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This census, stop the over-representation of Christianity

On the eve of the 2011 Australian national census, we religious types are interested in the proper recognition of our communities. Some Muslims are talking about about the under-representation of their communities. However, Christians like me are concerned about being over-represented.

According to the previous census figures, 68% of Australians identify themselves as Christian. Yet other stats indicate that the number of Australians attending church is very low, closer to 20% — and that figure includes non-Christian religious activities!

In other words, we’ve got a colossal number of people paying lip service to Christianity without any real involvement in a Christian community.

And that’s nominal Christianity: people who are Christian in name only. They might subscribe to “Christian values”. They might even rock up to church every now and again. Yet they don’t, in any sustained sense, relate intentionally to other Christians.

Of course, there are also heaps of nominal Christians who don’t even believe Christian stuff. This is what the Atheist Foundation of Australia has been hitting out against with their census campaign. They have some very helpful things to say on that count: “Only those who accept the basic tenets of the faith should consider themselves Christian. These are outlined by the Nicene Creed.”

But I’m not talking about affirmation of beliefs. I’m talking about practice.

In a real sense, Christianity isn’t a belief but a practice. Again and again, the New Testament writers are adamant that Christianity is a communal thing. Church is a spiritual family, the place where Christian life is formed, shaped and lived out. As “the body of Christ”, church is nothing less than the point of connection to Jesus.

Our so-called Australian Christians need to recover the ancient maxim that there is no Christianity outside the church. It’s not just that it makes sense for Christians to belong to a Christian community. It’s this: unless a person’s life is being shaped by Christian community, it is questionable whether they are Christian in the first place.

And that’s the problem with nominal Christianity: is it even Christianity? Never mind the liberals and the fundamentalists — nominalism is way more irritating!

At this year’s census, I’m echoing the atheists with a plea for nominal Christians: “Not part of a Christian church? Mark the census NO RELIGION.”

Categories: Church Culture Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, blogging at meetjesusatuni.com.

21 replies

  1. Hi; mixed response in me to the thoughts here. I heard this morning that some denominational leaders are arguing for nominals to PLEASE put down their nominal allegience, as it has an impact on government funding for various projects. That seems very sad to me: and a continuation of a sick reliance of Christian ministry on secular funding.
    But then, perhaps to tell “nominals” that their little faith is not adequate to really consider themselves Christian is a little Pharisaic?? It’s like saying, “You can’t say you belong to Jesus unless you jump through the hoops we go through.”
    I agree: there is no faith outside the church. Belonging to Christ is not a private, individual, interior experience. It is public, corporate and affects all aspects of life. Perhaps it is the recovery of this reality among those who are regular at church is going to make more difference to those who are sitting at a kind of arm’s length from something that they don’t really understand yet…..

  2. I’m sorry Arthur, but on this point I have to strongly disagree with you. I do this on the basis of my love of data and information. The census is not a popularity contest, and although it is common for people (especially in sermons!) to cite an individual result with no context or understanding of the data point, it does not mean we should support it by trying to skew the results.

    The census is a demographic survey, and its validity is predicated on people answering the questions free from external influence. When a person answers the religion question, they are summing up huge quantities of subjective and qualitative experience.

    In fact, you have used the past census results to raise an interesting point. On the one hand, 68% of Australians identify themselves as Christian. However we know that they certainly are not turning up at Church each week. So we have a fascinating disparity. If we redefined the question to more narrowly define Christianity it would reduce the separation in the data points, but hide the reality.

    Only further analysis can answer why this is the case. Is it because people don’t like Churches? Is it that they don’t understand the communal necessity of the faith? Is it that they view religion as a tribal group, and want to separate themselves from the ‘others’ (including Muslims)? There are so many possibilities, lets not distort the data to our own ends but instead use it as a starting point for further understanding.

  3. Pondering the concept of “cultural Christians” following census discussions. I’ve been talking about the difference between cultural and religious Jews for a while – maybe the same is true for Christianity?

  4. Maybe *that’s* why there are 68% ‘christians’ in this country. Maybe an EXTRA question should be added to the Census – not redefining this one, but rather to give us “you said you’re christian/muslim/etc: do you actively practice?”… I’m with Daniel – getting more & better data interests me greatly!! :)

  5. The Atheist Foundation is being too soft. I think no-one should mark themselves as Christian unless they fully understand and subscribe to the Athanasian Creed.’This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved’.

  6. Seriously though, the census question is not about what beliefs you have but what religious group you identify with (in very broad and institutional terms). That’s useful enough for demographic statistics and should be predictive of other behaviours (like using church schools) that the government has an interest in.Why on earth would the government care about my personal theological opinions?

