Are Australia Churches Haemorrhaging Faith?

Hem Faith

I think I have begrudgingly reached the conclusion that I am not proud of and wish were not true.

The conclusion is, that the contemporary church (at least in the West) is by and large failing in its primary task of passing on faith to the next generation.

I realise this is a big call to make and definitely presumptuous  – but as I have sat with all the research I can find that dates back some 40 or so years, all the data points to the church becoming increasingly ineffective in this task.

One of the latest pieces of research emerged in 2012 from a Canadian collective of youth focused ministry organisations.  They released the results of a major research project that sought an answer to two fundamental questions

  1. To what degree do young adults in Canada today stick with or drop their (Protestant or Catholic) faith? and
  2. What keeps them in the faith, and what helps to usher them out?

The results of their research is emblazoned in the title of the report – ‘Haemorrhaging Faith’.

I first heard about the report through a few friends  who are variously involved in churches and youth ministries across Canada.  They recalled the collective shudder that attended the release of the report.  Could it really be that over a half to two thirds of our young people will leave church and walk away from faith as they journey through the young adult years?  And worse still, the data confirmed that this is not just a stage-of-life thing – that is, this is not just about young adults needing to test things out for a while, but then eventually coming back when they are married with kids.  Instead, for those who walk away from the church and faith less than 5% return and in some denominations, it is less than 1%.

For some, this hard data confirmed a sneaking suspicion. For others it was a total shock. For all it was a wake-up call.  There was a general consensus that the Haemorrhaging Faith report was a clarion call to action and provided Canadian churches with the permission (or some would say a mandate) to radically re-imagine youth ministry, church structures, discipleship and faith development.

Last month, Australia hosted Dave and Kara Overholt as part of a national Haemorrhaging Faith conference.  Thanks to the generosity of the hosts, the Baptist Union of Victoria, you can watch the keynote and workshop sessions of the Victorian leg of the conference here.  You can also read some great conference summaries given by bloggers like Mike Stevens and a more detailed summary by Jimmy Young.

When the conference was being planned, the organisers asked me to respond specifically to the Haemorrhaging Faith research and consider whether Australian Churches might also be facing a similar phenomenon.  You can watch the session here.  In a nutshell my session sought to make two major points:

  1. Firstly, there is no doubt in my mind that we are seeing a similar phenomenon in Australian Churches.  All the evidence and research that I can find to date would underscore the Canadian finding that youth and young adults are leaving our churches in droves and in the majority of cases, this represents a movement away from active Christian faith.
  2. Secondly, however, I also wanted to nuance some of the Canadian research findings and carefully consider how we might interpret and respond to this data.  One of the key Canadian findings related to four ‘Spiritual Types’ that describe four differing responses research participants exhibited to the church – The Engagers, Fence Sitters, Wanderers and Rejecters.  You can read a helpful summary of these 4 spiritual types in the above mentioned blog entries, or here in this Canadian magazine article. Now Jimmy Young summarised my point here quite well when he wrote in his blog:

Rowan pushed back on some of the research, noting that the grouping can actually have a self-fulfilling prophecy of pushing lost faith onto searching teens if you categorize people like that.

Words [that we might use to] describe the Engagers include phrases such as faithful, disciples and saved whilst words [that we might commonly use] to describe Fence-Sitters, Wandereres and Rejecters would include phrases such as backsliders, unfaithful, unsaved, lost and sinners. The words we use to describe them can be of huge importance in how they feel about themselves and how we view them.

Rowan ended asking: are we sure that the engagers [are] the ones who are close and the rest further away from the cross?

Let me be clear for a moment.  When Jimmy said that I ‘pushed back’ on some of the research, I wasn’t for a moment pushing back on the overall conclusion that many young people – to many – are walking away from the church and rejecting their Christian faith.  That much is patently clear and should put a collective shudder through church.  We are failing in our primary task of passing on the faith to younger generations and of allowing ourselves to be influenced and informed by the faith of younger generations.  I wonder if this failure is so profound and systemic that it demands a fundamental re-imagination.

What I was ‘pushing back’ on, was the way we understand and therefore engage with those whom the report classified as an engager, fence-sitter, wanderer or rejecter.  My own research has consistently highlighted that, for many young adults, the process of critically engaging and testing their faith is a vital step in the process of them internalising and owning their faith.  The problem often lies in the fact that our approach to young people in this midst of these ‘red-zone’ periods is that they might appear to us as people teetering on the edge of losing faith, wandering away or even rejecting their faith of origins when in fact they are working harder at their faith than someone safely stowed in our pews apathetically singing along with the worship band without a care in the world.

