Faith in numbers

phillip hughesThe Uniting Church is uniquely placed to effectively convey the Christian message in contemporary Australia but is failing to do so.

That’s one of the conclusions Rev Dr Philip Hughes has reached after 30 years of researching the faith of Australians.

The Uniting Church minister was a founding staff member of the Christian Research Association (CRA) and is preparing to hand over directorship of the organisation while maintaining other teaching and ministerial duties.

To mark this juncture Dr Hughes as contributing editor has produced a new book, Charting the Faith of Australians, which chronicles and assesses the association’s work with some personal history and reflections included.

This is the full transcript of an interview with Dr Hughes in the Crosslight office.

The book says you are approaching retirement. How rapidly are you approaching it?

The CRA have stopped paying me. The Uniting Church is paying me for my long service leave, that’s what I am on. I am a Uniting Church minister. I’ve been paid as a Uniting Church minister but not by the Uniting Church directly. The Uniting Church has been putting $4000 a year into the CRA, along with all the other denominations, right from the time of 1986 when they first came on board.  So for 30 years they’ve been directly supporting us. I actually hand over to the new director on the 1 October but there are still some projects that will need to be finished even after that.

Could you give a brief description of the CRA and its work?

It was formed in 1985 to provide a social research base for churches of all denominations. The major task has been interpreting what’s happening with religious faith in the Australian context. So it means understanding Australian culture. It means understanding the forces on it. Things like migration patterns have been important, the processes of cultural change that have occurred in society. So my task, in a sense, has been to describe those and help the church respond as best I could.

Funding has always been an issue for the CRA, how has it shaped the work?

One of the major issues with research is actually getting people to use it. Part of my philosophy has been if people pay for the research – even at cost price – they are more likely to use it. So for financial reasons, but also for theological reasons ultimately, we have chosen to base our research around commercial research. So that has also meant that we might not have had the resources to delve deeply into specific issues that might be of interest to us but might not be the sort of issues that people want to pay for.

Do you think some would say this is a secular and scientific approach for a God that ‘moves in mysterious ways’?

My sense is that if God is involved in everything most of what God does has some regularities about it and the task of the social scientist is to discover those regularities. Now, within the research that we do we don’t get the numbers from prayer. We get the numbers from surveys, we get the information from people. The specific way that theology interacts with this material is in terms of how one responds to it. I see theology as giving us the sense of mission, the sense of ethics if you like – the way that we should live. What we are describing is what is. Somehow the theology has to take what is and move it to what should be. To some extent that goes well beyond the social science task of describing what is.

To some extent I see it as the responsibility of the church to take that material and say ‘How do we respond to it?” Do we, in fact, change what we are doing? Do we try to educate people in different ways to understand what God wants? So there are always different responses and that comes out of the theology not the sociology.

It might be a reasonable theological interpretation to say that some of the things we are picking up on are what God is doing in a society. It’s not my job to make those judgments in many instances.  Put it this way, one of the major trends happening in our society is the increasing number of people saying they are spiritual and not religious, there may well be something of God within that reminding us of some of the inadequacies of our institutionalisation of religion. On the other hand I think there are also some weaknesses in it – the lack of a sense of community. Theologically there may well be something we would want to say; ‘are there ways of responding to this?’ that help to actually build community and give people a better communal base for their sense of the transcendent in the world.

The CRA has a number of denominational partners and in the book you include an essay from a Hindu perspective. How common are the issues facing different Christian groups and other faiths?

Other faiths are experiencing some of the same issues that the Christian churches are experiencing. One of the big factors, however, was that most of the other religions are relatively new in the Australian context, so we really began to see numbers of Lebanese Muslims arrive in the ’70s, and the Vietnamese Buddhists in the late ’70s, most of the Hindus in the ’90s and so on. They bring their traditions and their sense of religious identity is significant at least for the first generation. With the second generation there are often issues but most of those people are still raised with a respect for tradition that most Anglos don’t have. So to some extent there are differences but to some extent there are similar issues in terms of how does religious faith integrate, and does it integrate, with the world? It’s a mixed bag at the moment. My expectation is that a lot of those faiths will increasingly see their young people having little regard for their traditions. The significant divide is possibly between those who are religious, those who are spiritual and those who are neither.

You come from a Baptist background but transferred to the Uniting Church. Why was the Uniting Church a better match for your work?

I’ve wanted to work ecumenically and have great respect for the people of all different faith traditions and there wasn’t the recognition of that within some Baptist contexts. I also see the importance of social justice and of working with society, seeking to change society not just seeking to change the individual and again the Uniting Church respects that. One of the emphases in the Basic of Union is a respect for academia, which is explicit in the Uniting Church. It is not explicit in any other denomination – that openness to truth that can come to us in a whole range of ways including through scientific study is fundamental to what my ministry has been about.

You reject that theory that secularisation was a steady 20th century trend and propose instead that it took hold during the cultural upheavals of the ’70s. Could you elaborate on this?

