Even well traveled americans are often unaware that Australia compares in size to the United States without Alaska and Hawaii. The population of this fast developing British commonwealth country is largely concentrated, however, in a few big, bustling cities; Sydney, capital of New South Wales, is larger than Rome or Vienna. The vast spaces outside the capital cities are for the most part sparsely settled.
Australian cities have yielded to the commercial spirit of the West and to its concentration on this-worldly interests. The younger generation is caught up in fast-changing personal and social attitudes. The swift-running tide of secularism perturbs not a few churchmen; they realize increasingly that to gain wide hearing for the biblical good news Christians must mount some kind of cooperative witness, rather than simply go it alone. The conviction is widespread, in fact, that these times are a historical turning-point in Australian history. Several thousand Jesus-followers marching on Canberra, the national capital, publicly flung aloft the banner KAIROS to proclaim that the moment of spiritual decision is here.
Australia has had evangelistic efforts with significant regional impact, notably the 1959 and 1968 Graham crusades. The former, of greater duration, won many converts (one church in Sydney had 646 referrals) and enlisted an impressive number of university men for Christian careers; ongoing effects still continue in a number of churches in Melbourne, Sydney, and elsewhere. The later crusade stimulated no fewer than 4,000 women’s prayer groups to dedicated intercession and rallied evangelical forces to cooperative engagement.
The Graham impact lifted commitment to Christ conspicuously into the news and made spiritual decision a matter of public conversation. Previously the Australian press had avoided such coverage; memories of past sectarian controversy seemed best kept out of mind by a simple dismissal of religion as a private matter.
Today Australian Christians see the need for a national effort that enlists believers in every city and community in a cooperative evangelical witness. Political leaders cater to the clamor for permissive legislation, and amid swift moral change the voice of churchmen is increasingly ignored. Unsure how much in the way of modern alternatives to accept, church members themselves are often confused. Even some broadly evangelical seminaries seem in the grip of a non-missionary theology. As nominal communicants find their true home in a secular society, many churches experience a declining membership. Clergymen are baffled increasingly by administrative burdens and find themselves unable to concentrate on the spiritual priorities they envisioned at ordination. This plight dulls the adventure of parish service, especially amid the current public lapse from church involvement.
While the figure is in some ways misleading, only some 4 per cent of the Australian populace regularly attends church. Australians have not in principle repudiated a church relationship, though there is notable lack of interest in institutional religion. In some places once-a-month church attendance runs as high as 40 to 50 per cent. The 1966 census indicated the national religious preferences to be about 34 per cent Anglican, 27 per cent Catholic, 10 per cent Presbyterian, 10 per cent Methodist, and less than 2 per cent Baptist. Yet denominational statistics and church attendance are another matter. Despite the indicated proportions, in some places as many Baptists will be present in their churches as Anglicans. One wit has saluted Baptist activism as follows:
Mary had a little lamb
It might have been a sheep
If it hadn’t joined the Baptist church
And died for want of sleep.
Catholicism shows steady constituency gains through immigrations from southern Europe and because of large families. Methodists in recent years have shown membership losses and budgetary cutbacks. An attempt at ecumenical salvage was unexpectedly complicated when Presbyterians favored national merger in a plebiscite but opposed it in their local churches.
A survey of the general public by the Lay Institute for Evangelism, of which the Reverend Geoffrey Fletcher, an Anglican, is director, disclosed remarkable unfamiliarity with basic Christian doctrines in both Australia and New Zealand. In Nelson 40 per cent, in Christchurch 50 per cent, and in Darwin 51 per cent indicated their ignorance of the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
There are, to be sure, some heartening developments, mostly of regional import but some of national significance. The chairman of the 1974 International Conference on World Evangelization in Lausanne is, notably, Bishop A. Jack Dain, one of several evangelical bishops in Sydney, the most evangelical diocese in the world. Among Anglicans in western Australia also there are signs of noteworthy evangelical renewal. Ridley College, Melbourne, where New Testament scholar Dr. Leon Morris is principal, has doubled its ministerial enrollment. The rejuvenation of the Australian Evangelical Alliance, with its projected publication of the Australian Evangelical, is noteworthy. Conceding that enthusiasm for church union is flagging, the Victorian Council of Churches is now favorable to evangelism. Lay Institute for Evangelism, a training program using Campus Crusade materials, is enlisting congregations in evangelistic activity; in New Zealand it has already trained 250 clergy and 2,000 laity, and its program in Australia is growing. Christian Women’s Conventions—more than 100 of them meeting annually in Australia and 14 in New Zealand—have gathered as many as 2,500 women on weekend retreats, winning decisions and channeling converts into home Bible studies and back into churches.
Early interest in a cooperative transdenominational evangelistic thrust that enlists both clergy and laity was responsible for the invitation I received to meet with church leaders concerning Key 75 possibilities. Since Methodists and Baptists had already declared for worldwide denominational evangelistic emphases in 1975, and the Salvation Army in Australia is now also committed, a Key 75 thrust seems quite possible. Such proposals could be merged into a continent-wide effort that emphasizes a saving relationship to Christ above denominational relatedness, and maintains continuity with the identifiable Key 73 priority for personal evangelism. At the invitation of ecclesiastical VIPs, I ventured 27,000 flight miles and gave thirty-five addresses in seventeen days to clergy and church leaders, university students, and local congregations in nine cities. Hundreds of churchmen and lay workers long for a Key 75 type of evangelistic thrust, and their denominational decision-makers seem very open to the possibilities.
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