Is the belief that we’re losing young people from our LCA/NZ congregations at a faster rate than ever backed up by facts? We asked Western Australia’s Pastor Matthew Bishop, a former senior economist in the Australian Government Treasury department, to look at what the statistics tell us about whether there is reason for hope.
‘How do we know what to do?’ My confirmation pastor, the late, dear Rev John Sims, used to suggest something like: ‘Pray about it, then use your sanctified commonsense!’
What then to do about our supposed lack of young people in the church?
To me, part of the ‘sanctified commonsense’ is to know the facts. God doesn’t want us to fear, including the unknown. As it turns out, the statistics in this area, while confirming fewer young people and declining church attendance among them, also suggest plenty of upside.
Do fewer young people attend LCA services?
It is true that proportionally we see fewer young faces around us each Sunday. National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data compiled from LCA congregations shows that from 2001 to 2016 the average age of LCA church attenders 15+ has increased from 52 to 60 years of age. From 2001 to 2016 the percentage of attenders’ children aged 15+ and living at home still attending church declined from 68 per cent to 60 per cent.
Are we an ageing church?
It’s important to remember that Australia has an ageing population, as borne out by Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data. Moreover, Christian church attendees in Australia are older than the general population, according to the NCLS. These two factors alone account for some of the ageing.
Another influence is that, in the past 15 years, there has been a sharp increase in the five-yearly national census of the number of people reporting ‘no-religion’ (although, is there really such a thing?).
As the table below shows, Christianity declined by 11.8 per cent between 2006 and 2016. The effect was amplified nationally in the 18 to 30 young adult cohort, with a 14.6 per cent surge in those reporting ‘no-religion’.
SHARE OF AUSTRALIAN POPULATION,
2006 AND 2016 ABS CENSUS
|18-30 YEAR OLD|
*unaccounted difference goes to another religion
Indeed, a 2016 NCLS fact sheet on spirituality reports, ‘Young people aged 15–29 are least likely to agree there is something beyond that makes sense of it all (38 per cent vs ~47 per cent for those aged 30 plus)’. Perhaps echoing this, census data shows that from 2006 to 2016 Lutherans aged 18 to 30 years as a share of all Lutherans declined by 3.3 per cent to 10.9 per cent.
There’s a Lutheran young adult somewhere near you
Gloomy? Don’t be! In 2016 some 18,931 Australians aged between 18 and 30 still reported as being Lutheran! The table below shows there is no need to be lonely if it is an 18- to 30-year-old Lutheran Christian you are missing.
LUTHERAN YOUNG ADULTS 18–30 YEARS OLD,
2016 ABS CENSUS
Surprised? Don’t fall for untruth from the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44) that there is no youth left in our church. For example, in the greater Perth area where I live, 568 young people aged 18 to 30 nominated as Lutheran in the 2016 census. I know only 50 at most. Who are the other 518? What a great question to answer in getting to know them, their situation, and helping them to know what Christ has done for them.
What else can I do?
Remember that God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). Therefore, pray about which of the following you might be able to do really well. Then use your sanctified commonsense and get on with it!
- Get to know the young adults you don’t know yet! Young people tell me they like to ‘hang around’ together (not necessarily with older people). So, rather than re-invent the wheel, help connect them with the various younger gatherings and Bible study communities that are already in your district, zone or congregation. Encourage those running these events with prayer, words and finances. With young people often struggling financially, help with food or make a donation to those groups.
- Read and practise an excellent book on how to talk faith, like Sydneysider Sam Chan’s Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to make the unbelievable news about Jesus more believable.
- Invite your pastor, lay worker or LCA’s Pastor for New and Renewing Churches, Rev Dr Noel Due, for a discussion about conversational evangelism (email@example.com).
- Lead or support your congregation into digging into long-term intergenerational faith formation in modern Australia by contacting LCA Grow Ministries Director Jodi Brook (firstname.lastname@example.org) and utilising Grow’s extensive collection of internationally curated resources.
When you feel discouraged, remember that youth still remember later in life at least some of what they learnt in confirmation! But above all, pray: We frequently lay our anxieties on Christ (including regarding the youth of our church) because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
Pastor Matthew Bishop serves Bethlehem Lutheran Church Morley in suburban Perth and is on the LCA’s Council for Local Mission. He is blessed with three teenage daughters, Gabbi, Eden and Naomi, and wife Melissa, and assists Lutheran Youth of WA with camps and young adult Bible study. He has previously researched young adult ministry for Lutheran Youth of Queensland.
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