  7. Hey Arthur,

    I had a bit of knee-jerk reaction to this post, forgive me if I sound a bit hot-headed :D The provocation obviously worked – haha!

    Firstly you emphasise Christian practice as a way to distinguish ‘true’ Christians from nominal ones (true isn’t a good label but I’m not sure how else to differentiate nominal Christians from other Christians so I’ll just go with that… :)) .Do you define practice as narrowly as church attendance only? I would have thought that the practice of Christianity is far broader and more inclusive of simply going to church.

    In fact, I’d even argue that the crux of being a Christian is MUCH more about acts of service, social justice (not the popular catch-phrase, I mean true social-justice-in-action) doing something about poverty & gross inequality, about suffering, about injustice, really loving others, sacrificing your time, money, effort & resources to help, love and care for people. THIS is what should set us apart as Christians – not whether we go to church.

    I don’t go to a church here at the moment*. Primarily, that’s because I haven’t found a good one here in Mwanza but in the interests of full self-disclosure, it’s also because I have issues with the Church. It is far less the ‘Body of Christ’ than an exclusive and damaging institution (damaging to many people, both Christians and non-Christian and damaging to the name of Jesus). The Church has a shocking reputation in the West and there is a reason for that.

    Therefore, I completely disagree with you that the “church is nothing less than the point of connection to Jesus.” Are you saying THE as in the definitive point of connection to Jesus? Cause I know you know that can’t be true. (Maybe I’ve misunderstood you here?) There are so many ways to connect with Jesus, I wouldn’t have the space to list them here if I tried. I don’t go to church but I certainly still feel a connection with Jesus. I also think (if you can allow me to get up on my high horse here for a moment and then step down again) that our life – and the way we live our lives here in Tanzania is much closer to what the heart of Christianity and Jesus really is…

    Church attendance is great sure, if you belong to a good church (that is not judgmental, exclusive, ‘cliquey’ demeaning of women in anyway, devoid of intra-church politics, bitterness & divisions and actively involved in serving the community and those beyond the borders of white-middle class Australia) but too often The Church has turned people away from Jesus rather than towards him. Are we as Christians (and therefore according to you, The Church) known for our love? Or for our judgmental stance on homosexuals, abortion, endemic sexual abuse within the two biggest denominations, our belittling of women, our ‘holier than thou’ attitudes, our prosperity theology, thank you Hillsong and many large other Pentecostal churches including our own local one here in Mwanza, aptly names ‘Winners’, in short: our vastly anti-Christian lack of love?

    “There is no Christianity outside the church.” Wow! At the risk of sounding more fired up than I already am (;-) don’t worry, this is as bad as it gets!) I completely, vehemently, utterly disagree with this statement. To the very core of my being.

    Again, as I’ve said – I sincerely hope that Christianity is defined by far more than just The Church (and if that’s what the rest of world also define us by, no wonder our faith gets such a bad rap). Christianity should be defined by Jesus Christ first and foremost and secondly by Christians – whether meeting in communal gatherings or not. Preferably, it should be defined by Christians who are living and breathing the words of Jesus Christ; that is they are not just talking the talk but really walking the walk, and to take this one step further: I would say Christianity should be defined by unconditional, unrelenting, all-encompassing sacrificial love.

    As a churchgoer of about 25 years, I can say that the ‘Christians’ I have found inside the church are rarely any different from the people (Christian or otherwise) outside of it. If that’s not a damning indictment on the Church, I’m not sure what is.

    *There is actually one church in Adelaide that I love! It’s not perfect, as no church is – but it definitely ticks all the boxes I’ve listed…if I were living in OZ, I’d probably go there regularly.

    p.p.s I have mad respect for your views so nothing I’ve written is personal in any sense….it might be that I’ve just misconstrued your wording…but even if it isn’t, each to their own & I’m totally ok with that. You guys have far more experience and knowledge in all things theological than I so I really respect that you have put a lot of thought into your beliefs and opinions.

  8. Thanks for your comments so far, everyone (haven’t read yours just yet Katie) — and for interacting wisely with a post designed for provocation rather than balance!

    Already I think we’ve hit on something very useful: the census’s religion question is not really about belief (contra the Atheist Foundation) nor about practice (contra my post). It’s more about experience (Dan), group identity (Andrew B), or gut reaction — for the purposes of demography.

    I’ve raised a theological point, but is the census simply a non-theological thing?

    And welcome, John, if you’re not a John I already know!

  9. Hey all,

    Arthur, nice post! I always enjoy responding to your provocations.

