The biggest Christian outreach this country has ever known happened in 1959. Some called it a revival. The missioner was Billy Graham. On March 15, 1959, Graham spoke to a record MCG crowd of over 130,000 people.
When Billy Graham proclaimed the gospel that night, what was the context into which he was preaching?
‘Have you been born again?’ was a brilliant question for a crowd liable to confuse Christian identity with a living faith.
Statistically, about 115,700 of that crowd (or 89 percent) would already have understood themselves to be Christians. Most, indeed, had been baptised. And so, to an overwhelmingly Christian, mostly baptised crowd he asked them, “Have you been born again?” It was a brilliant question for a crowd liable to confuse Christian identity with a living faith. Many responded to his invitation.
In the aftermath, Anglican and Presbyterian parents worried their sons and daughters were getting a bit too enthusiastic about the ancestral religion. Their children hadn’t changed religion. They were just entering an intensive form of the majority faith of Australians. They arrived “Christian”, they left born again. Nominally Christian people entered into a personal relationship with God.
Why is our situation, sixty years later, so very different? Why is it almost impossible to imagine a similar event today? Four factors are worth considering.
First, the key process is secularisation. Put simply, between 1959 and today, we have become more secular.
The numbers tell part of the story. The next census is almost certain to mark a significant milestone: the first time fewer than fifty percent of Australians identify as Christian.
Somewhere between 2011 and 2016, 950,000 people who used to think, ‘I’m Christian’ ceased to reach for that label.
In 1901 about 96 percent of Australians identified themselves as Christian. By the 1950s this had hardly moved, with a good 89 percent nominating Christian on the census. The big change has happened in the last half-century. It began in about 1963, and it has accelerated in the last ten years. The next census, due this August, is almost certain to mark a significant milestone: the first time fewer than fifty percent of Australians identify as Christian.
The change has been rapid. Between 2011 and 2016, roughly 950,000 who said they were Christian gave it up five years later. Where did they all go? They didn’t become Muslims. Or New Age. Or Zoroastrian. Neither did they become atheists. As far as we can tell, the majority of those 950,000 people still believe in God in some way.
They became secular. Somewhere between 2011 and 2016, 950,000 people who used to think, “I’m Christian” ceased to reach for that label. They didn’t get there by reading Dawkins or finding a troubling logical gap in Aquinas’ five proofs for God. No. The culture around them changed. And in that change they found “Christian” was no longer a meaningful category.
2. Post-Christian Secular
Second, Australia is increasingly secular, but it is a post-Christian kind of secular.
When a culture like ours disaffiliates with Christianity, it does not simply revert to a pre-Christian past. One of the pernicious myths of secularism is that secular space is what you get when you vacuum all the “religion” out. No such vacuum exists. Australia is post-Christian in the same way a crater could be said to be post-meteor.
Consider some of our post-Christian values such as the equality of persons or concern for the vulnerable. These are not what you get when you decide to give up the Christian religion and “Just Be Reasonable”. In which laboratory did we establish the equal worth of persons? Which part of nature taught us to care for the weak? These values do not derive from either reason or experimentation. They are the crater left by Christianity. We are not dealing with virgin territory, but with a population which has been gospel vaccinated
And here’s where the uniqueness of our challenge comes. To use Tim Keller’s metaphor, we are not dealing with virgin territory, but with a population which has been gospel vaccinated. Our culture, having benefited from the gospel’s fruits, has been inoculated from the “disease” itself. Or, as Mark Sayers puts it, we want the kingdom without the King.
But Christianity continues to shape us, even in our rejection of it. For sociologist Philip Rieff, we are not a First Culture (pre-Christian pagan), nor a Second Culture (Christian), but a Third Culture (post-Christian). In the process of secularisation, we do not simply revert to becoming pagan again.
