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!
Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.
Having travelled little outside Adelaide, I didn’t realise (till hearing about it more recently) that the level of unity in the Adelaide Church isn’t there in the big cities. I thought denominationalism was something from the old days.
I’ve done a lot of comparing the strength of the Church across parts of Adelaide, but comparing between cities is harder. Would be interesting though – is the Church actually numerically weaker in Adelaide? I’ll have to hunt for some more data.
SA has an older age profile than the other states (esp western Adelaide) so that means more churches here have more older people.
A lot of the features of Adelaide would apply even more so to small towns, esp the lack or resources.
Hi Eric :)
I would guess that the church in Adelaide is not proportionally smaller compared with other Australian cities — but since Adelaide is a smaller city, the church’s increasing decline is more keenly felt.
Thanks for mentioning country towns. I guess the things I’ve described above are only distinctive with respect to the eastern centres. Not surprisingly, Tasmania seems to have similar characteristics to what I’ve described above, if our Tassie college friends are anything to go by!
Hi Arthur. A few comments:
1. The opulence issue. SA has always been mainland Australia’s poorer cousin. Generally the first state to go into recession and the last to come out of it. Linked to this issue: we face the continual brain drain of gifted people to the Eastern states for better work opportunities. But we do have a pretty good lifestyle for all that!
2. The denominational openness that you noted owes some of its being to (1) people like George Fife Angas who in the early years of the states sponsored not only his own Methodist churches but also helped many Lutherans and others in coming to make SA a notably Christian colony; (2) the ministry of Geoff Bingham at Adelaide Bible Institute: under Geoff’s ministry there was a renewing of the college and this had its impact across many denominational churches…. See More
3. SA is one of the the few places in Australia to have experienced genuine local revivals – Wudinna in the 1970s and Wallaroo, Moonta, Kadina in the 1880’s. This has given a longer term legacy through the state. I still meet many people converted in the Wudinna mission and revival who have had significant ministry in various denominational settings.
4. Regarding people to come to SA: so long as they come without colonial prejudices. My own view is that too many people from the East come thinking that they are the wise men and we are the ignorant natives who should gladly and humbly receive from them. If only we had their methodology we’d all be successful like they are! The gospel has been in SA for a long time, and we may have things that Eastern staters need to learn. Generally the missiology adopted seems to be the compound approach: i.e. jump in with the church situation most like home and hope that all the locals will see the value of it, or else go to a new situation and try to replicate what has been known before. It seems to me to betray a culturally defined Gospel which means a diminished Gospel.
Thanks heaps for dropping by with your experience — and for the fascinating historical context.
I can only second your feelings about ‘colonial prejudices’!!
Cool post, Arthur – it certainly matches most of the observations I made while I was there in 2008!
South Australia certainly has a rich Christian heritage to be thankful for, both from the English COE/Methodists/Presbyterians and the German Lutheran influence.
@Andrew (re: point #4)
While you’re right, I do note (with tongue gently in cheek) that the rest of the country has had to listen to SA’s “we weren’t founded on convicts” stereotype for quite a while, so maybe a feeling of colonial superiority would go down really well! :P
…And I guess New Creation teaching ministries is the most obvious aspect of Geoff Bingham’s substantial legacy.
On interconnectedness: Dad spent 8 years in Papua New Guinea in the ’60s. He noted that often new Adelaide visitors to their church would connect with South Australian missionaries, saying “I remember you from CE camp a few years ago” – another big contributor to interdenominationalism.
Great stuff Arthur and love the call to mission in Adelaide… particularly in the northern suburbs… (or North-Eastern suburbs?!)
In this instance I meant the north as opposed to the NE. The TTG area is Adelaide’s largest bible belt, while the Salisbury area is poorer and less Christian.
Still, there is work to do all over Adelaide. And good to see things getting going at Trinity NE!
I agree with some of your points & disagree with others. I don’t necessarily agree that the church in Adelaide is in decline I agree that maybe the church in it’s more traditional sense is declining but alot of christians in the Adelaide scene are looking for something more these days than what is within a building or a structure. Some have been burnt out & are looking for the real Jesus beyond stone walls. More within the body of people which is why we look for the church beyond denominationalism. We are looking for something more real, alive & living.
