The question ‘What is the fastest growing belief system in Australia?’ (or New Zealand) has a rather surprising answer. It is not Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam. Rather, when religious statistics are tallied up the ‘No Religion’ category shows the fastest growth. Results from the 2021 Australian census shows that 38.9% of the population ticked this option (up from 30.1% in 2016). In New Zealand the trend is even more pronounced. The 2018 census showed that 48.2% of the population had no religious affiliation (up from 41.9% in the 2013 census).
I realise that ‘No Religion’ is not technically a religion but it is certainly a belief system (or perhaps rather a range of belief systems), and one that we as Christians need to take seriously. More and more of the people we rub shoulders with are not even notionally committed to any form of organised religion. This raises the question of how we as Christians should respond to the rise of the ‘Nones’. This is obviously a very large topic that will not be exhausted in a short article, but the following are hopefully some helpful pointers:
Be Ready to Explain: It has become commonplace to lament the levels of Biblical illiteracy in society. This was already the case when ‘Nones’ made up a much smaller proportion of the people around us. It is fair to assume, therefore, that levels of ignorance when it comes to the Bible will continue to plumb new depths. In 1 Peter 3:15 believers are exhorted to be ready with an answer when anyone asks them about the reason for their hope. In giving such answers, we should never assume pre-existing knowledge of basic biblical truths. In fact, as Christians we will need to become ever more proficient in sharing the gospel in settings where everything will have to be explained as if it is being heard for the first time (because that may be exactly what is happening).
Expect Bewilderment and Opposition: As more and more people have no meaningful links with Christian communities, there is bound to be increased mystification about the nature and practices of our faith. In some settings, this will result in polite indifference. However, in other situations, we may be met with overt hostility, particularly in cases where just about the only thing that people know about the faith is that Christians, following the teachings of the Bible, do not place the search for individual authenticity at the heart of what it means to be human. So, when Christian attitudes are perceived to conflict with the vision of human flourishing held by many ‘Nones’, conflict can easily follow. This is not the place to relate the many instances where deeply held Christian beliefs clashed with evolving societal norms over the past few years. Suffice it to say that we should probably expect more instances of this happening. This means that we should work hard to be well-prepared to stand firm (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13), stating our case with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15) while making the most of the gospel opportunities (cf. Ephesians 5:15-16) presented by such instances.
Remember That Not Everyone Will Be Indifferent or Hostile: While the reactions described above may occur in many cases, there may be other stories to tell. In fact, research by the McCrindle Research Group shows that the levels of resistance may not be as white-hot as we might imagine: “Two thirds of Australians are likely to attend a church service either online (64%) or in-person (67%) if personally invited by a friend or family member. Three in ten Australians are extremely or very likely to attend a church service online (31%) or in-person (33%) if they were invited by a friend or family member. Far from religion and spirituality being only for older Australians, younger Australians are twice as likely to be extremely or very likely to attend a church service if personally invited by a friend or family member.” (McCrindle Research Group, ‘Australia’s Changing Spiritual Landscape Report’, 2021). This is, of course, only one indicator but it is a significant one. At the very least it serves as a reminder that there is still a great harvest out there (Matthew 9:37) and that our sovereign Lord chooses to use the feeble efforts of his people to bring it in. In some cases, those efforts may be as simple as issuing an invitation to come along to church on a Sunday morning!
It’s not all ‘Doom and Gloom’: We need to be honest about the fact that many of those who identified as ‘Christian’ in censuses did so out of habit or residual loyalty to their ancestral religion. Not because they had a relationship with the living God or were connected to His church. There are obviously many such ‘false positives’ in the most recent census figures as well, but the fact that the numbers are lower is not altogether a bad thing. For one thing, it may mean that there are far fewer people who live under a kind of false assurance that they are believers, when in reality they still need to hear and respond to the gospel. On the flip-side, the fact that numbers are going down should serve as a reminder to the church not to sink into complacency. The harvest is indeed plentiful; and our work is far from done.
What Happens in Our Little Corner of the World Is Not the Whole Story: Given the way in which the story of the rise of the ‘Nones’ is often told, we can be forgiven for thinking that it is a worldwide phenomenon. This is only tenable if we count the West as ‘the world’! If we move beyond this reductive view, we will soon find that there are many parts of the world where Christianity is positively booming. The story of the astounding growth of the church in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is told in detail in ‘The Next Christendom‘ by Philip Jenkins. Suffice it to say here that ‘managing decline’ is not high on the agenda of most of the global church. Noting this is not to minimise the task before churches in the West. It does help, however, when we gain a new perspective by rejoicing with our brothers and sisters around the world, even as we sow the seeds of the gospel in the difficult soil to which we have been assigned.
In conclusion, it is easy to look at statistics that do not seem to go our way and become despondent and defensive. However, we need to be constantly reminded that our sovereign God is still at work, gathering in those appointed to salvation. May the Lord Himself help us to remember that ‘No Religion’ need not be a permanent status and may He powerfully use us in calling the ‘Nones’ around us to worship and trust Him.