The 2021 Australian Census findings are out. According to the data, Australians are less religious and Australia is becoming less Christian.

Of our 25 million Australians, 43.9% identify as Christian, down from 52% in 2016 and 61% in 2011. Australians who now identify as non-religious are 39%, up from 30% in 2016. Let’s not pretend otherwise; this is a significant fall and jump. Of course, the non-religious category isn’t a synonym for atheism or God-free secularism; but rather, these are Australians who belong across a spectrum of views but who do not identify comfortably with any specific religious expression. 

What we are seeing is not a decline of genuine faith but the growing recognition that nominalism doesn’t count as real Christianity.

What are we to make of the national census data? How can we interpret this changing landscape of Australians’ deepest beliefs and convictions? 

First of all, what we are seeing in Australia is not a decline of vibrant and genuine faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. Christianity) but the growing recognition that nominalism doesn’t count as real Christianity. People who have connections with Christianity are waking up to the fact that they don’t actually trust in Jesus or agree with the Bible or like the Church, and simply pulling the plug. The decline of Christian nominalism is positive, and I suspect we still have quite a way to go before this process is finished.

Pros and Cons

An environment where identifying as a Christian really means you are a follower of Jesus Christ and belong to a local church is good and healthy—not only for churches and for individual people, but for the entire country. It will demolish the misconception that Australia is a Christian country. A Christian is someone who actively believes and seeks to live out the gospel—not someone who attended a religious school or whose parents are believers. 

As fewer people identify with the Christian faith, our activist and progressive overlords will use this as ammunition.

But of course, this decline also has a downside. As fewer people identify with the Christian faith, our activist and progressive overlords will use this as ammunition to further purge our society of its Christian vestiges. That is a mistake because the very foundations of our civil society and the rule of law, and social pluralism depend on the Christian worldview. 

Many Australians are unaware of this fact: that the very air we breathe is heavy with principles and ideas that derive from (and depend on) the Bible: the idea that all people have inherent dignity and worth; the idea that men and women are equal; and the view that we should try to persuade people with ideas rather than using coercion.

Losing our Religion

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if we find that all manner of values begin to disappear from our society. Nor should we be shocked when the secular “heavenly vision” which replaces those values turns out to be authoritarian and intolerant.

Carl Trueman assesses our modern age:

The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialisation are to be marked, not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos, but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children.

While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologised era will accord increasing importance to words as means of oppression. … Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.

Sharing the Blame

We cannot simply blame secularists here. Christians are increasingly aware of not only our failings, but of the horrendous evils that have been hidden and protected inside some religious institutions. Why would anyone walk inside a church when there are so many stories of clergy abusing children and men abusing women? The fact that such occurrences are relatively rare doesn’t reduce the reality of those incidences. 

The only way back from these great evils is repentance.

The only way back from these great evils is repentance.

Another reason why churches need to shoulder some of the responsibility for the decline in Christianity is the insipid liberalism that has infected some of our denominations and churches for generations. If we have allowed our pastors to convince themselves that the only way to stay relevant is to abandon biblical truths and water down key doctrines, then we the harvest of dying churches is our due. Visit any liberal Baptist Church and then visit the average Baptist Church, and you will see a significant difference in attendance and ministry output. Churches where the basic message is, “God didn’t say,” are an irrelevance that endangers people‘s eternal status by driving them away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Tom Hollands says: 

I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that … if they’ve got views on original sin. I would be very interested to hear that.

It also doesn’t help that Christians seem more captured by the promises of the Aussie dreams than they are by God and his purposes. Why would anyone consider Christianity when the gospel seems to leave little dent in the lives of Christians?

While the media will make bundles of hay out of the Census data today, I don’t think its results have surprised anyone. Now, as churches have done for millennia, we must look across our streets and suburbs and see people who are made in the image of God—yet who are cut off from God. And we must learn to see these neighbours as people to love and serve. And we must find ways to tell them about the greatest news the world has ever known: that God loved this world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life everlasting.  

As Australians admit they are turning their back on God, there are other nations where the people are turning to Christ in their millions. Christianity isn’t dead. As Jesus said, the harvest is ready, so let’s get to work.

First published at murraycampbell.net