It was the Sunday to preach on doubting Thomas, the apostle who would not believe he was talking to the risen Christ until he was allowed to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. Come sermon-time, Father Vincent Peile did not waste words.
Fully robed, he walked over to a side wall of his church and slowly, ceremoniously, stood on his head. Returning to right-side-up, he asked his congregation, who were torn between shock and amusement: “If you were to go home and tell your family that father stood on his head during Mass, would they believe you?”
“I wanted to take them back to something unbelievable,” says Peile, Catholic priest at St Ambrose’s in Woodend. “It was the nearest I could get to offering them something of the experience of doubting Thomas. I believe there’s even a priest in Sydney, with youth and agility on his side, who in full clobber does cartwheels from one side of the sanctuary to the other. He tells people, `You won’t remember what I’ve said today, but you will remember what you’ve seen’.”
Gospel or gimmickry? A savvy way to engage a critical, post-modern audience, or a desperate attempt to overcome the growing irrelevance of a fading tradition? Peile, like most clerics, knows that selling God is tougher than it used to be. It will get harder as the churches’ staunchest adherents – older Australians – start to age and die away. The churches have always been concerned about where the world is heading; now they must worry about their own future. Whither Christianity?
To put it in what Peile would call the language of “affluenza”, Christianity’s market is shrinking and fragmenting. Except for the recent boom in Pentecostal churches, which have now overtaken Anglicans, overall church attendances have been falling for 20 years.
Those who do go to church have become picky. They shop around in what has been called “the divine supermarket”: Protestants swap denominations and Catholics travel outside their parishes to find their preferred style of worship. The result has been a rise in the variety of services – an economist might call it “niche marketing” – but it will be another decade before the churches find out whether their changes are too little, too late.
Their fundamental problem is the big gap between the number of people who call themselves Christian and the number that turn up to church. Most Australians believe in God, but only a minority now believe in a personal God. According to a study by the National Church Life Survey organisation, about 35 per cent of people in the wider community believe in a personal God and 39 per cent believe in a life-force of some sort. Forty-three per cent accept core Christian tenets, including that Jesus was God and that he rose from the dead. (Nine per cent are atheists and 17 per cent agnostics.)
But, while 33 per cent pray or meditate at least weekly, and 43 per cent say they feel close to God, only 20 per cent go to church at least once a month. Those who do are not young: only 9 per cent of church attenders are in their 20s, and less than a third are under 40.
Gary Bouma, professor of sociology at Monash University, says: “The picture is of churches that are increasingly inward-looking, with decreased significant contact between the church and the larger society. They don’t engage with people outside of those who show up, and those who show up are becoming such a strange subset of members of society: they’re conservative, they’re moralistic and they’re old.
“Meanwhile there’s a vast search for spirituality . . . Look at the shelves of spiritual material in bookshops. People are going to meditation sessions, to spiritual fairs – and when they go there, do they find anything from the mainline churches?”
Says Ruth Powell, researcher with the National Church Life Survey: “In a sense, there’s a massive cultural shift happening from . . . Christendom to non-Christendom.”
But Australia is still a Christian country. Powell says a combined total of only four per cent of people describe themselves as Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists. Christianity also comes out ahead of New Age alternatives; the influence of other kinds of “religion” is not as great as the magazines in dentists’ waiting rooms would have us believe. Eighteen per cent of Australians seek help from horoscopes, 9 per cent practise Eastern meditation and 7 per cent use psychic healing or crystals.
While the churches’ membership might be declining, they continue to be held in high regard. Powell says they come fourth in a list of most-trusted institutions (after the police, health and education systems, and way ahead of the banks.)
But there is some division about what the churches’ role should be. Powell says: “Attenders and non-attenders come up with the same answer: the top thing is providing a moral framework. But the non-attenders say churches should also look after the poor, while attenders say, `Our business is about meaning and purpose, the questions of why we are here and who we are’.”
Many put limits on the perceived legitimacy of the churches’ moral leadership, which is seen as stopping at the bedroom door. “There’s a very clear delineation; in theory, `I want the church to provide a moral framework’, but there’s also, `Don’t tell me how to run my life in terms of issues like (sexuality and) abortion’.”
Says Bouma: “The church is too ready to answer questions that aren’t being asked and too slow in responding to the questions that are there . . . People want assistance and advice in searching for their spirituality, but they don’t want to be told how to do it.”
Up to a point. While many chafe under a church’s strictures, others prefer rules and certainty, even if it involves loss of freedom. The Pentecostal Protestant churches draw 182,000 people into church each week, topping the Anglicans’ 181,500. Pentecostals are known for their exuberance and informality, their contemporary music – and their authoritarian, fundamentalist teachings. “Pentecostals’ belief is much more black and white,” Bouma says. “They offer certainty, along with contemporary forms of communication.”
It’s a winning formula; they pack in young adults.
Rob Buckingham, senior pastor at the Bayside Community Church in Cheltenham, has seen his flock grow from 40 people 10 years ago to 640 today. People travel up to 45 minutes to get to a Sunday service that takes two-and-a-half hours – and that’s not counting the hour of socialising afterwards. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s not something people do just out of duty,” he says.
