Australians still open to faith and Jesus even though Christianity has declined, survey finds

St Peter's Cathedral in north Adelaide.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Christianity has declined in recent decades, but Australians are not completely closed off to faith, with young adults being the most open of all age groups, a new study has found.

The findings of the 2021 Australian Community Survey by NCLS Research were presented at a webinar entitled 'What Australians really think about Jesus and the Church today'.

The study examined topics like the frequency of church attendance, beliefs about Jesus and the Christian faith, views on religion and religious institutions, and Australians' social connections with church attendees.

A snapshot of frequent service attendance among Australians from 2016 showed a gradual increase, reaching 22% in 2019. Attendance slumped during the pandemic in 2020 before going on to recover to pre-pandemic levels in late 2021.

Of all the age groups represented, young adults had the highest church attendance rate, with 1 in 3 reporting monthly attendance at a service in 2021. The Gen X age group of 50 to 64 year olds had the lowest attendance rate at 11%.

The survey also examined views on Jesus and orthodox Christian beliefs, including Jesus' divinity and resurrection.

While more than half of Australians reported belief in God or a higher power (55%), less than half believed Jesus was a real person (49%). Two in 10 affirmed His divinity and nearly half (44%) said they believed in the Resurrection.

On the role of religion in society, 44% of Australians believed it to have a good influence with only 19% disagreeing. Attitudes around the specific role of churches were more mixed, however, and Australians most commonly wanted churches to do three things: perform rites of passage, encourage good morals, and support the poor. There was less support for converting people to the faith at 15%.

The survey found that relationships with active churchgoers was the most important factor in people's openness to church attendance, with 3 in 10 respondents saying they were likely to attend if invited by friends or family members.

This result was backed by previous NCLS research showing a strong link between people going to church and knowing at least one churchgoer.

Yet more than half (56%) of Australians said they did not have a close friend or family member who attends church regularly.

Presenting the findings, NCLS director of research, Dr Ruth Powell, said the results present a far more positive picture of Australians' views on church and faith than that portrayed by the media, which tends to cover only negative religious stories.

The 50 to 64 age group had the most negative views on religion, which Dr Powell suggested might be key to explaining the historically negative coverage.

She noted that members of this age group are also more likely to be in core leadership positions and at the peak of their professions.

"The 50 to 64 year olds are the ones who least attend, least believe, least practise, are least positive about Christianity [ ... ] Are they controlling the public narrative?" she said.

"Is this something we need to be aware of? Who has the microphone at the moment, and what is happening to the story because of who is speaking?"

Another key finding was that many respondents in the survey said they had previously tried to get more involved in church but had subsequently decided against it.

Dr Powell said this was perhaps a missed opportunity where people wanting to get more involved were being overlooked in the "business and priorities of 'business-as-usual' church".

Karl Faase, CEO of Olive Tree Media, said there was tension between society's perception of Christianity and the reality, and that the widespread misconception of the Church's failure was being pushed by "those with an agenda both inside and outside the Church".

He argued that while Australians' general view of Church could often be negative, they tend to describe the Christians they know personally in primarily positive ways.

Mr Faase concluded by drawing attention to the difference between the majority of survey respondents claiming familiarity with Christianity (56%) and those agreeing with orthodox beliefs such as Jesus' divinity and resurrection.

"The word 'Christian' actually needs to mean something, and we need to help people understand what it means, we need to define and communicate what it means to be a Christian," he said.