OPINION: Churches’ future depends on their followers

BEING described as “the salt of the earth” is a good thing.

Such a person is kind, honest, decent and reliable.

This phrase is found in the Bible, used by Jesus to his disciples – perhaps as a goal to aspire to.

What about followers of Jesus today?  Do they still deserve this description?  The headlines scream of the failings of religious institutions.

There is another story, one that does not make it into the headlines.

  It is about local church members, people in faith communities found in neighbourhoods across the nation.

Around 15per cent of Australians go to church at least once a month.

 While it is hard to compare exact numbers, the monthly involvement could well rival the attendances at Australian Rules football matches over a whole year.

The recent National Church Life Survey (NCLS) reveals who goes to church and why. The NCLS is one of the largest research projects in Australia.  Every five years it runs parallel to the census. Some 23 Christian denominations take part.

   Surveys were completed in about 3000 local churches by 260,000 adult church members, 10,000 child members (aged 8 to 14) and 6000 leaders.

Six out of 10 adult church members are female.  Four out of 10 are younger than 50 years of age.

   They are well-educated – a third have university degrees compared to just under a quarter of all working-age Australians.  The average age is 55 years, pointing to a long-term ageing trend.

Churches are major providers of community services, aged care and childcare, and while the broader community may not flock to church on Sunday, there is high demand for church-based schools.

Individually, church members are much more likely to be volunteers in their communities than the average Australian.

    Furthermore, church members are even more likely to be involved in acts of care, welfare and justice than a decade ago.

Why do they go? Many faithful are turning to churches for community, having high hopes for a place to belong and to make a meaningful contribution using their own gifts and skills.  

Most, 75per cent, report a strong sense of belonging to their local church.

They also want spiritual growth – and are finding it. Some 86per cent  have grown in their faith over the last 12 months. They value the practices of the faith within the context of a faith community.

The NCLS showed that, across a range of qualities of church health, churches have grown stronger or held their ground during the past decade. 

They are clearer about future directions, and more open to new possibilities.  Don’t be surprised when you see churches trying new approaches for communicating their age-old message.

We live in a religiously diverse nation and, compared to other nations, have largely managed to sustain a high level of tolerance of those who hold different views about religion.

Jesus cautioned his listeners that if the salt lost its saltiness, then it was no longer good for anything except to be thrown out.

There is no doubt that things have changed.  

Whether they like it or not, the place of Christian churches in public life is being renegotiated.  How successful the followers of Christ are at retaining their ‘‘saltiness’’ is yet to fully unfold.

Associate Professor Ruth Powell, from Australian Catholic University, is the National Church Life Survey research director.

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