Christian message struggling to be heard in 'me' culture

By Emma Halgren

July 14 2016

The church in Australia and other western democracies exists within a wider culture that is “antithetical to the messages of religion in general, Christianity in particular”, says social researcher Hugh Mackay — and this “me” culture presents an enormous challenge for the church.

Mr Mackay was speaking with Archbishop Philip Freier in a breakfast discussion on “The quest for meaning” at Deakin Edge, Federation Square on 22 June. The discussion was moderated by ABC Radio’s John Cleary.

“We have been relentlessly bombarded by propaganda which is the opposite of the Christian message,” said Mr Mackay. “It’s come to us from consumerism, mass-marketing, saying ‘you’re entitled to material wealth, prosperity, comfort, keep buying stuff and you’ll feel better.’”

He said that the “happiness industry” had similarly flooded society with the message that “you’re entitled to personal happiness, and if you’re not happy there’s something wrong with you, as though to discount the full spectrum of human emotions in which the so-called dark ones like sadness, disappointment, failure, loss, have much more to teach us about what it means to be human than the rather ephemeral bright shiny ones.”

But he said that while the truth was that the vast majority of Australians would not enter a church this year, even for a wedding, there was on various indicators “this persistent identification with religion” which presented a conundrum for researchers.

In his new book Beyond Belief, he quotes a survey of non-church goers in which 80 per cent indicated that they like having a church in their local suburb. In his own research over the years he had also heard comments like “I love to see groups of people outside church on Sunday morning”, which he said seemed to say, “isn’t it nice to know that that sort of thing still goes on, [even though] I won’t necessarily be attaching myself to them.”

Archbishop Philip Freier said he had picked up on this phenomenon. He gave the example of the Geelong suburb of Corio, one of the most disadvantaged postcodes in Victoria, which he had recently visited. He said he had found there “a wonderful story… of the integration of that church with its local community”, through a number of social welfare programs.

“It’s a highly diverse community of people from different backgrounds, but it’s a Christian community and people still come there… to explore questions of meaning and life purpose.” (See page 1).

He said that while the number of actual Sunday church attendees in communities like this one may be small relative to the size of the suburb, “the leverage that they have into that community is significant, and I can imagine people in that community feeling warm about the existence of that community and the place that symbolises it.”

Hugh Mackay said that the “SBNR” (“spiritual but not religious”) movement was a very significant one.

“These are people who are saying ‘I have no truck with the institution or I’ve lost contact with the institution, but do not write me off as a mere materialist’ or, especially among young people, ‘do not lump me in with all those alleged narcissists of my generation, that’s not me.’”

Asked by an audience member what kind of church people who had left the church might one day consider going back to, he said, “They will come back to a church that seems to be answering their yearning for faith that gives life a sense of meaning and purpose.”

But he said that they would be unlikely to come back to “a church that says we have all these beliefs that challenge your reason, but you’ve got to sign up to them in order to be acceptable to us.”

He said that whereas people who had grown up in a religious tradition would “cheerfully recite a creed as part of the ritual of the liturgy of their particular church” even if they didn’t literally believe what it said, “people coming new to this will find this very strange and very challenging and will say wait a minute, I went in there and they all said this, I don’t believe that.”

He said that it was a real challenge for the church to preserve the traditions that made it distinctive, while being “responsive to the way the world actually is”.

He said, “The church is an institution, and no institution survives forever unless it’s responsive to the needs of the community that brought it into being.”

Archbishop Freier said that he saw hope and a future in “the more grassroots experiences”.

He said, “I think that the church is always going to be alive on the basis of its grassroots experience. We’re not, even though we look like it, primarily an organisation that exists to be organisational; we primarily exist to be relational in the community.”

Listen to the conversation at ABC Radio’s Sunday Nights with John Cleary at http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/sundaynights/sunday-nights---jcleary-pfreier-hmackay/7545134

Watch the conversation online at https://youtu.be/4MPtnkN7b4w