We become this Third Culture, an anti-culture in which Christianity is the thing being parodied, deconstructed, reappropriated. Just as a medieval Mardi Gras carnival parodied the ruling order, “Third Culture Australia” is a parody of Christianity. Except the carnival has become the New Order, Christianity the side show.
3. God Framed Out
Third, God hasn’t be argued out, he has been “framed” out. Modern secular culture doesn’t mount an argument to establish there is no God, no transcendent realities. We’ve simply agreed to function as if that’s a question we don’t need to answer. Some believe, some don’t. The point is we operate, for all practical purposes, as if God is out of the frame.
4. The Expressive Individual
Fourth, our culture nurtures a vision of the self which has been called “expressive individualism”. As Carl Trueman has recently argued, this is a vision in which the highest good is to discover one’s true inner self. This self, often obscured by society, education, religion, or even our bodies and our biology, must be discovered and then expressed to the world.
Consider the way the Army recruits personnel. In the first half of the century a recruitment poster declared:
“Come into the ranks and fight for King and Country—don’t stay in the crowd and stare”
The appeal is to something beyond yourself. It says, in effect, “Don’t think about your own life goals, attach yourself to something bigger than you—your King and your Country.”
But today, for Army recruitment, the advertisements declare:
“Do what you love'” “Discover your Army”
The appeal is now no longer beyond, but within. Joining the Army no longer represents something bigger than you, but a discovery of the real you. This is expressive individualism lived out in the immanent frame.
I’m not trying to tell a “decline and fall'” story here. Some things are better today than in 1959. A culture of respectability has been replaced by a culture of respect. Many minority groups are in better positions now than then. And for Christians, nominalism obscured the gospel and fostered hypocrisy. My point is not to compare 1959 and 2021 in order to declare a winner. It is simply to clarify the difference.
Not Out-Thought, but Out-Discipled
The success of secularism is not in its intellectual coherence, but its discipleship programme. Intellectually, it is fairly weak.
The success of secularism is not in its intellectual coherence, but its discipleship programme. Intellectually, it is fairly weak. The moment secular thought encounters beauty, agency, or morality, it very quickly runs out of resources. The self it creates is unstable, anxious, listless. Its immanent frame is a practical strategy, not a reasoned position. It’s account of how self, body, and gender all relate often border on incoherent.
Why is it so overwhelming? Its power lies not in its ideas, but in its formation process. It is intellectually weak, but formatively formidable. In short, we’re not being out-thought; we’re being out discipled. We are not argued into expressive individualism, we are formed into it. To live in modern Australia is to be a part of a relentless discipleship programme.
No one is won to expressive individualism by a careful and considered reading of Rousseau. No hands shoot up after another graduation speech about following your dreams to ask obvious questions such as “where do these dreams come from and how you know following them will work out well for me?” No one questions whether and on what basis I decide, of all the competing selves within me, if the one I’ve chosen to express is the “true” one. Nor does anyone seem curious about the fact that these apparently unique selves are all so similar to each other’s unique selves. What are the chances?! Lucky, I guess.
We are not argued into expressive individualism, we are formed into it. To live in modern Australia is to be a part of a relentless discipleship programme. Every Pixar and Disney film, every graduation speech, every new novel and Netflix series is one hundred percent on point: your purpose in life is to find the true inner you and then to express that to the world. God is framed out. Religion is a private, recreational activity: its allocated space is the domestic, the weekend, the life-style choice.
What do we need, to see the gospel heard and lived in modern Australia?
The task before us is to build a culture of discipleship strong enough to out-disciple the wildly successful discipleship programme we are all enrolled in from birth. To be a Christian in 2021 is to be an alternative to the culture, not an intensive form of it. To nurture and sustain Christian faith we will need to form thick communities, geared at producing resilient disciples of Jesus. What we lack in breadth of numbers we will need to make up for in depth of formation. This is a formidable task. But it is the task, in the power of the Spirit and under the rule of the risen and reigning King Jesus, to which we are called.
First published in ACR Journal