Stories of change in the NSW and ACT SYNOD

For many of us, our experiences of church are of dwindling numbers in the pews on Sunday mornings. But this isn’t true for everybody. There are too many people in the Uniting Church to know everyone, so our community is an imagined one. One way to better understand the difference between our experience of the church and broader trends in church life is through data.

One of the best sources of evidence we have about Australians is the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Census. In the Census, we have the opportunity to give our ‘Religious Affiliation’. In 2016 almost three per cent of people in NSW and ACT chose ‘Uniting Church’.

So beyond the countless different experiences and understandings of our church, what does the evidence tell us?

How many people are in the church?

There were about 227,000 people identifying as being part of the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT in 2016, down 27 per cent from 312,000 in 2006. The Uniting Church remains the Christian denomination with the third-highest number of people, behind the Catholics (1,935,000) and the Anglicans (1,205,000).

Against the broad trend, the category ‘Christian, not further defined’ grew 88 per cent to 174,000. There may be more Australians who identify as Christians not having a ‘home’ denomination.

Where did everybody go?

On average, other Protestant denominations retained nearly 10 per cent more than our Church. The Census can’t tell us why this is, but we can dig a little deeper. Using the Census longitudinal dataset, we can see how people’s responses to the Census have changed between Census events.

Just over half of people who identified as part of the Uniting Church in 2006 did so again in 2016. By 2016 they made up more than two-thirds of Uniting Church affiliates. Of those that no longer identified as part of the Uniting Church by 2016, nearly one in four identified as No Religion, ‘secular beliefs’, or did not state affiliation in 2016.

The story of the NSW and ACT Synod by the numbers is complicated. Numerical trends are made up of everyday people with messy lives making decisions about what they believe and what they are going to do about it.

As people’s experiences of our church have changed over time, they also differ depending on where you are.

The top five Local Government Areas (LGAs) with the most people identifying as being part of the Uniting Church in 2016 are Lake Macquarie (11,700), Central Coast (10,500), the Australian Capital Territory (9600), Wollongong (7000) and Sutherland Shire (6900). One in Uniting Church affiliates in NSW live in these LGAs. Thee of the other top LGAs are in the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery; Northern Beaches (6900), Hornsby (5600) and Ku-ring-gai (5600).

The areas where there is the highest proportion of people identifying as part of the Uniting Church when compared with the total population are in and around the Riverina Presbytery and south and west of the Macquarie Darling Presbytery. The 1400 or so Uniting Church affiliates in the Lockhart, Edward River, and Carrathool LGAs are nearly one in ten of the total combined population.

In the LGAs of Fairfield, Waverly, and Liverpool, only one in 100 people identify as being part of the Uniting Church.

Our history is part of why this is so. With continued migration into Sydney post-war and notably over the last 20 or so years, population growth has been greatest in Sydney of people from diverse backgrounds, meaning the proportion of people who identify as part of the Uniting Church is lower.

While the Uniting Church is less represented within recent migrant communities, year on year an increasing number of migrants identify as part of the Uniting Church. Overall, about one in 10 people who identify as part of the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT are from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse backgrounds.

What does the future hold?

Looking at the age profile of people who identify as part of the Uniting Church and seeing how we have changed over the decade to 2016, recent trends are cause for concern.

There are slightly more recent retirees, but declines in young people have been significant. There are substantially fewer parents and consequently fewer young children who identified in the Census as being part of the Uniting Church.

At the last meeting of the Synod, the church adopted a proposal “to prioritise, promote, and enable growth in discipleship, in relationship, in number, and an impact.” The status quo is not an option.

There are two great opportunities. The first is to work for growth beyond our experience. This change is structural: It is in what we teach our ministers, our institutions, and in our communities. The other opportunity is to take a page out of Jesus’ book to disrupt things.

Andrew Goodwin

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