A Scottish clergyman once described Australia as the “most godless place under heaven.”1 Although his comment was ill-informed, as a provocative statement it clues us in to something of a popular sentiment regarding the religiosity of Australia.2 Yet contrary to popular impression, it can be forcefully argued that Christianity in general, and evangelicalism in particular, has been a potent influence on Australian society and culture for the past 200 years.3
In three major sections, this article investigates the way the Australian evangelical mind is represented by its parachurch institutions. First, I briefly summarize the overall religious context of Australia, including salient data pertaining to Christian affiliation and church attendance. Second, I examine three spheres of parachurch influence for evangelicals: social services, education, and politics. Third, I offer a tentative proposal as to what is presently missing in Australian evangelical engagement through the parachurch.
The Australian Religious Context
To begin, it is important to situate this discussion within the broad religious context of Christianity in Australia. Evangelicalism arrived in Australia in 1788, on board the first fleet of convict ships from Britain. Richard Johnson, an evangelical Anglican with substantial ties to the Clapham Sect, functioned as the colony’s first chaplain.4 Despite challenging beginnings, evangelicalism flourished throughout the nineteenth century,5 but the nation that eventually emerged with Federation in 1901 cannot confidently be defined as either Christian or secular.6 Certainly, in terms of the affiliation of its inhabitants, the overwhelming majority identified themselves as Christian.7 However, the constitution of Australia deliberately sought to be secular, insofar as it prescribed freedom of religion and the freedom to be nonreligious.8 Nevertheless, up until the 1960s, the self-perception of many Australians would have been to configure their national identity in terms of being a Christian country.9
From the 1960s onward, Christian affiliation and church attendance declined substantially. In 1966 approximately 88.2 percent of Australians identified as Christian; in 2016 this number had reduced to 52.1 percent.10 In 1961, 41 percent of Australians attended church monthly, but, by 2007, this number had declined to just 17 percent.11 Yet what this headline data can mask is “evangelical constituencies have become even more disproportionately important among church attenders.”12 In simple terms, a great deal of the decline in church attendance has been experienced in the mainline denominations.13 The present situation of the evangelical church in Australia is one where church attendance is no longer normative, or even normal; at the same time, evangelicalism is managing to persist and in some cases thrive.
Evangelical Influence through Parachurch Institutions
Throughout the history of the nation, the parachurch has been a vital feature of Australian evangelical life. Key parachurch initiatives include the Bible Society, transdenominational Christian conventions, and missionary Bible colleges.14 However, this discussion of evangelical parachurch institutions will be limited to three particular spheres: social services, education, and politics.
Notably, 23 out of the top 25 charities in Australia are what may reasonably be termed faith-based.15 This is by no means a recent phenomenon; it has been a feature of Australian society since the beginnings of white settlement. Within the early social development of Australia, poverty relief was at the bottom of the government’s laissez-faire economic agenda, leading private charitable groups to fill the space.16 By the time the modern welfare state began to be fully implemented in the mid-twentieth century, the Australian government often chose to work through the existing charitable sector, as opposed to replacing it.17
This compact between government and the charitable sector can bring both promise and peril. As Judd, Robinson, and Errington frame it:
The crisis for Australian charities is one of identity. They are in crisis because so many of them do not know who they are and they do not know why they are doing what they are doing. And what is sad is that many do not even understand the concept.18
The challenges of maintaining a religious identity are many. For example, being in receipt of government funding has, on occasion, gagged the political voice of the charities.19 In addition, the complex demands of running a major organization can mean hiring staff members who might be professionally competent but struggle to articulate the faith basis of the charity.20
Yet positive examples of attempts at theological reflection can be adduced. One of Australia’s biggest charities, World Vision Australia, continues to self identify as a Christian organization and is happy to explicate their identity within a Trinitarian, prophetic, and holistic framework.21 Similarly, Mission Australia retains within its mission statement a desire to “spread the knowledge of the love of God.”22 Furthermore, it was Mission Australia that helped initially fund the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), perhaps Australia’s preeminent think tank for promoting the public understanding of the Christian faith.23
Christian influence on education began early within the Australian colony, by way of denominational schooling.24 Indeed it was only in the late nineteenth century that the state completely intervened to provide a “secular” education to the Australian public;25 even after this, private schools remained an essential feature of the educational landscape. Nationwide roughly one-third of all Australian students are educated in private schools.26 In recent decades, one of the primary drivers of growth in the sector has been the increasing presence of independent schools with an explicitly evangelical identity.27
As would be obvious from our earlier statistics on religion, private schools proved attractive to a much broader constituency than just churchgoing families. For those schools that espouse evangelical convictions, however, the challenges of forming an “evangelical mind” remain profound. Many evangelical schools still operate with a bifurcated vision of Christianity’s relationship to the educational disciplines, such that the religious “bit” of the school is confined to Christian Studies class or classes. Additionally, many parents who send their children to such schools have little interest in how theology might inform epistemology, or how one might reorient learners toward the goal of shalom; they see private school as a prophylactic barrier protecting their fledgling learner from a nebulous set of bad influences.28 Finally, despite the avowed ethos of any particular school, many teachers within these schools are not Christian. Even if they are, they have often never been extensively trained in how to think theologically about their praxis. One positive sign for education is the number of tertiary-level evangelical colleges providing teacher training from a Christian perspective.29 But this optimism needs to be tempered by the fact that many teachers, having been given a small taste of thinking theologically, find the day-to-day demands of teaching squeeze out any possibility for further theological reflection.