Some of Adelaide church’s are growing cold but there are some that are thriving & there are those willing to step outside the religious traditions & the ways we have done things before & are seeking more of the freshness of what the Holy Spirit is doing right now which is very different to the way we have done church in the past. I think this is the key to God’s people really swelling & even those who have been hurt by the church coming back in. Revival & Renewal is our only hope that the fresh breath of the Spirit revive us from our old dead works.
There is definitely not only a Unity in Adelaide that is unique within the church but also a love for one another & a sense of family. Having travelled on and off to different states in Australia it saddens me to notice that it is missing elsewhere. I long for them (in the other states) to find it! Because it has been such a treasure to me. I know christians from all walks of life that are my brothers & sisters & not just in the sense of it being a word that’s thrown around but something that is much more real. We have time for each other & even are more likely to want to eat, fellowship & worship organically beyond a church meeting a building or a particular group but in the sense of what Communion really is meeting in each others homes without a leader, a title or an agenda. We meet heart to heart & not just with surface conversation but a connecting of dreams & visions, encouraging one another, confessing sin to one another & speaking to the heart.
Just a few of my thoughts anyways…
I like what you said here Tammy.
“Revival & Renewal is our only hope that the fresh breath of the Spirit revive us from our old dead works.”
The definition of revival is God’s people being revived and the only thing that can bring us an “abundance of life” is the Spirit of God burning brightly in our very soul. Counting it all joy in the strength of the lord Jesus Christ.
In a large church in the city of Vancouver, Canada, I suppose we all felt as though we were what would be called a Spirit filled church. And we were! Hallelujah. But then the glory of God came in such a way that was far greater than we could have imagined. There was such an abundance of joy we could barely contain ourselves. Actually, many couldnt contain themselves. Suddenly everyone wanted to come to church…all the time. At first we had church everyday but Saturday for three months. Then it was dropped down to 3 times a week simply because the worship team was getting tired. What a time we had in God in those years somewhere around 1996 to the year of 2000. Peoples lives were changed for the better, there were those who were set free from sins they struggled with for years, and many were healed from sickness’ including diabetes and cancer.
We had men come to our church to preach who were familiar with this new move of God on our planet. We were to find out that this same move of God was happening around the globe in various hot spots. It was my understanding that this started in Australia, came to Canada, then parts of the United States, and even places like India and China which apparently have always been the most difficult to reach for Christ. I was sure not to miss a beat of what was happening in those years. I was like a sponge soaking up whatever the Holy Spirit wanted to do in our midst and within.
Having read some of the responses here I am not sure this is something that you all are particularily interested in there in Adalaide.
After our revival, God called me to Mazatlan, Mexico where I have spent the past 7 years as a spiritual revivalist. Whats that you say, spiritual revivalist? Just a little term I have come up with describing what I do in the Christian churchs’. In all humility I bring the greater glory of God without preaching. My wife and I are currently attending a church in the inner city here in Mazatlan where the people have and continue to have great burdens and struggles in life. We have only been here for a month but what God is doing in this people is truly something to praise God for. Up until now we have only seen people on their knees in tears at every service but last Sunday there were those of us who were dancing before the Lord. First came the purging and I am truely looking forward to what is to come now that I feel we have broken through.
Earlier this year 2012 I woke to a voice that said “I am preparing you for Australia” Since that time my wife and I have been excited at the prospect. We are actually hoping to take up residance in Adalaide which brings me to this website.
I like hearing things like how the different denominations come together in your city and some of the other things in this article. I would love to bring the greater glory of God to your city but I must tell you that you must want it. Are the people there hungry for the deep things of God? How much of God’s glory and power do you want to experience?
Welcome Tammy, and thanks for sharing. :)
My suspicion is that many of your observations hold pretty true not only for Adelaide but also for Perth. I wonder how much interaction the evangelicals in the two cities have. Perhaps it would be fruitful to have strategic discussion between the two about how to best move forward rather than, as so often happens, only importing things from the east (which aren’t necessarily bad, just from a more removed context). Just a thought…
Hi Bec :)
Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is case. What we’re talking about may well be true for most of Australian Christianity apart from the eastern centres!
I’m sure that the churches in Perth and Adelaide will be able to learn from each other, although each will ultimately need to figure things out in their own local context.