Changes in Community that Shape the Future Church

11 Sep 2022 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Changes in Community that Shape the Future Church

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

Research can help us identify factors in society that will shape the future of church in Australia. Recently, Rev Mat Harry (New and Renewing Communities Catalyst with the Vic/Tas Synod UCA) sat down with Rev Prof Philip Hughes to consider leading factors for this shaping of the church. Philip Hughes is Senior Research officer with the Christian Research Association – In the conversation with Mat, Philip noted six factors from his research and that of others that are shaping the future church.

Factor 1 – Changes in the nature of community life
The advent of the car meant people could travel more easily. This is a big change from when people walked to church. Limited transport meant that every town had a church, and people attended their local church. Now it is not clear what church people would go to, and most drive past numerous other churches to get to their chosen church. With these changes in transport, community life is no longer based on local community, rather on interest. We form community with people like us, rather than people near us. Community has become very niche. Churches will become known for the niche interest for which they cater.

Future church community will be less grounded in place and proximity. We are already seeing more regional churches, rather than a church in each locality, and people will drive there.

Factor 2 – Consumer approach to life
We are raised in a society with consumerist assumptions: that we can pay a certain amount and get a certain experience; we can buy what we want. So as people approach communities (including churches), they expect to get something out of them. This means churches have to measure up if they want people to stick around. Examples of what people are looking for include: style of music; preaching and leadership that is not authoritarian (wider society values everyone’s views and dialogue); acceptance of diversity of lifestyles (wider society believes if it is not hurting someone else, then people should be free to choose their lifestyle).

Factor 3 – People are making sense of life in new ways
One of the major reasons people have engaged in religion in the past is because the religion supported their values, especially around family. For example, the value that women should focus on the home and looking after children while husbands go out to work. Society’s values have shifted and has led to decline in religious participation. One of the fundamental values people hold today is that we find fulfilment as individuals. It is no longer a matter of fulfilling particular gender roles.

Society is also no longer inherently believing in God. In Australia about 25% are confident in their belief in God. Another 25% who aren’t so sure. Another 25% who think there is some higher power, but would not call it God. Another 25% dismiss the idea of God.

Factor 4 – The function of religion
Previously religion was a foundation for family life and general personal values. But now people are finding meaning apart from religion. This is particular so in the business sector where church values around financial success are seen to be opposed to those of the sector. As a result, the business community has quietly slipped out of the church (not so much so with Pentecostal churches).
People are still looking for meaning and assistance in daily life … a God who cares for us and is with us in everyday life. People are also looking for inner sense of stillness and calm. Often, people look for this in nature, but churches can plug into this as well.

Factor 5 – Experience rather than Dogma
People are wary of organisations that have a whole string of dogma. People are seeking a sense of inner peace – being one with the wider world, or the experience of the other, not doctrine or a metanarrative about why they are not feeling so good about themselves.

They are looking for experiences where daily pressures are taken away. It may be through art, watching a film and having cup of coffee to talk about it, or camping. It is important to share the experience with others, and then continue as a community that has that history together.

Factor 6 – Patterns of socialisation
Earlier generations were socialised into the institution and structures of the church. Now people are socialised into values. They are not looking for static institutions or formal structures (with constitutions, committees and meetings), rather people are looking for more informal gatherings.

To watch a video of Mat’s conversation with Philip, follow this link – Church Mission | What factors shape the future of faith communities in Australia? - YouTube Perhaps you could encourage your church council or small group to watch and discuss this video together to see what it means for the future of your congregation.