Despite the presence of a constitutional provision30 that sounds substantially similar to the US First Amendment, Australian society avoided enforcing a strict separation between church and state.31 Indeed, from its very beginnings, Australian parliamentary democracy has been surrounded by Christian hymns and prayers.32 Even today, both houses of the federal Parliament are opened with a set prayer, which includes within it the Lord’s Prayer.33 While these overtly religious practices occasion regular criticism,34 the outcry against them has been insufficient to see the practice ended, a fact that gives some insight into the more relaxed mood of Australians regarding this topic.
Regarding parachurch institutions, perhaps two merit our attention. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) emerged in the mid-1990s, initially from the efforts of Queensland Pentecostals.35 Although it positions itself as nonpartisan, its deliberate goal of being a “Christian voice for values” led it to prioritize conservative issues relating to family, sexuality, and the right to life.36 This should not surprise, because what church data we do possess on voting patterns suggests a decided skew toward right-wing political perspectives.37 Yet for all that Australian evangelicals might lean in a rightward direction, alternative political voices are clearly present, who argue the ACL does not represent them or the evangelical constituency as a whole.38 The past three years has seen a new movement, Common Grace (CG), form a diverse coalition of Christians to prioritize issues such as indigenous rights, climate change, and domestic violence.39 Although CG does not self-identify as evangelical, many of its key contributors are prominent evangelical ministers and theologians.40 Thus the notion of a “Christian vote” is quite complex and subtle in Australia.41 Indeed, the same data that show Christian voting patterns to be right-leaning also demonstrate that many either support left-leaning political parties or are open to changing their vote from election to election.42
An additional feature of evangelical political engagement has been the formation of Christian political parties, such as the Christian Democratic Party (CDP, formed in 1977) or the Family First Party (formed in 2001). Both parties stress “family values” issues, although the CDP has also endorsed policies that tend toward Islamophobia and climate skepticism.43
Yet for all of their strident appeals, Christian parties struggled to capture a sizable proportion of church attenders.44 In part, this is based in a recognition that Christian parties are often positioned as “single-issue” parties, rather than offering a wide-ranging engagement with the full task of government. In terms of published pieces, Australian evangelicals demonstrate a basic awareness of moving “beyond left and right,” although this awareness rarely translates into anything approaching a full-orbed evangelical political philosophy.45
Tentative Proposals for the Evangelical Parachurch
In spite of declining Christian affiliation and a reduction in church attendance overall, evangelicals maintain a vital presence and exercise influence in the broader Australian culture. Within the varying domains of social services, education, and politics, numerous possibilities are available for Australian evangelicals to grow and mature their contributions. In 1994 Mark Noll opened his seminal volume by stating: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”46 What Noll was meaning had a peculiar meaning to his North American context. The same statement could be uttered about Australian evangelicalism in 2017, but for different reasons.
