’s a lot less cotton wool than we’ve seen elsewhere!
All this interdenominational cooperation sounds wonderful, but part of the reason for it is desperation. Adelaide Christians play down their denominational tribes not because they are super-Christians, but because each of those tribes is struggling. Adelaide Christians are driven to reconnect because most churches are insecure and Christians simply struggle to find a place to call home. They have a strong sense that they are in a spiritual wasteland because they really are. Doing church in Adelaide is very difficult!
Much of this is because of a real lack of resources. For starters, Adelaide is a less opulent city than Melbourne and Sydney — there is less wealth in general, which translates into what churches have access to. We thought we knew what ‘rich’ was in Adelaide, but what we’ve seen in Melbourne and Sydney is far more exorbitant!
For another thing, many tribes lack critical mass. The evangelical community, for example, is tiny. One of our friends is a university minister. Struggling to raise money for his work, he asked his organisation what to do. They told him that things would be fine if he just phoned an evangelical church each week. His response: “I’ll be done in a month!” In this case, an important ministry was struggling because the people to call on simply do not exist.
Thirdly, important supporting or ‘feeder’ organisations are thinly spread. Adelaide has one Christian university (Tabor) and one independent theological college (BCSA). BCSA offers high-quality training, but has nothing like the kind of financial security that eastern colleges enjoy.
The call to Adelaide
If you don’t live in Adelaide, Adelaide needs you! Doing ministry in the eastern centres is a luxury compared with Adelaide. Adelaide churches desperately need building up. Adelaideans who have never heard about Jesus need to know him. It’s not going to be easy — but Adelaide is a great place to do ministry, filled with wonderful people and unique opportunities for Christian community. Some of our most trusted ministry friends uprooted themselves from interstate to serve Adelaide with their families. They saw the need — will you? And if you can’t make it — will you pray for our city?
If you do live in Adelaide, be excited! It’s hard knowing how to live for Jesus in Adelaide, like anywhere else, but the church in Adelaide is in a unique place! The Adelaide Christian community has a unity you may not find elsewhere in Australia, and because of that, you have something great to offer as an Australian Christian! You are the greatest resource of the church in Adelaide!
Finding a suburb
Our friend Eric has explored the distribution of churches in Adelaide. His conclusion: if you want to be a Christian witness in Adelaide, move house to a church-poor or money-poor area, to the west and north of the city. That’s where the church is needed most badly!
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.