Sandy and Robyn are two women who grew up in the Uniting Church. Both agree their church backgrounds and the friends they made are still very important to them. But, now in their 40s, they don’t think church is relevant to their current lives.
“There are two reasons I don’t go to church anymore,” Sandy said.
“I grew up in a very small local church. It was the church the family went to every Sunday morning. My mum used to say to us ‘you live in my house you go to church’. You didn’t challenge it until you got a bit older.
“I used to do all the stuff. I did NCYC as a kid and I loved it. It was great coming from a small community and realising there’s a whole bunch of other kids who do the same thing.
“I grew up with some of the people I met there and we’re still really good friends. Not many of us are still in the church but it was a good thing growing up – the community and meeting people.
“When I moved and went to a different church, it was a small congregation and so you had to actually do something and be involved with the running of the church. I just wanted to go and be in church, but because I had a specific role I was obliged to go every Sunday morning and I didn’t want that commitment.”
Sandy found that the regular Sunday morning service she had grown up with no longer fitted her lifestyle as she grew older.
“Let’s face it, when you have a really good social life and are out on a Saturday night, church on a Sunday morning sometimes doesn’t fit with that,” Sandy said. “Growing up in a small town the church was a place to socialise, it was a community for a lot of people. When I moved to Melbourne I realised I could have those things without going to church.”
On a deeper level, Sandy said she began to question the messages she was hearing in church. While she is still very proud of the social justice ethos of the Uniting Church, she began to notice contradictions in what the church said and what the church did.
“I have thought about it for years. Places I would go to would have good lay leaders in the church. The whole philosophy of having a minister who is seen by many in the church as the font of all wisdom needs to be challenged.
“Ministers are interpreting things week after week; some people in the church look at them as a person in between God and the congregation.
“You obviously have to have someone who is in a leadership capacity but it doesn’t mean that person has all the answers.
“We talk about worship, witness and service. I think the church spends a lot of time focussed on Sunday morning worship, so everything becomes about how the church sustains itself, how it keeps its minister.
“Your stuff in the community and things you are known for are just as important whereas in some congregations it’s around the other way. It’s more focussed on the internal church stuff without integrating into the local community.
“Some of the stuff they were saying did not resonate with me. ”
Like Sandy, Robyn grew up in the Uniting Church and many of her family and friends are still members. She was attending church up until about six years ago, when a church amalgamation made her reassess her commitment.
“Three local churches joined together and the minister of my church, who I really liked, left,” Robyn said.
“I didn’t find the service relevant or enjoyable anymore. I think I’ve been a bit slack about finding another church because that feels really big to have to do that.”
Hugh Mackay (pictured) is the author of Beyond Belief, his 17th book. In it, the renowned social researcher and commentator explores the nature of Australian spirituality in the context of declining Christian influence.
Mr Mackay has warned that the established churches are in danger of slipping off the radar for a generation of younger people who are still earnestly seeking spiritual guidance and nourishment.
When asked whether young people were increasingly turning away from church, Mr Mackay said it was a “mixed picture”, noting that Pentecostal churches were still attracting young people.
“But in general the answer is yes,” he said.
“From the church’s point of view it is a major concern that there is a generation of people not going to church.
“If they are interested in existential questions they do not think of the church as their first port of call.”
Mr Mackay said that although many Australians still have a connection to traditional Christianity, often through religious schooling, waning attendance at services and a general distrust of institutions is diminishing the church’s cultural clout.
“We are into a second or third generation of people who are not in the church-going habit and the idea of the church as a highly desirable presence in the community is at risk of waning,” Mr Mackay said.
“Church will not be the subject of hostility by young people, just of being ignored. The church will seem to be an increasing irrelevance.”
Mr Mackay’s findings reflect a concern for many religious organisations throughout Australia; the challenge is not only to attract young people to church, but to keep the young members they have.
Beyond Belief includes a series of interviews with people who for various reasons have walked away or lessened their involvement with churches across the different denominations.
Mr Mackay said that although many might believe Australians are reticent, or even largely disinterested, in spiritual matters, that was not what he discovered in conducting the interviews and in promoting the book since.
“People told me when I started this that I wouldn’t be able to get people to talk about religion,” Mackay said.
“But I found the opposite, that I couldn’t get people to stop talking about it.”
Mackay said Australians are deeply interested in the fundamental issues that religion addresses.
“Though there is a decline in religious observance there is not a loss of interest in these questions,” Mackay said.
“In all of us is an inherent yearning to answer the metaphysical questions. You can’t get all the answers from science or reason in matters of faith.”
Launceston trio David Thomson (16), Candi Greenway (17) and 18-year-old Jamie Dean are typical of this group.