    I’m down with the substance of what Katie said. However, I’m interested to hear how you resolve your position on ‘church’ as essential to Christianity with a definition of what it means to be ‘in’ a Christian community.

    My feeling is that you will agree that it is broader than service attendance and congregation membership, but I’m interested to hear you draw the line in the fuzzy edges.

  10. Katie, so lovely of you to take the plunge and comment on this post! Thanks for your thoughts. I thought I’d chip in because my experience is also one of experiencing significant hurt in the church pretty consistently across my life.

    I think Arthur and I are both with you on the importance of social justice as Christian witness – and the blindness of the western church (no doubt, ourselves included!) to this. Same deal for the complete lack of love that is often endemic in (particularly) institutional church – the homophobia you mention is an excellent example. The poor witness of the church to Jesus is both a tragedy and a travesty.

    But if I can push back a little on this, I’m not sure that the way you describe a ‘good’ church would describe any of the churches Paul writes to in his letters or those Jesus speaks to at the start of Revelation! We see lots of examples of in-fighting for example, of gender wars, false teaching, being sold out to their own culture, etc. The need for them to be corrected is part of the reason we have these NT documents!

    I know that you know there’s no ‘perfect church’. Some of us have experienced the pointy end of that truth in brutal ways. But there’s something inherently dangerous about individual faith, of it being just Jesus and me. One danger is that we cut ourselves off from the gifts God gives (often other people – see Eph 4); another is that we end up missing our own sin or becoming self-righteous without our Christian brothers and sisters around. Heb 10 encourages us not to give up meeting together so we can spur one another on; 1 John 2 suggests that loving fellow believers (however failed, and some of them are REALLY failed!) is sign that we live in the light.

    On one hand, we bear with hypocrites in the church because we are also hypocrites. Same deal with those whose understanding is deficient – so its our own! On the other, we trust Jesus that he actually can see his purposes realised in the world despite (and perhaps even through) those same hypocrites. On the third (?!) hand, I choose to be part of a church even though that’s often painful and always risky because I think the definition of church is a whole bunch of messed up people hurting each other as they seek (often badly) to follow Jesus. I pray for positive experiences of church and for grace to extend to others when they don’t come.

    That’s all to say that I totally get where you’re coming from! And sometimes there are practical considerations that (temporarily) keep us from regular Christian community. One of those can be need for recovery from previous bad experiences. But I think Arthur’s question is kind of like the body imagery that’s used of the church – how can I claim to be connected to the head (Jesus) if I’m a finger which is severed from the hand/arm/rest of the body (the church)?

    I’ll let Arthur reply to Tom’s question about where service attendance/membership fits into all that and what lines (if any) there are to be drawn where. :)

  11. Hey Tamie

    Great comment. If I could prod you a little here — does avoiding the dangers you mentioned (and heeding the Biblical warnings) necessarily entail being part of an ‘institutional’ church?

    Is being part of a church congregation versus living as ‘just Jesus and me’ a false dichotomy?

  12. Also worth making the distinction between the church universal (that all Christians belong to) and the local, visible, church which does not necessarily contain Christians (or followers of Jesus if you want some sort of distinctive term).

  13. Thank you Tamie for your terrific comment – very thought provoking. I think I went off-topic (oops!) I realized that I didn’t mention the census once – and then ‘my rant’ kind of took over. Anyhoo, it is reassuring to know that even though you have been hurt by the Church you are still committed to it and passionate about it. I hope that at some stage I could perhaps come full circle and rediscover my love for communal worship.

    I was actually going to second Tom’s question; can Christian community only take place within a church? I’ve recently (as in 2 weeks) started going to a small group here (in the past, I’ve also found them hard to connect with but I really want to give this one a go). I guess though – I find the most genuine Christian community amongst my Christian friends. Does Christian community necessarily have to involve singing, a notices section, a sermon and a structured prayer time?

