The Vanishing Church? Lessons from “Down Under”


Australia and America are religiously different. Can you imagine an American President who was a self professed Atheistic Socialist, living in the White House with her current boyfriend whom she refused to marry because, as a feminist, she didn’t believe in marriage? That describes the Australian prime minister from 2010 to 2013. I doubt that this would be a CV considered electable by any American political party.


Australia’s history and mythology are different to America’s. We do not have the ennobling light of the city on a hill, nor the persecution and fight for religious freedom of the Pilgrim Fathers, nor the annual reminder of Thanksgiving.

It was because the British could no longer dump their convicts on American shores that they dumped us in “Botany Bay.” So Australia’s historical mythology is that of convicts and gold diggers without any religious theme other than hostility between Irish Catholics and British Protestants, and general antagonism toward all authority, especially religious authority.

This is not to say the mythology is true, either in America or in Australia. Mythology is Mythology, not history. All over Australia, home-sick Europeans built churches representing their homeland. Amongst them were fine Christian people who sought to live under Christ’s lordship and evangelise their neighbours, especially the indigenous peoples.

By the mid-twentieth century a staid, semi-British, and very middle class way of life had come upon the nation. This included religious instruction, even in state schools, Sunday school attendance by most children, and occasional church attendance by a large proportion of the community. Australia was basically a mono-cultural community, whose cultural/moral/legal worldview was broadly Christian, at least in the areas of family life, bio-ethics, and education.

The social revolution of the 1960s wiped this Australia away. It was not so much an intellectual rejection of Christianity (though there was some of this) but a practical rejection of church life as people became prosperous and could afford to enjoy hedonistic materialism. From the 1970s, government legislation slowly whittled away the Christian worldview with constant reference to multi-culturalism. In reality it imposed a new mono-culturalism of a democratic, individualistic, utilitarian secularism whose ultimate moral standard is “the Australian way,” whose greatest criticism is that something is “un-Australian,” and whose mantra is “a free society.”


So with this gross generalisation and oversimplification, what has been the effect on church life? I have not researched this carefully, just lived through it and observed it happening. So without research that could change these impressions and with all these reservations about how different Australia is, let me give you my perceptions of the gospel opportunities in a society that has moved away from Christianity.

Let me start with the bad news. We have become the enemy of the press and the chattering classes, for our un-Australian distinctiveness. The mode of Australian social control is “inclusive tolerance.” This is quite different to the Christian mode of “welcoming love.” Tolerance soon moves from “enduring what you don’t like” to “accepting whatever happens,” and so to relativism where “anything and everything is okay”—except criticism. Language gets bowdlerized into politically correct platitudes, and plain speech expressing biblical truth is unacceptable “extremism.” Whatever else Christians must do is not believe their Bible since such belief puts us in the same category as fanatical Muslims. Anti-discrimination and anti-vilification legislation, while not designed against us, is starting to be used against us.


Next, let me give you the analysis of the outcomes of the different reactions to the 1960s, for after 50 years we can see what has happened to the different churches and denominations.

  • Those who tried to hold firm to the old distinctives and traditions of European denominations slowly, steadily, and irreversibly declined. The congregations aged and were not replaced by the next generation.
  • The churches which tried to accommodate to the new society became liberal fairly rapidly and died as quickly. If a church is the same as society, why would anybody bother to join?
  • Some of those churches which gave away the scriptural distinctives and invented new forms of Christianity, sadly, survived and some have even flourished numerically and financially.
  • Not all, but only those churches who sought to return to the Bible and rethink the gospel for modern Australia are making slow and steady progress both in their growth and in reaching Australia with the gospel.

So in simple impact those churches who returned to the Bible have made solid progress, though some more spectacular impact has been made by strange new teachings like the prosperity gospel.


Finally, here are four pieces of good news.

Firstly, the departure of nominal adherents from the churches was good news because they took with them some of the hypocrisy and humbug of the religious social club. Their social control over the church, which put the gospel and evangelism as a low to non-existent priority, evaporated. This meant the church could be brought back to the centrality of the gospel. Our institutions (schools, retirement villages, refuges, youth camps, etc.) could return to their primary focus on the biblical Christ.

Secondly, while evangelism became more difficult and challenging, it has become more rewarding. Previously most evangelism took place within the fold of nominal members. Now we have to go outside the fold to people who have had no contact with the church for a couple of generations and usually not a skerrick of biblical knowledge. This has had the great effect of forcing us out of our Christian ghettoes to reach quite unreached people. No longer can our churches be ethnic tribal groupings celebrating their cultural roots and rites of passage through life. Based on the gospel, our multicultural churches exhibit something of “the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10).

Thirdly, society suffered the consequences of ungodliness. For example, large numbers of children are raised in the dysfunctional homes of divorce and de facto marriages. This flows through society as each generation is less likely to be committed to marriage and raising children. It was easier for my parents to raise me and for me to raise my children than it is for my children to raise my grandchildren. While, sadly, society’s contagion of divorce is entering the Christian community, the Christian family still stands out as different. The way we raise our children has consciously become more distinct as we have to be more intentionally Christian in raising and educating our children. Christian schooling is an increasingly popular way not just for Christians, but also for the community to educate their children, and for us to influence the community with the gospel.

Fourthly, gaining immigrants from all over the world has provided new and wonderful missionary opportunities as we evangelise cross-culturally and reach people on our doorstep whom previous generations would never have met. While the old British community has apparently turned their back on God, the new non-British community are embracing the gospel in increasing numbers. Society on the move is society open to all manner of influences, including the gospel.


It is easy to be depressed about the collapse of the culture in which you were raised and in which Christ found you. But it was the gospel, not the culture, that mattered in your conversion.

We are wrong to think that we are to create a Christian nation, since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. Christendom was not Christian. Australia prior to the 1960’s was not Christian in theory or in practice. Today may be tougher for us in some ways. But there is an honesty and a holy distinctiveness in being a Christian in Australia today that makes the work of evangelism and the reality of church so much easier.

Phillip Jensen

Phillip Jensen is Dean of Sydney, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney.

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