Some 18 per cent of Australians know nothing at all about the church and another 60 per cent say they know only a little or moderate amount, and, while almost 80 per cent of people say they know two or more Christians, as many as eight per cent of adults – a figure equating to 1.5 million people - say they don’t even know one, according to the findings of a survey of attitudes towards faith.

The Faith and Belief in Australia study, conducted by McCrindle Research earlier this year, also found that one in 29 people had never heard of Jesus.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle, principal of McCrindle Research, says the survey reveals a "disconnection" between churches and the communities they are located in, noting that people seem to have greater knowledge of local cafes, community facilities, parks or even proposed developments in their area than they do of churches.

“The fact that you’ve got churches that really have been around longer than those cafes and shopping centres and community facilities and yet just are so low on the awareness scale of the residents in those communities tells us that the church just has not engaged with their communities. And that’s a clear finding.”

Karl Faase, CEO of Olive Tree Media – which commissioned the research along with a number of other faith-based organisations including Christian Media and Arts Australia (CMAA), Christian Schools Australia, Ministry Training Strategy and the Titus Foundation, believes the finding represents a “huge opportunity” for the church.

“Everybody’s taking kids overseas to do mission stuff and everybody’s trying to stream video on social media of their [church] services...we’re all trying to be the next Hillsong," he says. "The problem with that is the person [living] next door doesn’t even know you’re there…"

“If I was still running a church, the thing I would be planning for the next 12 months is letterbox dropping, visiting, Facebook, directed advertising – [using] whatever way I could to tell the local community we’re here and this is what we do. Because people just don’t know.”

Faith and Belief
PICTURE: Infographic from McCrindle Research

 

“If I was still running a church, the thing I would be planning for the next 12 months is letterbox dropping, visiting, Facebook, directed advertising – [using] whatever way I could to tell the local community we’re here and this is what we do. Because people just don’t know.”

- Karl Faase, CEO of Olive Tree Media, which was among the organisations which commissioned the research.

The latest research follows a similar poll conducted several years ago which was commissioned by Olive Tree Media to find out what "blockers" to the Christian faith were among Australians as background material for a video series, Towards Belief, that the company was producing. Mr Faase says Olive Tree and McCrindle decided to carry it out again after they were approached by a number of different groups asking for it to be updated. The data from the latest study is being available to everyone for free.

The research involved a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,024 people conducted in January and focus groups based around different genders and generations held in March.

Among other key findings from the research was that 45 per cent of Australians identify with Christianity – a figure which contrasts with the 61 per cent found in the 2011 Census but which Mr McCrindle says may be explained by the inclusion in this survey of a ‘spiritual but not religious’ answer to the question of what religion they identify with.

“The Census data, our hypothesis was, perhaps overstates Christianity..." he notes. 

And while the religion question is optional in the Census – with eight per cent of people declining to answer it, that wasn’t the case with the McCrindle survey which may account, at least partly, for a move upward in those who identified with ‘no religion’, from 22 per cent in the Census to 32 per cent. The percentage of people who identified with religions other Christianity, meanwhile, came in at nine per cent in the latest survey compared with eight per cent on the 2011 Census.

Mr McCrindle says that one of the key aims of the survey was to take a closer look at religious belief in Australia and move “beyond” the categories-based approach adopted by the Census. “It gives a better lay of the land from a faith and religion perspective in Australia,” he says.

Other findings showed that while 45 per cent of people identified with Christianity, only 38 per cent considered themselves a Christian and only 15 per cent said they attended church at least once a month while just seven per cent described themselves as “extremely involved” in their faith.

Older generations were not only more likely to identify with Christianity than younger generations, they were also more likely to be actively participating in religious activity.

But Mr McCrindle points out that members of Generation Z (defined as aged between seven and 22) and to some extent members of Generation Y (23 to 37-year-olds) were more open than Builders (aged 72 and above), Baby Boomers (53 to 71-year-olds) or Generation Xers (38 to 52-year-olds) to changing their current religious views or talking about spirituality or religion.

“We had an uptick in the Gen Y and in particular Gen Z on a number of those questions which tells us that it’s not as those we're heading to more and more…closed times when it comes to religion and faith or belief but actually there is a bit of a turnaround there and it came through the focus groups as well,” he says.

The most common blockers to the Christian faith were similar to those found in the earlier McCrindle survey – 31 per cent says the church’s teaching on homosexuality completely blocks their interest in engaging with Christianity while 28 per cent say questions around how a loving God could allow people to go to hell does. The greatest negative influences on perceptions of Christians and Christianity were church abuse, religious wars and hypocrisy.

The most common blockers to the Christian faith were similar to those found in the 2011 survey – 31 per cent says the church’s teaching on homosexuality completely blocks their interest in engaging with Christianity while 28 per cent say questions around how a loving God could allow people to go to hell does. The greatest negative influences on perceptions of Christians and Christianity were church abuse, religious wars and hypocrisy.

The survey also revealed that 53 per cent of people consider Jesus’ life to be extremely or very important in the history and culture of the world while some 31 per cent consider His life to be extremely or very important to them personally – a figure which equates to twice as many as those who attend church.

“I think there is something in that,” says Mr McCrindle, drawing on a comment made by Todd Sampson on the ABC show The Gruen Transfer in which he said, “they like the product, they just don’t like the retail outlet” - in this case, the local church.

“Maybe it’s just that they’re not aware of the 'retail outlet', maybe it’s a low profile retail outlet or they’ve got a perception of the retail outlet – what they’ve heard. So, certainly the church needs to do more to engage.”

But, despite the issues with engagement, that data does show that Australians who do know Christians are most likely to describe them as ‘caring’, ‘loving’ or ‘kind’. Australians also most value the work of the church in looking after the homeless, offering financial assistance or food relief programs or providing disaster relief.

And in terms of people’s perceptions of the impact of the churches in their area, only nine per cent had negative opinions compared with 44 per cent having positive opinions (and 47 per cent neutral).

Mr Faase, meanwhile, points out that that when asked what people most valued about their local church, 38 per cent of people said ‘supportive community’ and 24 per cent said ‘social connections’ with ‘learning about faith’ and ‘leadership and vision’ generally far less important (ticked only by 20 per cent and 13 per cent of people respectively).

“Most people just want to connect…with other people,” he says. “And if you’re preaching is interesting, that’s helpful.”

Mr Faase says he believes one of the key lessons of the survey is to underline the importance of viewing the local church as a “community marketplace” which meets the needs of people throughout the week rather than just on a Sunday.

“If you do nothing Monday to Saturday, then you’re not part of the community and therefore people don’t know you’re there and the only people that know you, are the people that turn up,” he says.

“So you can create yourself as a community marketplace where you’re doing all sorts of things – with kids, with adults, with older people that are shut in, with people in desperate need, whatever it is. Be one of the go-to places in your community. That will build, a, community, b, visual impact and, c, the knowledge of what you’re doing.”