None has had an upbringing in a church, although David attends Uniting Church school Scotch Oakburn College and Candi used to regularly attend church with her grandmother when she lived in Queensland.
Through friends they have all gravitated to the Launceston North Uniting Church, which has an active group of young people numbering 15 in total from across the Launceston area.
“It started at a birthday party and a group of us continued to get together,” Jamie said.
They all agreed that there was time set aside at youth group for discussions around faith. Something they were more than happy to share in.
“I am OK with that,” Jamie said.
David said he was comfortable with such discussions given they also formed part of his school life.
Youth group leader James Hughes said while the group may not regard their discussions as being overly spiritual, he had a different view.
“I have been overwhelmingly impressed by the depth of these guys’ answers and questions,” he said.
“They have great reflections about spirituality and ethics…and what they think is right or wrong.
“Obviously I am interested in discipleship and I certainly see that in them.”
Many of this cohort actively engage with sections of church life including youth group activities, assisting with church market events and supporting young primary school children by attending church camps as peer leaders.
Ask them about what stops them from attending Sunday morning worship and it is certainly not the thought of God-talk but more an apprehension that they would not fit in or the service would not be designed in a way which sought, or encouraged, their engagement.
Candi said she would be more likely to go if there were some friends alongside her so she did not feel out of her depth. She also would rather attend a service which allowed for a free flow of discussion rather than one person talking and everyone else listening.
Jamie said he had been previously with friends and “I didn’t mind it” but felt the structure of services could be a bit overwhelming for people unfamiliar with it.
David said that from his brief experience services could be a bit confusing for the uninitiated. While some were done well, the style was generally too repetitive to encourage him to attend regularly.
Hugh Mackay said Australians are deeply interested in the fundamental issues that religion addresses but are suspicious of creeds.
“People admire faith provided they don’t have to sign up to all the dogma,” Mr Mackay said.
This unwillingness to embrace the traditional tenets of Christian faith has led to what Mr Mackay sees as the growing trend in Australia and other Western nations, of people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Both Sandy and Robyn reflect this tendency. They are grateful to have grown up in the Uniting Church, and say the values they live by are still relevant to their lives today. But neither feel the need to attend church to nurture their ‘spiritual’ life.
Since leaving the church, Robyn and Sandy have given a lot of thought as to why the Uniting Church no longer appeals to young people. Both have attended services with friends at a variety of churches, some traditional and some of the more charismatic churches.
“The Uniting Church is very progressive and you would think it would appeal to younger people, but then the Hillsongs and places like that are really going off,” Robyn said.
“I wonder if the way our society is now whether people actually want to be told how to live religiously. Even though we scream out not to have so many rules and restrictions and people don’t want to be judged, I wonder whether people want more set guidelines.
“Maybe younger people are looking for rules – they might not get them at school or at home. So maybe that part of it appeals.”
Sandy said she knows of a few people who grew up in the Uniting Church – a few whose parents are ministers – who now attend an evangelical church.
“I asked them why and they described it as going to a concert – a concert for Jesus,” Sandy said.
“I went with them one day and there were 700 people, at least 60 per cent of them were under 25. It’s amazing to have 700 people together praying, it’s very charismatic and almost hypnotic.
“They already have so many things happening in their life, they just want to go along for an hour and a half, be entertained, pray and sing and that’s it for the week.”
Hugh Mackay agrees that while some young people reject the dogma of religion, in an uncertain and often anxious world there are still some who want the sense of certainty charismatic churches offer.
“Pentecostal churches are doing well where there is the promise of an experiential type of worship with vibrant music and a younger community,” Mr Mackay said.
Mr Mackay characterised the Uniting Church as one of the least dogmatic of the major denominations and noted that it was also the most rapidly shrinking.
The countervailing trend to an interest in spiritual matters is what Mr Mackay identifies as a pushing of the centrality of economics and materialism by politicians, marketers and what he calls the “happiness industry”.
“It’s a me-culture period that Western societies are going through,” Mr Mackay said.
“There has been 30 years of propaganda that we are entitled to be rich, that we are entitled to always be happy and this is antithetical to religion.”
Young people are often accused of ‘self-obsession, but Mr Mackay believes there are “early signs of we are moving beyond that to become a more spiritual community-minded way of living”.
Mr Mackay, who describes himself as a Christian agnostic and occasionally attends a liberal Anglican service, does have some advice for the wider church in this milieu of diminished belief but still palpable spiritual hunger.
“The big message is to listen, but not as an institution. See yourself inspired by the people around you,” Mackay said.
“Find out who is in trouble, how you might do things to promote the spirit of community without expecting people will necessarily become regular worshippers.
“Understand that there are many ways into a faith community.”
Mr Mackay personally finds great inspiration in the teachings of Jesus that he said tells us “how we should live and redefine everyone as our neighbour”.