His church has no organ or statues. “We sing modern songs. We have a fully plugged-in band – guitars, synthesisers, drums – and a great sound system. The auditorium is large and we have comfortable chairs, not pews. The message is 2000 years old, but the packaging is 2002.”
While Pentecostals are also known for their churn rate, the flow of worshippers between them and the other Protestant denominations is two to one in the Pentecostals’ favour.
“Musical pews” works differently for Catholics. They rarely change denomination; they stay Catholic or drop out of religious practice altogether. But those who continue to attend church are more likely to abandon their local priest to travel further afield for spiritual custom-tailoring.
Anna Krohn, acting director of the Pastoral Formation Centre with the archdiocese of Melbourne, says: “Different people have different checklists. A parish like East Camberwell, run by the Dominicans, has a lot of preachers who preach well; people go for a great homily. If what’s really important to you is the spirit of prayer, you might worship with the Carmelite nuns in Kew, where there’s a quiet, contemplative sort of spirit. There’s a Jesuit parish in Parkville which is very intellectual; (the philosopher) Max Charlesworth goes there.
“St Patrick’s (cathedral) has young people who now call it their parish, either because the music’s beautiful and they have a cultural interest in that, or because this is where they feel they can tap into the longer tradition of the church. In Burwood, charismatic groups have formed clusters of housing. Families might move to where they feel young children can be accepted into the Mass without feeling embarrassed when the baby cries.”
Such diversity has always existed in Catholicism, which calls itself a “broad” church. But others are now deliberately experimenting with new forms, Powell says. They include “the meta-church experience of 2000 people in a warehouse and a big band and 50 people on stage; home churches, where people gather together in small and intimate spaces; cafe churches, where a group of younger adults might sit around tables with candles and cake and coffee and you have a much more interactive style of thing, with maybe a multi-media extravaganza of images on walls, or a visit from a poet or a sculptor who has come to share their experience of God – no priest up the front telling you what to do any more”.
Not all the experimenting involves the ultra-modern; some is about reaching back into the past. Powell says the Paize and Iona movements involve an updated form of singing religious chants: “You will gather in a beautiful space, with lovely candles and maybe rich fabrics or beautiful icons spread out for you to look at, and you sing your way through.”
It is not only young people who want to try new things. Mark Dunn, minister with the Pilgrim Uniting Church in Doncaster, started a cafe church and found that parishioners of all ages turned up. He says the problem for many small parishes is now a chicken-and-egg one: they are no longer large enough to offer choices.
Local churches are also at the mercy of local demographics. Sometimes this works in their favour, says Alistair Macrae, Victorian moderator for the Uniting Church. His local church in West Brunswick was struggling 15 years ago because the suburb had filled up with Italian Catholics after the war. Then yuppies moved in as the suburb gentrified, and the church now has a thriving, self-sufficient community of people who share goods, run a food co-op and support each other emotionally. In suburbs that are ageing, Macrae says, the local congregations will reflect that. In suburbs with young families, the successful ministers are those who offer different models of worship and more consultative leadership. People under 40 want to participate, not be passive; they expect to be consulted; they loathe the hymns older people love; and they prefer spontaneity to being read to from a book, he says. What does all this tell us? It seems the search for meaning is as vigorous as it ever was, but it now ranges more widely and is undertaken, by this consummate consumer society, using competitive free-market principles.
Macrae can draw encouragement from the latest figures, which show the Uniting Church’s membership, previously in freefall, has now increased by 2000. Nominal Catholics, too, continue to grow in numbers, as the result of natural increase and immigration. But, while Catholics now make up 50 per cent of Christians, their church attendance continues to drop. Father Maurie Cooney, director of the Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning, says 233,000 Catholics attended Sunday Mass in Melbourne in 1984. Now it is 165,000. Cooney says even non-practising Catholics return to the church for rites of passage: christenings, weddings, funerals.
But there is another point at which many “almost Christians” or “once-upon-a-time Christians”, as Dunn calls them, suddenly feel the pull back to church, and an urgent need for ritual. When there is a catastrophe that shakes people’s faith in this world – a deadly bushfire, for example, or a September 11 – it is to churches that people turn for solace and reassurance.
Vincent Peile said Woodend ran an ecumenical service at St Ambrose’s after the twin towers disaster. “It was a `Conquering darkness’ service. I have never seen the church as packed. It was packed with people who believe in God, people who believe in something, and people who have lost belief. They had a need to express grief and loss and uncertainty. Ambulance drivers, the fire brigade, the SES all came in uniform. People were invited to light a taper and put it into two bowls of sand to symbolise that, whatever the darkness, we can rebuild hope.”
This, says Macrae, is the Easter message, one that is as relevant today as yesterday. “The time between Good Friday and Easter really covers the whole gamut of human experience, from desolation, depression and fragmentation on the Friday to Saturday’s limbo of hopelessness through to the Sunday and its hope and new life. For me, this is existentially such a powerful story because it tells us that God is intimately bound up somehow in all the grief and glory of the human experience.”
His church’s fate, however, is bound up in the long-term choice Australia’s Christians will make about the symbol for their Easter: wooden cross or chocolate egg?
First published in The Age.