    Also, If I can diverge again (slightly!) I just wanted to mention the Pente thing. For a few years, I felt that the most vibrant connection with God could be found in a church with energy, with ‘dynamic’ teaching and ‘cool’ music – in the last 2 years though, it’s sort of like I’ve finally awoken to how superficial these mega-churches (Hillsong, Paradise, Planet Shakers et al) are. Of course, I realize they are not the norm. Many small and unassuming churches in suburban Adelaide or Melbourne are far better at doing real community and have far more substance in their teaching…I’m just intrigued in this denomination because it seems so popular here in Tanzania. The only church I’ve gone to here that seemed remotely decent was one called Kirumba Valley Christian Centre. Most of the service is great…but then the minister gets up and starts yelling at the congregation and he’s lost me from that point onwards. Right around the corner from our house, we have the ‘Winners Chapel.’ Over the past 9.5 months, we’ve seen it steadily grow; new signs have been put up, daladalas (public minibuses) have been acquired simply for the purposes of ferrying people to and from Winners (it’s just that popular!) and yet again, the preaching consists of nothing more than yelling into the microphone. I suppose that these sorts of churches symbolize my disillusionment with the Church in general – and it’s like I get a fresh reminder of that every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (these guys are dedicated, if nothing else!). At the moment, I’m content to find ‘community’ in this new small group – I’ll see how it goes. I would be so interested to hear your impressions of Christianity in Tz once you arrive here – on the one hand, I’m awed that Tanzanians, who have so little – can have such incredible faith but on the other – I wonder how solid the teaching really is, whether people are just coming back because they’ve been promised that God will bless them materially – I wonder how deep their faith really is. Apparently 50% of the population here are Christian but what does that really mean? Lip-service only? I’m not sure, I definitely don’t have the answers – I’m just thinking it all through.

  14. A few more thoughts, by way of a reply to Tom and Katie

    Although I mentioned “church attendance” and “Christian community” in pretty quick succession, I’m not saying the two are identical. That would be dangerous indeed!

    But I am saying that Christian faith is inherently and essentially corporate/shared/communal (not private/individual/self-contained). Belief and belonging go together. My point is not that Christian community is appropriate and desirable for Christian faith, but that it’s vital. And, while I’d be happy to look further at this point if it would be helpful (just ask!), I am assuming there are no real surprises here (!).

    And so, I’m speaking of “church” and “Christian community” pretty synonymously. We are church. Church is “two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name.” Church (in the words of the original post) is a spiritual family, which involves relating intentionally to other Christians in a sustained sense — being involved substantially enough with other Christians that our lives are shaped by it.

    So then, I’m assuming there’s more to “church attendance” than simply turning up to a Sunday service.

    But before we go on to talk about what Christian community might involve, let me turn the question around: is not mere attendance a significant dimension of belonging to Christian community? What is belonging without mere attendance? Community is nothing if not regular and involving, right? And so, why would that not also include Sundays?

    So, to sum up: is Christian community broader than service attendance and congregation membership? Of course. But can it conceivably be less than that? That’s the question.

    Here’s what I’m getting at: there is overlap between the institution and the community, between attending and belonging. Being organic and “non-institutional” does not guarantee that Christian community will be present, just as being institutional does not necessarily make Christian community disappear. So we cannot write off Sunday services and institutions if Christian community can indeed be found there.

    No, a Christian doesn’t have to belong to a “traditional” church. But a Christian ultimately has to belong somewhere. And where would a Christian belong if not to a “traditional” church?

    So Tom and/or Katie, where do you reckon this leaves us? I may not have answered the question, but I’d love to hear back from you, even if just to repeat the question!

  15. Hey Arthur,

    Excellent reply! I totally agree with your premise that community in faith is vital.

    Usual disclaimer: my view on this (like so many of mine) is not to be taken as set in stone — I’m up for being persuaded either way. Neither should I be taken as saying that what goes for me should go for everyone.

    “Community is nothing if not regular and involving, right? And so, why would that not also include Sundays?”

    To put it bluntly: because I think Sundays are lame. To me, Sunday services epitomise compromise and rarely demonstrate excellence.

    Like the US congress, nothing ever gets done on Sundays because the body isn’t really any good at doing anything it attempts. It attempts many things, but has no comparative advantage in anything. The possible exception is “worship” services, i.e. singing.

    Here’s my cynical take on it:
    — Teaching: Better done at seminars and seminaries than to a broad Sunday audience.
    — Bible study: Better done in small groups.
    — Fellowship/pastoral care: Better done in small groups/friendship groups than over tea and free bikkies.
    — Prayer: arguably better done in groups, where the risk of alienating uncomfortable people is lower. But I’m not too fussed on this one, I like public prayer.
    — Worship/singing: better done at concerts/special events, where if people don’t like the music they can leave (or not rock up in the first place).
    — Introducing new people: better done at pubs and parties than in the weirdness of church.
    — Community service: N/A.

    “So we cannot write off Sunday services and institutions if Christian community can indeed be found there.” Sure. Totally agree. But, if community can also be sufficiently found elsewhere, why drag yourself through Sundays?

    I feel that Christians think that “church” is the only way to do community because we simply lack imagination. Organised Christianity certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on “community”.

    There are many ways you can be a community. There are professional communities, special interest communities, all sorts of other communities. There are many ways in which communities can meet.

    You can be regular and involving without needing a set structure for meetings or a supporting institution with all the trappings. I think you’d agree with that.

