The decline in the Australian Protestant Church – How we got to where we are.

By Peter Corney

The main stream Protestant churches in Australia are in serious decline and have been for some time. To give but one example: attendance at worship on an average Sunday in the Anglican Church in Melbourne has dropped from an estimated 50,000 in 1981 to 21,000 in 2006. How did we get to this point so quickly?

As accelerating secularism began to hit Australian society in the 1960’s the churches were not only unprepared they were also weakened by several trends that had been developing for some time.

One of the most significant was the trend in clergy training to become overly focused on pastoral maintenance rather than pastoral leadership, ministry skills and growth. The times called for new initiatives, new models of ministry, the ability to initiate change, new styles of worship that related to the rapidly changing culture. The training of clergy has properly always had a strong pastoral care element but three influences exaggerated this: the psychological counseling movement that developed momentum post war; the Christian Education movement; and the undermining of preaching and teaching by Liberal theology. As secularism and rapid social change hit these influences coalesced to fatally weaken pastoral leadership.

There is always the danger in ministry of becoming over reactive to the individual demands and needs of the flock and loosing the ability to look outward, be proactive and to take initiative, to give time to evangelism, training, discipling, teaching and new creative initiatives. This leads to a pastoral maintenance syndrome. In times of social buoyancy for the Church this is not so damaging but when the social context is becoming unsupportive it is fatal.

These three influences worked in the following way.

The influence of the pastoral counseling movement encouraged many clergy into an even more passive and reactive role. CPE or Clinical and Pastoral Education became a standard part of post ordination training in the 60’s and has continued on. While there were and are useful insights in all this for dealing with particularly troubled people it was overly influenced by the fashionable psychological models current at the time and played down more traditional methods of spiritual counsel.  Not only was pastoral counseling significantly secularized by this but more importantly the energy and attention of clergy was being refocused. At the very point when leadership, practical ministry skills and a focus on evangelism were needed many clergy got side tracked by this influence in their  training.

The influence of the Christian Education movement grew out of a real concern to see adults as well as children educated well in the faith by using the new educational insights that were being developed in the 50’s and 60’s in the wider educational field. There were many valuable insights gained and changes made to the way we taught people in this period. Most denominations developed large departments of Christian Education which lasted into the early 80’s before financial constraints reduced them dramatically. In many denominations they no longer exist. The Anglican Church had, as well as separate state bodies, a significant federal organisation the General Board of Religious Education (GBRE), now long gone. The Joint Board of Christian Education was formed to service what became the Uniting Church in this period.

But the dream that Christian Ed would save us has not been fulfilled. Some would say that is because it was never properly instituted at the local level but there were other factors. The movement became focused on process rather than content. The worst example was in the uncritical enthusiasm for the insights of Group Dynamics in adult learning. “Group Life laboratories” became the flavor of the month. The insights from the understanding of how groups work is fascinating and can be very helpful, it can also be used manipulatively, sideline solid information and create legitimacy for pooled ignorance. In an over reaction to the old jug to mug approach to teaching process overpowered content.

The influence on many clergy was two fold: they now saw themselves as group facilitators and enablers rather than leaders and teachers. Systematic teaching and Biblical preaching was downplayed. At a time when local churches needed to rethink and renew their mission and adapt their style and methods lay people were led into endless and frustrating non directive group consultations on “What is our Mission?” These consultations rarely got passed collections of butcher’s paper with ideas scribbled on them that were never acted on. The result was that lay people became disillusioned and many clergy became paralyzed, for some it even became a way of avoiding decisions and action.

As liberal theology contributed to emptying pastoral counseling of its classical content and psychologising it, so also it affected Christian Education and preaching. Uncertainty over theology and the Bible led Christian Ed away from content into process. While it was certainly true that much preaching was dull and uninspiring the emphasis in Christian education at the time on discussion and adult learning models further undermined respect for preaching. This leads us to the third and most influential trend.

The profound influence of liberal theology. The theological reaction of large parts of the Church to the impact of secularism in the 60’s was a form of extreme theological accommodation. This sought to reduce those ideas in the Christian faith that the current culture of modernity found implausible to something it could believe. The impact was not at the periphery but at the core. Classical orthodox beliefs about the resurrection, the atonement, the authority of the Bible, the nature of salvation, the need for the response of repentance and faith, even the divinity of Christ were reconstructed to fit the prevailing plausibility structure. But because the traditional terminology and symbols were preserved while their first order meaning was being emptied out or radically changed, lay people were largely unaware of what was happening – their faith was being eroded by stealth.

