Keeping the faith: how migrants are reviving Christian churches


There are predictions Christianity could become a minority religion in Australia. But despite census data predicting a further decline, migrants could provide an unexpected boost to congregations.

A drop the number of Australians identifying as Christians has seen church attendance drop over recent years, and census data predicts that drop will continue.

But another trend could see that drop reverse, with congregations becoming more multicultural, reflecting migration flows, and Australia’s diversity.

Father John Pearce, from St Brigid’s Catholic Church in Sydney’s inner west, told SBS News the arrival of migrants had helped his parish flourish.

“Both here and in Endeavour Hills in Melbourne where I was previously, those parishes are flourishing more than others, because of the new migrants that have come into our community," he said.

"That's been good for us. It’s a growth area, it’s happening, it’s being recognised.”

Cultural diversity is enriching churches, Father Pearce said.

“Our Easter, and Christmas and major feast days, it wouldn't be unusual to have a Tongan gospel procession and a Samoan offertory procession, prayers in other languages," he said.

"I get the impression that' s happening across other parishes too.”

That trend is expected to be confirmed in the recently completed 2016 National Church Life Survey, the biggest of its kind in the world.

The survey’s research director, Ruth Powell, says migration has had a positive impact on Australia's Christian churches.

“Where you look for growth and vitality, you will find groups of people who are often first generation migrants," she said.

"The churches, I think, are becoming increasingly culturally diverse.”

Australian Christian churches began the research project in 1991, and it has been held every five years since then. 

For the first time this year, survey forms were translated into 10 languages including Arabic, Chinese, Dinka, and Vietnamese.

"The churches, I think, are becoming increasingly culturally diverse.”

The survey is expected to reveal more about the multicultural life of churches.

“You've got whole refugee communities arriving, and a little church that's been struggling, suddenly has 50 South Sudanese people, and the whole place is transformed," Ms Powell said.

"Those stories are coming to us more and more.  It’s a lot under the radar, but we believe that’s where growth is happening.” 

Ms Powell said Pentecostal and Evangelical churches were also receiving an influx of migrant worshipers.

“The Pentecostal sector of Australian church life has seen incredible growth," she said.

"I expect they will continue to be growing. They're attracting young people as well, so there's a flow there.

"The Baptists are attracting younger people and have a strong presence.”

But a further decline in some parts of the mainstream churches is also expected, she said.

”In terms of an overall picture of church life, I think we will see some parts of the church thriving and growing numerically, and other parts will probably continue to decline,” Ms Powell said.

“There's been a growing proportion of people who say, I have no religion.

"When you look at them, they're Australian-born, Australian-born parents, Anglo background. That's who is becoming less religious.”

Other research commissioned by Christian churches surveyed general attitudes to faith.

It showed that less than half of all Australians say they believe in God.

But if more Australians are losing their religion, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re giving up on spirituality.

According to the 2016 Australian Community Survey:

  • One in four people say they pray or meditate at least a few times a week.
  • Around a quarter report having had a mystical or supernatural experience.
  • And four in 10 say religious faith or spirituality is important in shaping life’s decisions.

Ms Powell said Australians did not want to be preached to, but they were open to spirituality, and she thinks Australia could be described as a moderately religious or spiritual nation.

But, she said she did not believe Australia's Christian churches were in crisis or that Christianity could lose its majority religious status anytime soon.

“If it was 61 per cent five years ago, let's expect it will go down, in 2016, there's no question about that," she said.

"I think it's got a fair way to go, before it becomes a minority.

"It will depend on too many other factors [like] If we continue to be a multicultural nation, if we continue to accept migrant communities. They bring their religion with them. A third of Asian migrants are Christian."

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