What did the Australian Census Really Tell Us About Church Growth?
by Danny Bell
Since the release of the 2011 Australian Census Data there has been a flurry of speculation and hype. First there was the shock that more Australians are ticking the non-religious box than before, indicating an increase in those who don’t believe. There was the surprise that 64 percent of Australians still identify with Christianity in some form or another. Then there was the realisation that while this is a good thing, it did not translate into regular church attendance which was only at 9 percent. 
A small amount of seemingly good news was (apart from the Oriental Christian conglomerate), the Seventh-day Adventist Church had the next highest percentage of people identifying with it than all other denominations. Church analysts and leaders have used this data, proudly trumpeting it far and wide as an indicator of success.
While the will is there to share this enthusiasm, as a statistician, I cannot. I see many problems with the way this data has been reported, giving a a generally false sense of security when it comes to our growth as a church in Australia. To those who don’t understand what constitutes real church growth, there can be a sense that we are doing okay, when in fact this is not correct. Knowing all the data, it would be irresponsible to say that we are growing well in the face of an opposite reality—a growth crisis.
What we need to understand with the Australian Census data is that it only records what denominational people identify with. It is not exclusively about church attendance but also includes people who have had past affiliation with the church. It does not accurately record growth in membership and so the need to view other data is crucial, as it tells a totally different story.
As the population increases, particularly within those states where migrant ratios are high, there will be an increase in those reporting affiliation with the church. Since the last Census, migration has increased substantially and many churches naturally show increases in preferred affiliation.
Despite this, however, the growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia is not a happy picture. The best sources for looking at concise church growth are our own internal statistics in the General Conference Annual Statistical Report. Here we can get precise data which is meticulously recorded every year by our pastors and leaders about what is happening in the areas of growth, employment, institutions and a host of other indicators. Knowing how to read the data is crucial to getting information on real growth, which involves calculations of losses, transfers, deaths and apostasies.
The latest information available on the GC Archives, Statistics and Research web site is for 2011, because 2012 data is still being compiled. One needs to appreciate the mammoth task involved, because it is dependent on first being reported; then it has to be documented, which can span into the following year.
For the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia the data show that the increase in membership through baptisms and professions of faith was 1,359 individuals for 2011. The combined losses of deaths, apostasies and those missing from church rolls (excluding transfers in and out, which are roughly evenly spread), was 887. If we subtract the losses from the gains we are left with a net figure of 472 membership increase in Australia for 2011. This amounts to an average of about 1 person gained for each church group in Australia for the year 2011. Not a very good outcome.
Unfortunately I am not done yet. I wish the prognosis stopped here. If we really want to crunch the numbers on how we are actually doing in Australia, then we need to understand that church growth experts use a concept called Kingdom Growth. The idea of kingdom growth is when the church community increases when someone becomes a Christian, leaving a deficit in the non-Christian community from which they came. For the purposes of illustration, if we were dealing in real growth terms it would look like this on a scoreboard:
|Christian community +1||Non-Christian community – 1|
So the church’s gain is the non–Christian community’s loss. Unfortunately the 472 souls added to the church in Australia during 2011 were not all kingdom growth in the true sense of the word. A conservative estimate would be that around half who join the church annually through baptism are classified as Generic baptisms or biological growth. Generic baptisms are when we baptise our own, those who have been brought up in the church such as our children. While it is a time for rejoicing when our youth commit to Christ, it’s not true kingdom growth. The non-Christian community surrounding the church experiences no loss when we baptise one of our own.
It can be explained this way. A church has 100 people attending regularly, 90 of whom are baptized and 10 are youth who have not been baptized. If those 10 youth are then baptised into Christ, how has the church affected the surrounding non-Christian community? The church still comprises 100 people and the community has not been impacted by the Gospel at all. Nothing has changed except inside the Christian community.
The Church’s net growth figure of 472 souls for 2011 therefore can’t be all classified as true kingdom growth. Take away the generic baptisms and we have a bleaker picture than before. If we concede 50 percent as being generic (and this is being very generous), that gives us a final growth figure of 236 for all of Australia during 2011. Divide that among our 519 churches and we are left with a mean average of less than half a person for each church community. Sound cold and calculating? That’s reality, unfortunately.
You could even argue that the 211 people that came in on profession of faith during 2011 were not kingdom growth either, as these entrants are deemed to have had a meaningful experience with Christ before joining our Church. I have not included profession of faith gains as losses, however, because they are still growth for our particular message; but they are definitely not kingdom growth. And in all honesty, we don’t need more bad news just now.
It is not my intention to discourage us or our efforts in soul winning. It is my intention however to dispel the hype that we need to be happy about our growth as Adventists in Australia. We are, in fact, in a growth crisis. Half a soul plucked from the Australian community for every church in 2011 is not exactly Pentecost. Wishing that things could be better and relying on the Census to calm our fears is no substitute for understanding where we really are in terms of growth.
A sobering thought may be that we have been unaware of our situation and that it sounds remarkably similar to what my favourite little old lady had to say many years ago: "I am filled with sadness when I think of our condition as a people…Grievous and presumptuous sins have dwelt among us. And yet the general opinion is that the church is flourishing, and that peace and spiritual prosperity are in all her borders." Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, page 217)
The solution? I think we need to re-look at our methods of witnessing and evangelism to a sceptical Australian public. The Census shows that Australians mostly identify with Christianity but not church environments. They like the product but not the retail outlet. Maybe it’s time for changes to be made in our approach to the public? Maybe we need to focus more on our own communities instead of going overseas where reward and success are guaranteed? Maybe we need to rethink throwing large sums of money at reaping campaigns when they don’t reap as effectively as they used to? The answers are there if we desire them but we need to be quick about it as many are going to Christless graves and the scoreboards are stacking up against us.
1. ABS, NCLS, McCrindle Research 2012
2. Source: ABS 2011 Census of Population & Housing (Time Series Profile – Cat. 2003.0)
3. 2013 Annual Statistical Report 149th Report of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for Year Ending December 31, 2011
5. There is no real way of measuring this except by anecdotal evidence. I understand that many may query this but if we look through our publications and baptisms we attend we can safely say that 50% is a conservative estimate. In reality it is much higher for many churches. It would be interesting if there was some data on this but I have yet to find any.
Danny Bell lives in Western Australia. He has been a pastor, chaplain, family court mediator, counsellor and editor of Trench Mail, a men’s ministry publication. He is currently leading a church plant called Lion Hearts which focuses on attracting men. His passion lies in making the Church relevant to the Church’s largest unreached people group—men.