Rather than it being secularism driven by scientific thinking, although that may be a small factor, the bigger factor in the decline of the churches as we’ve seen it has been an individualisation of thinking about what life is all about. So what’s declined is a sense of a need for a community around the transcendent.

What do you believe the Church has to do in this context?

Within this individualistic world people form communities around very specific things that they want to do. But more importantly for the churches, people do look for nurture of their sense of spirit. They look for it in a whole variety of ways and certainly not just in communal gatherings. They look for it in holidays and through pilgrimages and through being out in nature. Music and art are ways people seek to nurture the spirit and it seems to me the churches, if they are going to connect with that sense of spirit and that sense of transcendence at all, they’ve got to be in the mix there.

How can that be done in a way that is not consumerist or selfish?

That is a danger of individualism, as such, but in actual fact it’s through that nurture that people then have the energy and capacity to go out and make a difference in the world. Make a difference in their families; for that matter, in their communities.

The Pentecostal churches have been an exception to the general decline in churchgoing; however, you have some caveats on that.

We did some figures about 20 years ago which suggested that of those in Pentecostal churches, about one third have been raised in Pentecostal churches. Another third have been raised in churches of other denominations and switched denominations and about a third have come in without having any background in the church. Now that balance has changed a bit. The proportion of those coming in from outside has decreased in particular and so has the number of transfers, there’s not that number of people left to transfer, but also we now know for the last 10 years the Pentecostals have only grown at the rate of population growth. They’ve got lots of young families. They’re having more children than the average but that means that they are losing quite a few people as well. They are facing stagnation.

I’m not sure they’ve embraced the individualism of society. They have been quite prescriptive in the ways that they approach faith. In fact, one has to remember that if you take all the Charismatic churches plus the Pentecostal churches, they are currently appealing to less than 5 per cent of the population, so 95 per cent of the population is not attracted by them.

And part of it too is the whole mega-church thing. They’ve been able to build their churches in regional areas rather than local areas, which most of the Uniting, Catholic and Anglican churches were built on. The local community means nothing to most people, except perhaps in some rural areas. By building mega-churches – something like 20 per cent of people who go to church in Melbourne go to about 2 per cent of the churches [mega-churches] – they are able to offer a wide range of facilities that do relate to the individual and cater to individual differences and needs and there’s a professionalism in the way that they do that.

It’s attractive to some people that they offer a sense of certainty, something to cling on to, but on the other hand the sense of authoritarianism actually puts a whole lot of people off.

Why aren’t young people in general going to church?

Why should they? If your sense of spiritual nurture can be obtained in a great variety of ways, what is it that the church has to offer? By and large the forms of our church – the sermon which is a monologue from someone up the front, the congregational singing which is a bit odd for contemporary society, the building we are in – it just doesn’t connect easily for most people. It’s not that people are antagonistic, just that it’s unnecessary.

Do you think it’s the forms or is it the actual Christian message?

Yes, it’s the message too and part of that is the lack of clarity in that message to some extent.

I’ve just been doing a substantial paper on those people who are nominal Uniting and those people who are ex-Uniting – grew up in the Uniting Church and no longer attend anywhere, which is the much larger group than those who still attend. Most of those people do have some sense that the Church values are good but they have let go of the belief in God. That is just not working for them in this present age.

Rural churches have been a focus of your research. What are your general findings in this area?

There’s a stronger sense of community in many rural areas and part of that has to do with the fact that in at least in some farming areas, as distinct from mining areas or holiday areas, people have a higher level of interdependence. They’re out fighting the bushfire together, they’re sharing machinery and to some extent the churches have provided the moral base for keeping community together and this regard for each other on which that sort of sharing can occur.

So it’s been important and, in fact, farmers who own their own farms have a higher level of church involvement than any other occupational group.

In the cities church can become, for some people, the whole of their community, so it’s been important for the church to offer a whole range of activities for people to be involved in. In rural areas the church serves the wider community and people are engaged in the wider community. The place of the church is actually to provide that moral foundation, so the way that the church relates to community in church and city is different.

Do you think there is peculiarly Australian style of Christianity?

We are significantly different from most other places and part of it is that the Christian faith is not part of the Australian identity as such. It’s a strong part of the American identity, for example. It’s a strong part of the Greek identity, the Italian identity and so on. In many parts of the world there is a link between ethnic identity and religious identity which is not here in Australia.  Part of that is for historical reasons and part of that is because of the particular multiculturalism of Australian society. Another dimension is that religion is not established as it is in many European countries, for example, so that’s there is no state religion, as such, and really hasn’t been since 1850. It’s not the same as having a whole lot of bishops in the House of Lords or church incomes being collected as a part of taxation. At the same time we don’t have what the Americans have which is this very strong distinction between church and state, which arises out of their constitution. This has meant that the churches have been involved in high levels of welfare, for example, in Australia and in schooling. So we’ve got this ambiguous relationship in Australia where people, in many ways, do respect the values of religious faith and some of the expressions they take through education and health and welfare but don’t see it as part of their identity.

