I heard a Christian leader recently describe the relationship of Australians to the gospel as having gone through the cultural equivalent of climate change. As in the case of actual climate change, something has happened—the dials have been adjusted, the settings have shifted, the sea levels are starting to rise. Again, like actual climate change, the shifts can look small. Just a few degrees here, a few variables there. It’s all much the same. What difference could it make? But societies, like climates, are complex systems. Small changes have compounding effects: a few degrees here, and few centimetres there, and the whole thing ends up being very different. I think the changes in the culture are real, and I think it means we have to learn to behave and operate as a cultural minority in Australia.
The changes in the culture are real, and I think it means we have to learn to behave and operate as a cultural minority in Australia.
Let me explain what I mean.
In 1901, when Australia became a nation, we were an overwhelmingly Christian nation—something like 96% of us identified as Christian. By 1954 figure was down to 89%. By 2011 that was down to 61%. You can see where this is going.
The most recent data shows something dramatic. Between 2011 and 2016, those identifying as Christians went down to 52%. This means that, for the first time since federation, Australia looks almost certain to become (and, in truth may already be) a nation in which a majority identify as something other than Christian.
But here’s where it gets interesting. This story of decline in people identifying as Christian has very little relationship with the life and vitality of the churches. Whilst the data has moved in a lineal decline since 1901 (with an apparently sudden acceleration since 2011) that is not the story of the churches.
The churches have been—in the best sense—all over the place. They’ve had moments of vitality and moments of decline with a momentum and energy all their own. And our own moment of precipitous decline in Christian identification has not tracked with a corresponding decline in church attendance.
Let me put it this way. Between 2011 and 2016 about 950,000 who said they were Christian in 2011, said they weren’t in 2016.
Where did they go? Were those 950,000 people in 2011 active in their churches? Were they sharing their faith with others, reaching the poor in Jesus’ name, going on mission with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? Were they signing songs to Jesus with all their heart and sharing and participating in the sacraments with joy and reverence until, at so point between 2011 and 2016 they thought, “Oh, forget this, I’m becoming an atheist.”
That’s not what happened.
Overwhelmingly, those 950,000 did not change their religious patterns, their church attendance or even their beliefs. What changed was their confidence in their identity. For whatever reason, it made some sense in 2011 to say, “What are we again honey? Church of England?” By 2016, the culture had changed enough for them to say, “I’m not really a Christian, actually. I’m just going to tick ‘No religion’.”
What does all that mean? It means that we are living through a particular tipping point. It’s not the death of the churches as such. But it is the death of a culture that understood itself to be in some sense Christian. The poet Les Murray once described Australians as “roughly Christian”. We are living through the moment where that becomes no longer true. The Australian “we” and the Christian “we” have broken up.
We are living through a particular tipping point. It’s not the death of the churches as such. But it is the death of a culture that understood itself to be in some sense Christian.
This change has all sorts of implications. If Christianity is a virus, it is not easily shaken off. Societies don’t just become post-Christian after two aspirins and a lie-down. Vast swathes of our culture, politics, and institutions will become literally incomprehensible apart from an understanding of our Christian history. Recent contributions from scholars such as Stuart Piggin, Meredith Lake, and Steve Chevura show this clearly.
My point here, however, is addressed to those of us who still, you know, actually believe this stuff and go in for all the associated activities of evangelism, church attendance, charity and singing. This moment of change means that we need to learn to be and behave as a Bold Creative Minority.
The language comes for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who used it to describe the way the Jewish community has positioned itself so dynamically and creatively in its various host cultures.
What would it be for Australian Christians to adopt this posture? Three things:
1. No Entitlement
Creative minorities don’t think that their host society—its laws, norms and values—owe them anything. They don’t expect it to reflect their own. They are happy to argue their case, fight their corner and reason for their position. But they don’t enter the debate as if the culture already owes them its allegiance.
It is not a law of nature that minorities are creative. Minority status is a fact of mathematics. But creativity is something you have to choose. We will be a minority; we need to choose to be a creative one. We need to be clever, wily, charming, obstreperous, and charmingly pugnacious.
We will be a minority; we need to choose to be a creative one. We need to be clever, wily, charming, obstreperous, and charmingly pugnacious.
We can’t afford to spend the next few decades wandering around Australia like old, deposed European monarchs, wondering why no one respects us anymore. Italian social theorist Vilfredo Pareto speaks of “lions”, who preside over, and protect institutions, and foxes, who have to learn to work and survive in whatever environment they find themselves.
We have to learn to be foxes, not lions.
Finally, creative minorities are bold.
This point is well made in Greg Sheridan’s book God is Good for You.
Creative minorities don’t need to be meek, or shy, or apologetic, or cautious—they have an opportunity to be bold. It’s majorities that get defensive, because they have so much to defend. Creative minorities can adopt much bolder strategies, precisely because they lose less if they fail. A post-Christian Australia is, to use Sheridan’s phrase, a “target-rich environment.” We should joyfully rise to the challenge.
Let me end with a story:
In the 1960s in Latin America, there was a group of priests who were working for change in their diocese. They weren’t getting very far, so they brought in a leftist-consultant to advise them.
The consultant said: “There is only one thing you need to do. If you do it, things will change. But none of you will, and because you won’t, you’ll never really change anything.”
“What!?”, they asked. “What is this thing?”
And he looked and them and said: “Each of you secretly hopes that one day, you will be asked to be a bishop—to wear the bishop’s mitre. You have an invisible mitre in your cupboard. And what you need to do is go home burn that invisible mitre. Once you get rid of it, and only when you get rid of it, will you be able to change anything.”
I believe if we play this moment right, it could be a wonderful, rich, creative, faithful moment for the gospel in Australia.
What do we need to do to take on this role? Go home, and burn that cloak, the one that says, “If I play my hand right, my society will approve of me.”
If we can do that, we will be liberated, and by the grace of God, we will meet this moment.
This was originally given as an address at Q-Commons in Perth, WA.