When a number breaks your heart…

Posted by on Jul 3, 2022 in Blog | 2 comments

an elderly woman looking at a framed photograph

Numbers usually sound a little cold. Aid agencies know this. Rather than tell us that roughly 689 million people currently live in extreme poverty (that is, survive on less than $1.90 a day), they will usually tell the story of one child, knowing that as we sense the sadness of the one story, we will start to sense what it means when you multiply it 689 million times. Without the story, the number is quickly glossed over.

The results of the Australian 2021 census came out this week – so it has been a week of numbers. In the midst of a vast array of data, one figure stabbed at my heart. 43.9% of Australians say that in some way or another they identify with the Christian faith. On its own that doesn’t mean much until you remember that the number was 52.1% in 2016 and 61.1% in 2011. From 61.1% to 43.9% in a decade. That might still not mean too much but perhaps you can imagine 100 people in 2011 saying they are Christians. For every 100 saying that 10 years ago, only 72 are saying it now. What stories do the 28 who have dropped away tell? And how are the 72 responding?

True, I have heard those who instinctively look on the sunny side of things claim, “Well at last all those who claim to be Christian mean it. Nominal Christianity did a lot of harm, and it’s as well to be rid of the chaff.” I think they are whistling in the dark – as well as being extraordinarily dismissive of the 28. There is tragedy here, and we need to sense it.

When I came to faith in Jesus as a teenager I was overwhelmed by how loving and wonderful the church I attended was. I absolutely believed that if I could persuade my friends to attend the church youth group, it would only be a matter of time until they also came to faith. After all – what wasn’t there to like about being a Christian? With many of my friends I was right, and some of them continue as faithful followers of Jesus to this day. But others bewildered me. They acknowledged that our youth group was friendly and lots of fun, but this Jesus thing, they said, was simply not for them. I didn’t understand it then, and I still don’t understand it.

And I don’t understand how only 43.9% of people in Australia claim to be Christian. Why have 28% of people abandoned the faith they once held – even if they did hold it tentatively?

Is it because the church comes across as an institution, and in their hearts people know you can’t institutionalise God? And surely if this is the problem, it is one we can solve.

Or is it the moral failure of some church leaders – and why do the failures get so much more airtime than the many virtuous things that have been done (no, I do not want to gloss over failures, but let’s be fair. For example: why are people who claim no Christian faith rushing to send their children to Christian schools – for enrolments at Christian schools are increasingly rapidly? Answer: Because those who explore what these schools actually do quickly see the enormous value they add to each child’s life. So why doesn’t that get more air time?)

Or is it because in an age which values the novel and the new, Christianity seems to have past it use by date by holding onto practices that might not be as obviously relevant to the next 5 minutes of world history as some new breathing technique or mindfulness practice? (Although hasn’t Christian meditation always included those “new” mindfulness practices?)

I really don’t know…

But what I do know is that this figure breaks my heart… and it should.

And I console myself by remembering that God is the one who is in control of this planet, not me. And my faith advises me to remember that God knows best and that the last word has not yet been spoken.

And I challenge myself that as one of the 43.9% I need to live as a Jesus follower in the world. And I need to be willing to ask myself hard questions, just as I need to be willing to experiment with new models of church, and to think more deeply about how the Christian faith interacts constructively with the critical questions of our day. It has so much to say about the climate crisis we are facing; and it can contribute so much to the exploration of what it means to be human when technology replaces so many tasks that humans once did; and it reminds us to face the future without fear, for God is; and it insists that we build a world that is just for all, for all people have been made in God’s image and … well, it goes on and on. The 43.9% have so much to contribute to the flourishing of God’s world.

And I also ask myself what would happen if the 43.9% were to reduce to zero. And then I remember that this is an absurd question. For as long as I am alive, it will never be less than zero + 1, for I am not going anywhere. Do you remember the exchange in John 6:67-68 when after many people had abruptly abandoned Jesus he asked: “Do you want to leave to?” And Simon Peter replied: “Lord, to whom would we go. You alone have the words of eternal life.”

You alone have the words of eternal life…

In my 50 plus years of following Jesus I have never had any cause to doubt that… and I don’t see that changing. Not because I am stubborn (for I am not), but because I am forever grateful to the God who has filled my life with purpose, meaning and love. Why would I give that away? Perhaps in time, the 28% will question why they did. Here’s hoping…

As always, nice chatting…

Feel free to reproduce this post with acknowledgment and to forward to any who might find it helpful?

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com


  1. Thank you for another thoughtful blog, Brian. Like you, I have never doubted that Jesus has the words of eternal life. In our church today I invited my sisters and brothers to pray for those who we perceive to be ‘trashing’ Christianity. I also invited them to pray for ‘imperfect’ Christians who feel they are disqualified from the grace of God. I wonder how many of our fellow citizens think they can’t measure up to God’s standards? A well-known conservative commentator lamented the decline of Christianity this week but identified as a, ‘imperfect’ Christian. Years ago one of my siblings rebuffed my attempt to talk to him about Jesus with the words, ‘I’d make a bad Christian.’ I assured him that God loves ‘bad’ Christians but he remains unconvinced to this day. I wonder how different things might be in Australia if we pastors presented the gospel differently and didn’t leave people with the impression that they have to meet some standard before they are acceptable to God. My heart breaks for those who would tick one of the Christian boxes on their census form but don’t because they don’t think they are good enough to qualify.

    • Thanks Rod. Very perceptive comments. We need to rediscover, live and proclaim grace in a whole new way.

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