What Australia predominantly lacks is the presence of strong “communities of discourse”47 that can sustain the necessary discussion, critique, and further maturation of evangelical thinking as it applies to domains outside the church. Perhaps it is the education sector that best illustrates the problem for all the sectors we have discussed. As indicated above, Christian education is a robust presence at primary and secondary levels, but it then nearly disappears at the tertiary level. Simply put, there is no Protestant Christian university in Australia.48 Indeed, there are only a few degree-level Christian tertiary institutions offering courses outside of the domains of ministry and theology. Even if one includes enrollments in Protestant theological colleges, the proportion of students is less than 1 percent of the total.49 As a result, most Christian academics ply their trade within state tertiary institutions, and thus participants within the evangelical parachurch learn their craft in contexts that usually elide the theological dimension.
This lack of coordinated Christian thinking at a tertiary level demonstrably impacts the quality and maturity of the Australian evangelical mind. A little more than a decade ago, Richard Mouw wrote of the need to cultivate a “deep commitment to a new kind of evangelical scholarship that would wrestle seriously with the important issues being raised in the large world of the mind.”50 It is likely that only by developing a more intentional tertiary discussion will Australian evangelicals be able to resolve the questions of identity, cohesion, and strategy with which they are constantly wrestling in the domains of social service, education, and politics.
Cite this article
- James Denney, as cited in Thomas R. Frame, Anglicans in Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales [UNSW] Press, 2007), 125.
- Hugh Chilton, “Evangelicals and the End of Christian Australia: Nation and Religion in the Public Square 1959–1979” (PhD diss., University of Sydney 2014), 12–16.
- For a vigorous defense, see Stuart Piggin, Evangelical Christianity in Australia: Spirit, Word, and World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
- Ibid., 4–6, 11–12.
- Ibid., 24–78.
- Tom Frame, Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009), 60.
- 96 percent identified as Christian in the first census in 1901; see “Religious Affiliation,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, last updated January 24, 2007, http://www.abs.gov.au/ Ausstats/[email protected]/0/BFDDA1CA506D6CFACA2570DE0014496E?opendocument.
- Amanda Lohrey, “Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia,” Quarterly Essay 22 (2006): 36, 40, 42.
- Chilton, “Evangelicals and the End of Christian Australia,” 49–84.
- See the helpful summary “Religion in Australia,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed September 14, 2007, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/by%20 Subject/2071.0~2016~Main%20Features~Religion%20Data%20Summary~25.
- Ruth Powell, “Why Innovation Is Needed in Church Life,” National Church Life Survey (NCLS) Research, accessed September 14, 2017, http://www.ncls.org.au/download/ doc4485/FactSheet10.03.03-WhyInnovationIsNeededInChurchLife.pdf.
- Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe, A Short History of Global Evangelicalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 216.
- The one great exception is the robustly evangelical Sydney Anglican diocese.
- See, for example, Piggin, Evangelical Christianity in Australia, 91–92, 99–100, 110–112.
- See the comments of Stephen Judd, in Sophie Timothy, “Story of Courage and Survival Wins Christian Book of the Year,” August 9, 2013, http://www-archive.biblesociety.org.au/ news/story-of-courage-and-survival-wins-christian-book-of-the-year.
- Douglas Hynd, “Church-Related Social Welfare Agencies in Australia: A Historical Perspective on Their Development and Their Relationship with the State,” Zadok Papers 220/221 (2017): 3.
- Stephen Judd, Anne Robinson, and Felicity Errington, Driven by Purpose: Charities That Make the Difference (Sydney: Hammond Care, 2014), chap. 3, Kindle ed.
- Ibid., introduction.
- Brian Howe and Renate Howe, “The Influence of Faith-Based Organisations on Australian Social Policy,” Australian Journal of Social Issues 47.3 (2012): 328.
- Judd, Robinson, and Errington, Driven by Purpose, Kindle locations 2592–2594.
- See “More about Our Christian Identity,” World Vision Australia, accessed September 14, 2017, https://www.worldvision.com.au/about-us/our-policies/more-about-our-christianidentity.
- See “Mission Australia,” accessed September 14, 2017, https://www.missionaustralia. com.au/.
- John Dickson, personal communication, September 14, 2017.
- Roy Williams, Post-God Nation? How Religion Fell Off the Radar in Australia and What Might Be Done to Get it Back On (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2015), 186.
