Churches in Australia: The Lucky Country?

Article
12.12.2016

Gospel unity and clarity is slowly growing in Australian churches, though confusion on the church and her mission persists.

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In the 1960s, author Donald Horne famously wrote that Australia is “the Lucky Country.” He suggested Australia’s progress as a nation had more to do with good fortune than good leadership. Today, the phrase has become a banner of affirmation that hangs over our Australian way of life.[1] After all, we’re a materially rich and ethnically diverse society that prides itself on providing a “fair go for all.” The vast majority of our 24 million residents live in predominately coastal urban areas and cities—two of which are ranked among the world’s five “most livable.” At the risk of caricaturing, Aussies love barbecues, sport, the beach, and a good laugh. We root for the underdog and cut down the “tall poppy” who thinks he’s better than others. Despite the fact that our national love language is criticism and sarcasm, this is a laid-back, friendly country, where everyone’s a “mate.”

Christianity was first introduced to Australia in the late 1700s when European settlers arrived, bringing with them their various denominations. By the 1840s, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, and Baptist churches had all been established. The outset of the 20th century saw 96 percent of Australia’s population self-identifying as “Christian”; 70 percent of those were Protestant, 40 percent of whom ascribed to Anglicanism.

Unfortunately, like many other Western countries, the tides have since turned. Today, just 8 percent of Australia’s “Christians” actually attend church regularly, and the median age of those churchgoers is nearly 20 years older than the median age of the population. One might quibble here and there about what these statistics actually mean, but any way you look at it our need for healthy churches is great. For all our blessings and general high standard of living, our nation is increasingly filled with those dead in sin, without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12).

So, how is Jesus building his church in Australia? What encouraging trends are evident? What growing obstacles do churches here face?

I confess: Australia is a large country, and the further one looks beyond their immediate surroundings the greater their vision blurs. Nevertheless, let me offer one perspective that will both encourage your heart and drive you to pray for this nation.

GROWING CAMARADERIE & GOSPEL RESOURCES ARE STRENGTHENING THE PULPIT

In the past, denominational tribalism has weakened the work of the local church and the advancement of the gospel in Australia. But in August of last year, a group of 110 Christian leaders from around the country came together for the launch of The Gospel Coalition Australia. It’s in the early days, but already through local conferences and website content, TGCA is equipping pastors to better understand expository preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, and evangelism. J.C. Ryle once wrote, “Keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them regularly.”[2] TGCA is a positive example of this kind of Christian unity, and it’s helping rather than hindering health of several Australian local churches.

Theological education remains a mixed bag in Australia, but several factors have led to a recent strengthening of various Bible colleges. As the next generation of pastors is trained to rightly handle the Word, more biblical exposition is filtering down into a number of pulpits. Meanwhile, parachurch organizations like Matthias Media continue to promote local church health through a variety of biblically faithful resources. In recent years, The Trellis and the Vine has been especially fruitful in encouraging a biblical understanding of church-shaped discipleship and growth. Furthermore, new churches are being planted across the country through networks committed to biblical doctrine and sound preaching, such as Acts 29, Geneva Push, and City to City.

I give thanks to God for these encouraging trends, and pray for their continued momentum as God’s Word is preached, disciples are made, and churches are established.

TEACHING ON THE CHURCH & ITS MISSION IS OFTEN MURKY & DILUTED

And yet, amidst these encouraging trends, a lack of biblically robust ecclesiology persists. I think it’s fair to say that very few churches in Australia seem to be looking to the Scriptures to understand how they should organize their lives together as a church. Because of this, more and more churches seem to be looking instead to personal preference, pragmatism, and the wisdom of the world.

Even among those who say they hold to a “9Marks ecclesiology,” few appear to actively pursue it. If it’s true that “wrong ecclesial teaching and practices obscure the gospel while right ecclesial teaching and practices clarify it,”[3] then those persuaded by the biblical fidelity of these marks will find cause for concern. From my experience, the practice of meaningful membership and church discipline is almost non-existent in this part of the world.

But of far greater concern is the fact that so many churches “Down Under” are losing their grip on the biblical gospel, and are instead embracing doctrinally-diluted distortions like the therapeutic and social activist “gospels.” J.I. Packer could well have been writing about Australia’s church landscape when he lamented: 

Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel (i.e. the biblical gospel) for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty.[4]

Furthermore, like our brothers and sisters in Europe, Christians in Australia are now experiencing a far more aggressive secularism. Increased cultural pressure related to gender issues threatens to open a floodgate of liberalism as more churches abandon the Bible’s sexual ethic in an attempt to make Scripture palatable to twenty-first century sensibilities.

CONCLUSION

As it turns out, Australia is not the “Lucky Country.” But neither is it a spiritual wasteland. In God’s rich mercy, the gospel continues to spread slowly and bear fruit (Col. 1:5–6). However, the work is great and the laborers are few. Please pray that God would give us grace to be faithful and cause our work to be fruitful. To the praise of his glory alone.

Author’s Note: A special thanks to Murray Campbell for his help in shaping this article.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] See ‘The Lucky Country’ http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/lucky-country

[2] Quoted in Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh; Banner of Truth, 2000), p. 311.

[3] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville; B&H, 2012), p. xi.

[4] J.I. Packer, ‘Introductory Essay’ in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh; Banner of Truth, 2007), p. 3.

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