Filling Churches

Last month’s Letter discussed the general decline in churchgoing in Australia, and noted the deteriorating frequency with which even committed Christians attend worship. In this Letter we begin to look at some exceptions to the rule – those Australian churches that are growing, as well as those that maintain their size and influence in their communities, which, given the mobility of people today, actually represents growth.

Pentecostal strength

First of all there are the conspicuous ‘mega-churches’ that have sprung up since the 1970s. Most of these are Pentecostal. The largest are in Sydney (‘Hillsong’ with 17,000 members) and Adelaide (‘Paradise Christian Church’ with over 5,000 members). But there are many others in the major cities with membership ranging between 800 and 2,000. Their worship is utterly contemporary and professionally led, with huge sums of money spent on the music, lighting and other special effects. Many of them have ‘home groups’ to give their people a more intimate level of relating than the big celebration can provide, and they have Bible teaching and lay ministry training for their members.

Critics – including many Evangelicals – frequently point out that the theological emphases of these churches have less to do with sin, repentance, the Cross, and the real challenge to live a sacrificial Christian life to the glory of God, than with cozy feelings, spiritual highs and the excesses of the ‘prosperity gospel’.

A good number of their leaders were participants in the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 70s. In part, their popularity is a reaction to the coldness of the theological liberalism dominating mainstream churches, and, also to what some describe as ‘rationalist Evangelicalism’. They have, in fact, crafted a form of Christianity that appeals to self-focused baby boomers. This is substantiated, according to Phillip Hughes of the Christian Research Association, by the decline of the Pentecostals’ growth rate since the 1980s. Between 1986 and 1991, they grew by 42 per cent. Between 1991 and 1996, they grew by only 16 per cent. So, while the growth is still far greater than most other traditions, the rate of growth has slowed dramatically. Hughes says that because the average Pentecostal is now in their 30s, a lot of that 16 per cent can be attributed to the children of Pentecostals. In his view the Pentecostals are not doing nearly as well with Generation X and today’s teenagers.


Those who envy the mega-church Pentecostals need to know that they have a massive dropout rate. I recently discovered that the senior pastor of one of the largest of these churches admitted to having almost a complete turnover of people every five years. His group may be an extreme example, but the official Australia-wide research shows that while between 1991 and 1996 15% of Uniting Church people drifted away from their church, and 7% of Baptists … wait for it … during that period, 27% of Pentecostals drifted away! That same research shows a further 8% of Pentecostals switched to other churches.

In a highly mobile society lots of people do experiment with different Christian communities when they move house, especially if they or their children are having difficulty settling into the new church of their tradition. The difference with those from high-powered Pentecostal churches is that they often become so psychologically, emotionally and spiritually drained through the constant pressure to be ‘happy’, ‘victorious’ and ‘healed’ all the time that dropping out of Christianity altogether is their only way of coping.

Roman cohesion

Secondly, we consider those large Roman Catholic parish churches in the leafy suburbs of our cities and in provincial country towns – the parishes that are not in decline. I served in a rural western Victorian city of 12,000 people for eight years. Given the high level of nominal membership among Anglicans, our 150 to 180 communicants each Sunday was thought to be a sign of real success. It was always galling to know that the local Roman Catholic parish had an average of 1,100 communicants!

What was it that made the Roman Catholic parish cohere and grow? It is true that they had a wide range of lay ministry – they were far better at that than we were. It is also true that they had a large number of groups meeting for studies of various kinds, and to nurture diverse expressions of spirituality. But alongside those factors, and perhaps more important than them, was a winning sociological formula – the traditional combination of Church, school and football club. They had two schools – primary and secondary; and they had a range of football teams for the men and boys (Aussie Rules, of course!) and netball for the girls.

Male models

The men of the parish (mostly farmers, businessmen and teachers from the parish schools) were good role models for the boys. They coached the football teams, and were always at Sunday Mass. They were vitally involved in the life of the city and its surrounding district, and their financial support of the parish was generous.

School and sporting clubs networked families into the parish, and fed the Sunday celebrations, which always seemed to be full of children and young parents. It is generally observed that those Roman Catholic parishes which do not have a school and sporting club face a much tougher task in renewing their congregations with new members; indeed, their numbers and their age spread is similar to what is found in the average Anglican parish.

Although many young people drop out from church attendance at the end of school, especially those who go from rural areas to the city for work or tertiary study – some say a 90% dropout rate – there is ample evidence to show that a vast number return to the practice of the Faith later in the context of getting married, motivated by the fact that they want their children to have the kind of upbringing they enjoyed.

Vocations up-turn

It did appear for some time that the decline in vocations to the priesthood would have a negative effect on these parishes. Documents were released to the faithful describing tomorrow’s ‘priestless parishes’, run by the kind of trendy liberal bureaucrats who by then had gained control of most Diocesan Catholic Education Offices.

Over the last decade, however, strong orthodox archbishops have been put in place in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. They have inspired new vocations; the orthodox seminaries are full of young men committed to the new evangelization. Importantly, there has been a return to a more definite teaching of the Faith in the Catholic school system, due in no small part to Monsignor Peter Elliott’s supervision of the re-writing of the major religious education syllabuses in Melbourne.

It is too early to tell, but many observers believe that with these measures in place the next lot of research figures will show a stability in church attendance figures for the Catholic community (and even a recovery in some areas) where orthodoxy has made a comeback.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.