I would push this point even further.  One of the key players in the Canadian research effort categorised herself as being a ‘rejecter’ 6 years prior to publication, but now had been working for sometime as a youth and young adults pastor in a local church.  The question this raises is, if a person can go from rejecter (the category describing those furthest removed from church and faith) to engager,  pastor, and youth ministry researcher in the space of six short years, exactly how far away from faith was this individual in the first place?

Equally, when I examined the survey questions in the report that were used to derive the four spiritual types, I could think of a number of people whom I would consider to be faithful Christians, active in their faith, and involved in a variety of alternative faith communities and missional work, who would have been categorised as a wanderer of even rejecter.  Now at this point you might argue that that is simply a matter of interpretation – and that is exactly my point.  We need to be much more thoughtful concerning the language we use and the paradigms we hold concerning faith and church engagement. I would argue that some of the questions used by the research to determine their categories seem to privilege a particular way of understanding faith and church engagement and thus if you fell outside that (somewhat narrow) definition, you were categorised as a fence-sitter, wanderer or rejecter.

All this leads me to suggest a number of things.  Firstly, it serves as a reminder that the assumptions and theology we bring radically shape the questions we ask and conclusions we reach about where people are at in their faith.  Secondly, I wonder that when we define orthodox belief too narrowly and require church engagement too inflexibly we can wind up driving away young people and their honest  search for a personalised faith.

All in all, the conference and the research which undergirds it provides much to contend with and consider.  While the above seeks to reflect carefully upon the nature of faith development and church engagement, I wouldn’t want you to use the questions raised as a reason to dismiss the Haemorrhaging Faith research.  On the contrary. As a result of this research, I find myself  pondering …

Are we as a church raising a generation destined to haemorrhage faith?
re we reinforcing an approach to church life and ministry so narrow that it  forces youthful faith into exile?
Are current 
youth ministry practices bankrupt and in need of radical revision? 




  1. For many years now, I have been convinced that focusing on the youth in or outside the church should not be our main focus. Sure, do what you can to attract the young, but the power of modern secularity and modernity of the favoured economic system work against us being successful. This rebuttal has to be short and therefore inadequate, but the forces we have to drive against are too powerful and enticing for the church to win if we wish to successfully win over the young in the quantity and quality we need.

    A more hopeful age group are the mid lifers. Mature enough to question where their lives are going, and open enough to explore other alternatives. Attract these people and you will find that their enthusiasm will influence their children and their grandchildren.

    It would take a book based on this understanding to fully justify what I am saying. It would need a progressive understanding of the faith, alongside and understanding of mythology with regard to religion, but much more. It would need to be political, damning of current economic theories and much more. Mainly it would be dangerous and need people brave enough to realistically face the evils associated with modern living.

    It would need to claim that the apparent defeat of the Christ on the cross must be seen as a victory, in much the same way we in Australiia see new hope and life arising out of the defeat experienced by our troops at Gallipoli.

    The Rev. Dr. Bill Spencer.

    • Hi Bill.

      I appreciate the difficulty of having only so much space to try to communicate the insight of years and thus only being able to say so much in a post and reply format.

      While your response raises many questions for me ( a sideline one being at what age do you think one is “… [m]ature enough to question where their lives are going, and open enough to explore other alternatives.”) I think the central question I have been researching is about the way faith is ‘passed on’ to children and grandchildren (as per your second paragraph). I don’t think the answer is in capturing one age/stage or generation and hoping that if they ‘get it’ their “enthusiasm” will pass it on to the next generation.

      Faith as an essential meaning making process seems to be both ubiquitous to all humans and specific in its nature to age’s and stages. And so while we might feel like we get it right – having a faith that is able to critique current economic theories and political machinations (which is so important) – the process of coming to such a faith, and using faith to be able to do such work in each age and stage of life seems to be paramount.

      All that to say, I don’t think one age/stage of life is going to be more fruitful to concentrate on as a silver bullet solution. Each age/stage/generational cohort has to go through the same process of personalising and internalising faith time and time again, and what we need most is a generation of folks who can help others through this process.

      Feel free to come back at me if you feel I am misunderstanding you …

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