If one thing is certain, it’s that 2021 will go down in history as a year to be remembered: Australians faced a second year of life under COVID-19, with repeated lockdowns, border closures and economic uncertainty. For Christians, a second year of the pandemic meant returning to church online, with services and small groups streamed across the internet. However, despite the many obvious ways in which 2021 left its mark on Australia, there is one less obvious reason that guarantees its inclusion in the history books: 2021 was a Census year—that is, a year in which every person and household is counted.
But why should Australian Christians be excited about the Australian Census? It’s because it is the nation’s largest survey of over 10 million households and 25 million people that reports on economic, social and cultural statistics. As a longitudinal measure of Australia’s demographic composition, the Census tells the story of how Australia is changing. And while the Census contains hundreds of distinct variables, there are four key elements that are particularly exciting for Christian ministry. These include the way Australia’s communities are growing, ageing and changing. For Christians, this information presents opportunities to refine ministry strategies, as well as to identify new gospel opportunities.
Here are four reasons for us to get excited about the Census.
1. Growth areas
The first reason Christians should be excited about the Census is that it shows how and where the population is growing. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak (which has temporarily reduced net overseas migration), Australia was growing at a rate of one new resident every 73 seconds. This rate of growth alone is exciting as each additional resident represents a new opportunity for the gospel.
In addition, the Census is able to drill down and identify growing communities, which is important as growth is nuanced. In north-west Sydney, for example, the population of Riverstone-Marsden Park has increased at a rate of 28 per cent over 12-months, making it one of the fastest-growing areas in Australia.1 This is the equivalent of 170 new residents every week. During the same period, however, suburbs right next door—such as Windsor and Bligh Park—have experienced population decline (-0.1 per cent).2
Unique patterns of growth such as in north-west Sydney are observed right across the country, highlighting why area-specific Census data is such a powerful tool for planning ministry and identifying emerging gospel opportunities. A clearer understanding of a community’s changing population—whether it be growing or declining—can help us develop realistic expectations of church growth.
It is important to note that a declining population doesn’t signal the end of growth for a church. Far from it! Instead, it might indicate a necessary shift from a strategy based on ambient growth to a more targeted approach.
2. Ageing population
The second reason why Christians should be excited about the Census is that it shows how Australia’s age profile is changing. In 2001, the median age in Australia—that is, the age at which 50 per cent of the population is younger and 50 per cent is older—was 40 years old.3 20 years later, the median age has risen by four years to 44. While this change may appear marginal, it indicates a trend. As life expectancy increases and the birth rate declines, the average age of Australians will continue to rise.
With many Australian churches engaged, to some extent, in generational ministry, it is important to understand each community’s age-specific needs. For example, in some Australian suburbs, there has been a rapid decline in the number of children and youth, matched by an equally rapid rise in retirement-aged residents. Churches in these areas might be over-resourcing youth ministry and struggling to see growth, all the while ignoring the increasing number of retirees. Conversely, some churches might discover they are ill-equipped to respond to a growing number of young families in their area and might seek to increase their capacity to serve this emerging demographic. It is always interesting to discover whether the age profile of a church matches its local community. If not, why not? The Census is exciting as significant differences may indicate new opportunities for gospel outreach.
3. Multicultural ministry
The third reason why Christians should be excited about the Census is that it explains how Australia’s culture is changing. According to the 2016 Census, nearly three in 10 Australians were born overseas (29 per cent).4 Not only were a large proportion of Australians born overseas, more than one in five speak a language other than English at home (21 per cent).5 As net overseas migration continues to drive population growth, the level of diversity is set to continue rising.
This raises important questions for local churches—questions such as, “Are we preaching the gospel in languages that can be understood by our local community?”, “As communities change and shift, what new cultures and languages are emerging in our area?”, “What cultural differences do we need to understand?”, and, importantly, “What partnerships might we need to make to serve a diversifying community?”
4. Religion in Australia
The final reason why Christians should be excited about the Census is because of how religion in Australia has changed. As the country’s cultural composition has changed, so too has religious affiliation. The 2016 Census revealed that the proportion of Australians who identify as Christian dropped to just over half (52 per cent), the lowest point in Australia’s history.6 When the results of the 2021 Census are released in mid-2022, this proportion is expected to fall below 50 per cent for the first time.
Meanwhile, the proportion of Australians who identify as non-religious has been continuing to rise. In 2016, the proportion of people who identified as non-religious rose to its highest point of 30 per cent. The remaining 8 per cent—a proportion that has also been increasing—identify with world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.
As with population growth, religious affiliation varies according to geography. In Sydney’s suburb of Auburn, for example, the proportion of the population who identified as Christian in 2016 was 18 per cent,7 while just 15 kilometres away in Dural, the proportion was as high as 65 per cent.8 Such different cultural communities require differentiated ministry strategies.
It is also important to remember that the Census profile of “Christianity” is not a homogenous unit, but a broad cultural identity—of which active believers are a smaller subset. Therefore, for areas with an above-average proportion of Christians, “ticking a box” is not always an accurate measure of personal conviction and may reveal that there is still plenty of work to be done.
It is also important to consider what it means for people in each community to identify as Christian: is it a sign of individual faith, or is it tied to ethnicity or family heritage? The Census reveals that there are many communities where the proportion of people who identify as Christian is even lower than expected. Christians in these areas should be careful not to operate based on assumed knowledge or prior exposure to Christianity. As Australia’s cultural diversity rises, it’s important to understand the unique cultural composition of each individual mission area.
There are many reasons to be excited about the Census—especially for Christians, as the Census is a useful tool for developing a clearer picture of the communities they serve. This picture empowers Christians to see the various ways in which their local community is growing, ageing and changing. While 2021 will be remembered for many reasons, the Census serves as a reminder of the growing opportunity for the gospel in Australia and that today, as always, the harvest is plentiful (Matt 9:37).
Tim Edwards has completed his first year at Moore College.
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