- On the complexity of what was meant by the term secular in key Education Acts, see David Hastie, “The Latest Installment in the Whig Interpretation of Australian Education History: Catherine Byrne’s JORH Article ‘Free, Compulsory and (not) Secular,’” Journal of Religious History 41.3 (2017): 386–403.
- Jennifer Buckingham, The Rise of Religious Schools (St. Leonards, NSW: Centre for Independent Studies, 2010), 2.
- See “A Snapshot of Schools in Australia, 2013,”McCrindle Research, accessed September 14, 2017, http://mccrindle.com.au/resources/Snapshot-of-Schools-in-Australia-2013_Mc- Crindle-Research.pdf.
- Buckingham, Rise of Religious Schools, 8, citing the research of Craig Campbell, Helen Proctor, and Geoffrey Sherrington.
- For a list, see “Tertiary Partners,” Christian Schools Australia, accessed September 15, 2017, https://csa.edu.au/resources/partners/tertiary-partners/.
- 30“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth” (§ 116).
- T. R. Frame, Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009), 176.
- Meredith Lake, The Bible Down Under: How the Bible Helped Shape Australian Culture, History, Art, and Everything Else (Sydney: NSW Bible Society, 2016), 46.
- 33See “Acknowledgement of Country and Prayers,” Parliament of Australia, accessed September 15, 2017, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives/ Powers_practice_and_procedure/Practice6/Practice6HTML?file=Chapter8§ion=03.
- “Greens Push to Dump Lord’s Prayer from Federal Parliament,” ABC News, February 13, 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-13/greens-push-to-dump-lords-prayerfrom- federal/5256744.
- Stuart Piggin, Spirit, Word, and World: Evangelical Christianity in Australia, 3rd ed. (Brunswick East: Acorn, 2012), 243–45; Marion Maddox, “Right-Wing Christian Intervention in a Naïve Polity: The Australian Christian Lobby,” Political Theology 15.2 (2014): 133.
- See “About the Australian Christian Lobby,” ACL, accessed September 14, 2017, http:// www.acl.org.au/about.
- 37In 2011 close to 50 percent supporting right-leaning parties, 25 percent supporting leftleaning parties, and 13 percent identifying as “swinging” voters (the remaining percentages reflect respondents who voted for independents or who could not vote because of age). See “Voting Patterns by Church Attenders,” NCLS Research, accessed September 14, 2017, http://www.ncls.org.au/download/doc5358/NCLS%20Fact%20Sheet%2013007%20Voting% 20by%20church%20attenders.pdf.
- Stephanie Judd, “Australian Christian Lobby Is Not Nearly as Influential as Some Suggest, Stephanie Judd writes,” ABC News, February 29, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016- 03-01/australian-christian-lobby-is-not-as-influential-as-some-suggest/7210300.
- See http://www.commongrace.org.au/.
- The list of contributors to Common Grace includes representatives from Sydney Anglicanism, Hillsong, and evangelical Baptists. See “Contributors,” Common Grace, accessed September 14, 2017, http://www.commongrace.org.au/contributors.
- 41For more, see Mark Stephens, “The Complexity of the Christian Vote,” Centre for Public Christianity, August 12, 2010, https://publicchristianity.org/library/the-complexity-of-thechristian- vote; John Dickson, “In Political Realm, Birds of a Feather Don’t Necessarily Flock Together,” Sydney Morning Herald (July 29, 2010), http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/ political-opinion/in-the-political-realm-birds-of-a-feather-dont-necessarily-flock-together- 20100728-10vy3.html.
- See the data referred to in note 36.
- See http://www.cdp.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CDP-FE16-25-Policies- Complete.pdf, esp. pp. 17–20 (on halal food) and 32–33 (on climate change).
- See “NSW Election Result a ‘Disaster for Christians’: Moyes,” Sydney Anglicans (April 28, 2003), http://sydneyanglicans.net/news/722a.
- For an example from an American context, see Amy E. Black, Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
- Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.
- I borrow this term from Erik Borg, “Discourse Community,” ELT Journal 57.4 (2003): 398–400.
- Todd C. Ream and Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 141.
- These are based on rough calculations using “Student Data,” Australian Government Department of Education and Training, accessed September 15, 2017, https://www.education. gov.au/student-data.
- Richard Mouw, foreword to Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), x.