    So, to take your last point: “No, a Christian doesn’t have to belong to a “traditional” church. But a Christian ultimately has to belong somewhere. And where would a Christian belong if not to a “traditional” church?”

    We belong to the Church, as in the body of Christ, not the organisation. They are not, and never have been, substitutable. Belonging to the first is essential. Belonging to the second is not.

    I think it’s theologically and socially lazy to equate belonging to an organisation with belonging to the Church. It’s convenient, but like many convenient things, deceptively obscures what really matters.

  16. That 68% you quote is actually from the 2001 census. In 2006 it was 64% (60% in SA). So the nominal figure dropped by a bit over 4% in five years, and when the new data comes out, we might find it’s down to 60%, as more non-religious people of this era mark No Religion while their parents ticked the church they got married in.

    Still a reminder that half of the non-Christians in Australia still had some identification with a church (often Anglican).

    And the No Religion group is a broad church: see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-08-09/collett-no-religion-belongs-to-the-unspoken-for/2830850

    I remember coming up to 2006 pentecostals were asking for their own tick box in the census, since there are more people in pentecostal churches than some of the demons listed. But they’ve kept the same list for consistency.

  17. I also remember an editorial where someone wrote something like “when I die, I hope it turns out I ticked the right box”.

    Not to mention many Christians who have just “ticked the box in their heart”…

  18. Hey Tom

    Like you said, we’re totally on the same page about the flexibility and provisionality of structures (check out this previous post, including a great diagram and a great quote!).

    But remember, I’m not equating institution and community. My question is about the overlap.

    How can we belong to “the” church without belonging to “a” church? How can we split off from others (yes, including “traditional” church) and yet remain “the Body”?

    I mean, this is a live question. As Protestants, ecclesiology hasn’t always been our strong suit! How do we avoid simply fragmenting yet again?

    Of course Christian community is not the institution. But “escaping institutions” cannot be the key to producing Christian community.

    So then, returning to your original question: I think that doing church today, being church, is about interdependence, not independence. It’s about being interdenominational instead of pretending to be non-denominational. It’s about cooperation rather than reinventing the wheel. It’s about striving to work with and reform existing structures, instead of ditching them at the first opportunity.

    Striving for unity, as Paul urges by emphasising the Body, leaves us with humility towards our brothers and sisters, and that leaves us with humility towards traditional structures, not pride. As if I’m doing community better than anyone else!

    A good example of this is our friend Dave, who has started Tribe: church for the irreligious. It’s a pretty new “product”, but they’ve been trying their best to stay hooked in with wider Christian networks — because every new “community church” is in danger of becoming a loose cannon.

    Also, check out the book Total Church — I reckon you’ll enjoy it!

    What do you think?

  19. Hey Arthur

    I think your argument is very compelling.

    I’m not sure about your conclusion about humility towards traditional structures as opposed to pride. My view (which is quintessentially progressive, perhaps to a cliché extent), is that there is as much pride in “conservatism”. Adherence to traditional structures out of deference and respect for those who have gone before us risks pride by rejecting attempts at criticism and reform. It’s like a false humility.

    I know you’re not at all like that though — this is just a side point.

    I agree on the ‘community church’ loose cannon point.

    I wouldn’t advocate anyone ditch anything at the first opportunity — but there comes a time when dissatisfaction with the status quo at institutionalised attempts at community reaches the point that persistence achieves diminishing returns.

    All of that said, this should not be taken as directed towards my previous church. They’re all great people who are trying to do church well, and indeed they do some things quite well.

    But, and Tamie picked up on some of these things in her post today — do the costs of attempts at institutionalised community outweigh the benefits? Tamie would say so (correct me if I’m wrong), but I am currently doubting it.

    So where does that leave us? Basically, back to my initial point. I want to be a Christian, but I don’t necessarily want to join an institutionalised community. But, by the same token, I don’t want to become a loose cannon. And I barely have time to eat and sleep let alone commit to a community (thanks, Law School!).

    I digress. But I think you get the point.

  20. I’m all for resisting the status quo — I mean, hey, we follow Jesus! Structures ought to be changed or abandoned if they’re not serving the community!

    But put it this way: it’s not a matter of whether we have institutions, but which institutions. Even the most organic community develops its own institutions (even the house church movement!).

    The Body is gonna be institutional at some level. Its gonna be messy. I’m gonna be conflicted. I can’t control it. But there it is. It’s the Body. It’s got sinews and gristle and goo. I don’t need to be a set of adamantium claws. I just need to be a knuckle bone or a knee cap.

    And, somehow, the Head has got it sorted.

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