Does the church risk losing its religious identity when it becomes identified as a social service provider in partnership with government?

That is a huge issue and an ongoing issue and something that the Catholics are wrestling with from their perspective, something the Salvation Army is wrestling with from a different perspective. The UC is wrestling with it in its own way. How do you retain that sense of religious identity within welfare and educational objectives and agencies? My sense is in some ways a lot of the church agencies and schools are still different. I chair the board of a UC school (Kingswood College) and I believe the school is different because of its association with the Church, whereas many government schools are value free areas in many respects. We’ve got a very strong sense of values which emerge out of identity as a UC school.

Church is shaped by the wider culture but is also a critique of it. Is that a difficult balance to get right?

I think it is and part of it is that we are often not aware of how we are being shaped by our cultural environment and consequently we are not always aware of the issues that we need to grapple with. Often we place the emphasis in the wrong place. We resist contemporary forms of art and music because they were not what we were raised with, whereas they can be relevant expressions of the transcendent in this time. On the other hand, we don’t see the influence of consumerism and the way that is shaping the way we live our lives and even how we develop our churches.

Are you optimistic about the future of Christianity in Australia?

Some of the present forms of the church are going to continue to decline fairly rapidly over the next 20 to 40 years. That’s a natural progression of ageing that can’t be stopped. We’ve seen responses such as in the Pentecostal movement which is full of younger people but my sense is new ways will emerge. Certainly people will seek meaning and seek it in community and seek transcendence and I think that happens in a myriad of ways. I suspect we are missing a lot of the ways this is happening at the moment. It may well be that will become a lot more evident in future years. My personal sense is that the Uniting Church is better placed than any other denomination to address this individualism and the changing nature of the transcendent in contemporary society. I don’t think it is doing it at the moment. I think it is regressing and trying to hold on to what we have got instead of embracing new forms and new possibilities.

Can you give some illustrations of that?

In my own church we have developed a small community living centre. When we developed it, which was about 12 years ago we had 40 people in the congregation. We offer a whole range of activities in which we say we are building community and pointing to the spiritual. In those activities we’ve got going we have 150 to 200 people participating. The church has merged with another church as a form of preservation and the community centre continues on and is relating to a whole lot of people who may never become part of the congregation.

I am hoping to replicate something like that on a much bigger scale in relation to the school and the way we are putting together a faith community in the school and exploring new ways in which we engage people. It’s happening in some of our agencies, including our schools, and the way that people respond to the importance of the spiritual. I find great hope within that.

We’ve been talking for some years about building a centre for purposeful living at the centre of Kingswood College and we are on the cusp of doing that. I am expecting we will start that next year and I see great hope for that. It’s something that resonates with a wide range of people who wouldn’t necessarily be people who feel that the church is all that relevant to them but some of the underlying values of the church still are.

Part of the issue is that we need to develop new economic structures. The old philanthropic form and the idea that the congregation pays for a whole range of activities to occur isn’t the way that will take us into the future. We don’t have leaders being trained to be entrepreneurial in the churches and that will need to change if the church is to change.

You said in the book you wanted to raise areas of potential research. What do you think are the most vital of those?

We need to understand this whole movement into individual forms of spirituality much more than we do and there’s not a particular group that’s willing to pay for that work to be done, so it comes off the back often of other research rather than being at the forefront of our attention. We also need to be seeking to understand the ways that people find or don’t a sense of meaning, even apart from the language of spirituality. My sense is that is that while there is a large number of people who find the options in our society exhilarating and invigorating and do find a place, equally there’s a large number of people in society who don’t find a place and who find even finding ongoing supportive relationships difficult.

The problem of finding meaningful work in our society is also very difficult for a whole lot of people. Finding a place of belonging with our fragmented community life has become very hard for a lot of people. We need to understand those sorts of things more, so we can be in there and addressing those. I think a lot of our welfare is Band-aid. We need to be addressing those issues of how we obtain meaning and find a sense of discipline in life that enables us to cope with its contingencies, a sense of resilience is perhaps part of it but a sense of purpose is the positive side of it; what a sense of wellbeing actually means and how we can engage it more creatively. I think there’s a need for a lot more work to be done.

I think in our society that is the starting point for a lot of people. There is the ongoing experience of human beings that they actually find that meaning outside of themselves and that needs to be engendered and developed.

 So it’s meeting people where they are?

Fifty years ago Billy Graham could come to Australia and say “look if you believe in God this is what it means: You need to repent and follow God’s ways.” I don’t think we can say that any longer because the large majority of the population are quite uncertain about God at all. Just 25 per cent of the population have any sense of certainty about God so you need to start from a different point.

Charting the Faith of Australians is available from


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