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Australian Christians and the Pandemic

Australia, like Canada, is a large country with a not-so-large population.

It’s the sixth-largest country in the world (by land area), but only has a population of 25 million.

It’s also one of the most urbanized countries in the world. More than 60 percent of people live in the five main coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth, with 89 percent living in an urban context.

Gospel Ministry in Australia

One of the obvious consequences of urbanization and settlement is that each city and state has its own unique identity, and its own history. The history of evangelical Christianity in each place has also been markedly different. Initially, this difference was a function of the character and conviction of the early settlers (whether free or convict).

So, for example, the sole ecclesial presence in Sydney in the years immediately following the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 was the established Anglican church, whereas the situation in Melbourne was significantly more variegated, with Anglicans vying with Scottish Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists for influence from the beginning.

The national scene today continues to display remarkable complexity. Despite a high degree of theological unity amongst evangelicals, various expressions of evangelical Christianity across Australia remain largely disconnected and functionally divided. This is complicated by significant cultural differences between the various states and territories and between people in the inner city, suburbs, working-class suburbs, the country, and the outback.

In terms of the Australian population at large, Aussies are fairly relaxed and comfortable. We enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, with Australia ranked the third most liveable country in the world according to the UN’s Human Development Index. Not to mention we have some of the best weather in the world (the occasional bushfire notwithstanding!).

We have a strong Christian heritage as a culture – informing many of our values, and morals. Six out of ten Australians believe in God (or a higher power), although only 16% attend Church at least once a month. A growing segment of the population – around 35% – self identify as ‘non-religious and non-spiritual’. At the end of the day, most secular Australians people find their meaning and value in their work, holidays at the beach, and the shopping mall. While the majority of Australians are not hostile to Christianity, many are indifferent. And thus, churches regularly struggle with seeing fruit from their evangelistic efforts.

However, there is also a growing suspicion of Christianity among our cultural elites. With same-sex marriage legalised in late 2017, Christians suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of our culture’s sexual ethics (although the build-up had been happening for decades). Many states within Australia are passing ‘gay-conversion therapy’ laws, ostensibly to prohibit harmful gay-conversion practices like shock therapy etc. Yet such laws are so broad that even preaching biblical sexuality from the pulpit could potentially be prosecuted. Such increasing cultural opposition is making many Christians nervous.

While no church leader has been sent to prison for preaching the gospel, its common practice now for preachers to not post sermons online that deal with topics such as biblical sexuality.

But in the midst of these challenges, many evangelical churches are growing. Church planting networks such as Geneva Push and Acts 29 are helping plant new congregations, and campus ministry through the Australian chapter of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students is growing steadily from year to year. Moreover, while liberal denominations are in decline, evangelical churches as a whole are not.

How the Pandemic Affected Gospel Ministry

The pandemic has affected the operation of churches throughout most of 2020, and to this day. Like many countries, Australia went onto a hard lockdown from March to around June, which meant churches couldn’t meet in person. The majority were able to pivot and get online, although many smaller churches struggled to adjust.

As the country opened back up, churches were able to meet again, albeit with social distancing requirements. This has meant churches couldn’t meet in the same way as pre-pandemic, but had to have smaller numbers of people in their buildings. Many churches around the country adapted by putting on extra services and keeping their zoom services going (especially for the sake of their more vulnerable elderly and immune-compromised members).

Unfortunately, many churches around the country are finding that many of their fringe members (and sometimes even core members) have disengaged from church altogether, even though church-gatherings are back on.

This disengagement has been exacerbated in places like Melbourne, which went back into lockdown in June, and was only allowed to hold indoor church gatherings since late November.

This disparity in experiencing the pandemic across Australia was summed up the Australian Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, Al Stewart:

‘The virus has affected our churches very differently depending on where they are. In Melbourne there has been significant lock downs for several months, our church plants are hurting, the newer the church the more the pain, disruption and loss of momentum. In Queensland it’s made little difference, and in Western Australia, they don’t even know there is a virus. NSW churches are adapting, – there are still a fairly significant number of people who have not come back to church but are zooming in online.’[1]

What To Pray For

We would love you to pray for the following:

a) Refreshment for Pastors and Ministry leaders. Many are tired from the unusual year that 2020 has been, with the uncertainty and ‘decision fatigue’.

b) Ongoing evangelistic opportunities. While initially we wondered whether COVID would cause many Australians to ask deeper questions of their lives (leading to evangelistic opportunities) this doesn’t seem to have happened. Thus, please pray that we would make the most of any and all evangelistic opportunities, no matter how hard the soil seems.

c) For believers who have grown lukewarm in their faith at this time: that they would reconnect with God, and fellow Christians, and be cared for well.

The Future of TGC-Australia

The Gospel Coalition Australia is committed to helping the gospel advance across our great South land through a variety of means. First, we’ll continue building partnerships between like-minded Reformed Evangelicals at the local, national and state levels. We’ll be hosting our first National Conference in 2021 to ‘supercharge’ this effort.

Second, we plan to grow the different types of content on offer to Christians online through our website: we’ve already run a social media evangelistic campaign in the leadup to Easter this year, and the Council is exploring content that would see them discussing issues from a Christian perspective.

The online space is brimming with opportunities. But no matter what, we’ll continue pointing Christians and non-Christians to the only source of real hope and lasting joy: the Lord Jesus Christ.

 


[1] From a private email.

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