One day soon, I will know whether the hunch I’m about to reveal is a dud. That will be the day next year when the data from our recent national census – the one that brought a nation’s evening on the internet to a bemusing and frustrating halt – is released for all of us to view.
On that day we are going to know whether the nation is still “roughly Christian.” The term, magnificent in the vernacular, belongs to poet Les Murray.
Murray transposes the teachings of Jesus for the likes of laidback Aussies in his poem, The Quality of Sprawl, which is surely one of the best depictions of Australian culture in any art form. Long live poetry!
“Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek,” writes Murray, contemplating whether “sprawl” can survive in this world, or will have to leave the Earth for the heavenly paradise where classlessness, humility and the thirteenth banana in the dozen can be found.
Christianity has never been a numbers game.
But is this generous, egalitarian, laid-back and roughly Christian vision of Australian life now out of date? Will the new census reveal to us that Australia is no longer majority-Christian?
At one level, it matters not. Christianity has never been a numbers game. It’s never been about efficiency or quotas or percentage growth. It is spectacularly uneconomical. After all, Jesus promoted wilfully indulgent use of resources when he commended the shepherd who chased after the lost sheep. Surely 99 out of a flock of 100 was a reasonable result? Nope, the numbers are never the main game.
And although Christianity grew to be a vast global religion, its origins are in small numbers of quiet, unseen believers who pray, sing and read the Scriptures in private locations. Only a few were notable or noble, Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:26). Mostly, God just got on with things while the number of his followers was low.
I will be delighted if Christian belief holds up in Australia, and grieve if it doesn’t.
God desires that every person turn to him and live, but statistical domination of a society does not appear to be high on his list of priorities. The social significance of Christianity waxes and wanes. Sometimes, Christian leaders rise up and shape a nation; sometimes it is tyrants; sometimes it is tyrants who unwittingly build on Christian foundations. The number of Christians in the society is not the key issue.
But on another level, I will be delighted if Christian belief holds up in Australia, and grieve if it doesn’t.
Christians are salt and light. On the whole, we improve the flavour and stability of any society we join. We try to preserve the good, and toss out the bad. And we help people to “live light” (to use the Bible Society tagline): shedding light on problems; opposing evil and trying to do something about it; sharing the heart-lightening news of Christ; and, lightening people’s burdens through social programmes, schools, medical care and charities. We are usually more good than harm, so it would be sad for everyone to see us in decline.
I’m still clinging to the hope that Aussies in the main are roughly Christian.
Of course, this is not the view of all Australians by any imagination. Some now see Christians as the ones opposing progress, meddling with state matters and coercing leaders to accept a Christian agenda. It’s up to us Christians to demonstrate to society at large that we are here for good.
If our numbers do decline, I will see our job as something like the football team who have had several players sent off midway though the second half. We know it will be much tougher to stick to our match plan. We know the opposition will have a distinct advantage. But as so often happens on the field, the players that remain will rise up and find new strength, play more impressively than they did before, and sometimes pull off miraculous deeds because they know that the game rests on them. Nothing like an intensification of responsibility!
But I’m an incurable optimist, and I’m still clinging to the hope that Aussies in the main are roughly Christian. It would be better for everyone if that were so. Unless the internet fails us again, we’ll shortly know whether I’m right.
Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.