As mentioned before preaching was also deeply affected by this. Lack of theological clarity and certainty led to a general loss of confidence in preaching and produced  bland vague moralizing and shallow ‘reflections’ in the pulpit. Preaching fell out of fashion! Because adult education was never rigorously pursued in most local churches, slowly but surely congregations became uninformed, shallow and unclear about their faith, commitment levels dropped, evangelism lost its imperative.

It was the perfect storm! Just as secularism hit and the old social buoyancy around the local church was eroding and it needed to take new creative initiatives, reinvent its model of church, its methodology, its communications, its style of worship, music, and ministry, it was being led by people trained in pastoral maintenance rather than leadership and whose confidence in orthodoxy was deeply compromised. The style of ministry that could maintain congregations while community acceptance of their place and role was strong and a high proportion of people identified with the church, even if nominally, no longer worked in the emerging culture of the 60’s. People left in droves. In 1960 the church I served at while I was in training had 500 children in the Sunday school and 200 boys in a mid week club. By the end of the 60’s Sunday school attendance and confirmations had plummeted. This pattern was repeated every where.

Generally speaking those denominations and churches who have been less affected by the Pastoral Maintenance syndrome and Liberal theology have faired better. Overall Evangelicals and Pentecostals have actually grown while others have declined.

The lessons from all of this seem fairly clear. The knowledge and tools from the social sciences can be very helpful but they are also powerful and seductive and can easily overpower our theology. They also frequently promise more than they can deliver. When the Church’s grasp on its core beliefs is weak or compromised they quickly become a substitute for the gospel. The other lesson is that Godly proactive leadership is critical in difficult times.

Peter Corney  June 2010.

NB: Another factor that affected Anglicans in particular was the demise of the Anglo Catholic wing in the Anglican Church. (See the paper on the website: “The Future of the Anglican Church in Australia in the light of the decline of the Anglo Catholic Movement” find under the category: The Anglican Church in Australia)

  • Tim Johnson

    Thanks Peter, this is a really helpful and engaging article. I’d considered the impact of liberal theology before but hadn’t realised the impact of CPE and the Christian Education movement. This article led to a really interesting conversation with a student I’m supervising who has just completed CPE!

  • Peter Corney

    Thanks Tim. The other issue I didnt touch on is the influence of Jungian ideas through this period also. They influenced some areas of the Christian counselling movement both catholic and charismatic. Peter.

  • Donald Urquhart

    I can definitely see where you’re coming from on the drop in church membership and attendance, but I have to wonder if there are a few more factors involved. One of the biggest I’ve seen is people’s disgust with well publicized Christian hypocrisy and the lack of a strong Christian response to it. While I do understand that the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church are very, very far from the same institution, the storm currently hitting the Catholics makes me wonder. Multiple priests have been accused of severe misconduct with children, the Church has been accused of covering it up for the sake of external reputation, and Church leadership has utterly failed to publicly denounce the crimes of their own members with the vigor that the horror of those crimes demands. If we want to get people’s faith back, we should start by rooting out our own misconduct.

    Donald from Down Syndrome Treatment

  • Peter Corney

    Yes Donald, I agree, although I think that the abuse issue has only been a major factor since it was made very public over the last ten years. The decline really goes back to the late 60’s. But I agree with you that now it is a major issue and has been responded to very inadequatley by the Roman Catholic church and also in some cases by other denominations. In the case of my own denomination we now have a national data base and national protocols that require strict checks on new appointments but this was a long time coming. In the past clergy could move from one state to another without proper checks and offenders simply moved to avoid accountability. There are now strict protocols for anyone working with children, lay or clergy. But sadly the damage has been done. Peter C

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    Dear Brother Peter,

    You may not remember me, but we have met in Melbourne and in India with Steve Bradbury. But I just wanted to say how grateful I am for this article of yours which I came across today. I thank God for you and I pray that we would take seriously the concern and stop the tide. In Christ, CB (Delhi, India – earlier with EFICOR)

  • Peter Corney

    Dear CB, Yes I certainly remember you with affection and admiration for your work and the times you spoke at St Hilarys Kew. The trip to India and Bangladesh is still vivid in my memory. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment on my article. I hope you find the other material also helpful. Please contact me if you are in Australia in the future. In Christ, Peter Corney