I’ve got a joke for you:
A man stumbling home via the scenic route after a few too many beers at the pub happens upon a preacher baptizing people in the local river. Overcome by the smell of alcohol, the preacher asks the drunkard, “Are you ready to find Jesus?”
“Yeah, sure!” So the preacher grabs him, dunks him in the water, pulls him up and asks, “Brother have you found Jesus?”
“No, I haven't found Jesus.”
The preacher dunks him for a little longer and again pulls him out and asks, “Have you found Jesus my brother?”
The drunk says, “Nope, not yet.”
At his wits’ end, the preacher gives the bloke a good long soak until he begins kicking his arms and legs, then finally pulls him up and again asks, “For the love of God, have you found Jesus?!”
The drunk wipes his eyes and splutters, “Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
It looks as though Australia, like our mate who blew the froth off a few too many, has little knowledge of or care for Jesus and what he stands for. Of course some may read this as me likening Australia to an impaired drunk – and those who do will no doubt slip into further denial reading on.
According to the National Church Life Survey, rural and regional Australians are on average disassociating themselves with the church at a faster rate than city dwellers.
Despite trying times in regional Australia, with depleting populations and the usual drought, fires, floods, it seems the people of Australian agriculture have decided that faith in yourself, family and goals is more rewarding and beneficial for them than institutionalised religion. That pouring energy into your own life and others around you reaps effective and tangible results - unlike pouring it into a belief system.
The freight train that has been the Christian faith is, in Australia, slowing at consistent speeds. And its loss in momentum isn’t helped by the unveiling of misuse of power, child molestation cases and an increase in the embodied comforts of one’s own personal belief.
Aussies and Kiwis are walking away from the church, thanks to an evolution of thought, reflection and perhaps common sense. It’s been reported that 81 per cent of Australians said that overall, the world would be better off without religion.
However we’re still more in favour of Christianity than our city cousins - by a margin of just 6pc (with 67pc of rural people identifying as Christian, compared to 61pc of the urban population). Especially strong faith was recorded in wheat and wool growing areas – perhaps the sheep folk identify more with the Lamb of God?
Nineteen per cent of Australians go to church at least once a month, but the largest percentage of attendees in an age-by-decade group are 70-plus years old, lessening incrementally over younger decades.
The Church used to be a strong, community base in regional towns and centres in Australia. It shaped our constitution and is still used in inducting legal and political practitioners, but it seems the act of “swearing an oath on the bible” is as thin as those bland little gluten-free wafers you get at Sunday mass, with a large contingent of national leaders having no stated allegiance to a religion.
While no-one can deny the great social commitments the church as a whole has made and continues to make – such as schools, hospitals, welfare work and of course the Salvation Army - I can’t think of any other society or association in regional Australia that would decompose so readily without care and consideration from the wider community.
It will be worth watching where this trend is at 30 years from now. For a cultural system that ran the world in ways for thousands of years, I think we’ll see Christianity in Australia settle into practically a minority group in our lifetime.
Australia is high up on the list of countries trending towards a declining church population, trailing behind New Zealand which seems to be shedding its slovenly religious skin at a slightly greater rate.
And while the church seems to be standing proud behind those arched oak doors, like the proverbial duck on the pond I reckon those feet are churning, as they struggle to think of solutions to address their dwindling constituency. But the issue lies in a far greater realm: belief.
Religion as a concept is based on belief. We all know beliefs drive behaviour, but often beliefs are not based on experience. And as religion is a mental construct based on a belief system, with no objective reality, we seem to be getting increasingly suspicious. To put it bluntly, many Australians under 50 might think there are more holes in religion than in a machine-gunned crumpet.
Donald Horne wrote decades ago: “Churches no longer matter very much to most Australians. If there is a happy eternal life it’s for everyone ... For many Australians the pleasures of this life are sufficiently satisfying that religion offers nothing of great appeal”. (The Lucky Country, D. Horne 1964)
Something that once bound everything and everyone in a community together is now low on the list of priorities. And for good reason too, in my opinion. What do you think?
Sam Trethewey is a third generation farmer from Tasmania, now based in Victoria. Sam's message is 'think clearly, get muddy': inviting everyone to be clearer in and on farming by rolling up their sleeves, learning and taking action.