God’s Next Big Thing: Discovering the Future Church by Scott Cowdell

(John Garrett Publishing; Melbourne, 2004)

Scott Cowdell will supervise my guided reading project, starting next week, which was the original motivation for reading this book -what a blessing!  Great writing, sharp intellect and deeply spiritual reflections engaging both head and heart – I am so excited about the academic year which is about to start!!!

God’s Next Big Thing is divided into two parts.  The first global/Australian cultural analysis is locating the church in the post-modern era and was particularly exciting for me with it’s strong critique of capitalist modes of being as a core driver of western culture’s evolution.  Cowdell favours a definition of post-modernity as an hyper-extension of the modern era which draws this out more clearly.  I still think postmodernism is a new epoch of western culture, but I valued being able to chart it’s economic heritage.

Included in part one is a fabulous chapter on the emerging church where, as a high-churchman, Cowdell argues for an emerging church that is mystical, mature and militant (by which he means prophetic engagement with the wider world).  I particularly appreciated his depiction of the immature church that is so prevalent today – insecure, defensive with an addictive & co-dependent personality.  It reinforced my own image of the Western Church being in denial about it’s midlife crisis.  Mostly however, it was just so exciting to read a Christian from a different ‘tradition’ to my own, reaching the same conclusions by a different path.  Surely a sign that God is in this ‘next big thing’.

The second part of the book is devoted to suggestions for the way forward in which he addresses liturgy; the lay vocation of the Church; and organised religion (rejecting institutionalism and managerialism in the Church).  Whilst I don’t share Cowdell’s passion for the defined Liturgical Movement tradition from which he comes, I do share his conclusions on the need for depth, mystery and beauty in our worship as a balm to the postmodern soul.  I also agree with his theology of the laity as having a ‘vocation’ that is ‘serving at an alter in the world’ – called to be disciples  in whatever life situation they find themselves, as opposed to devoting their service to the maintenance of religion.  His discussion of lay presidency is insightful in this regard.  His discussion on sexuality is really interesting!

Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia by Tom Frame

(UNSW Press; Sydney, 2009)

Losing My Religion has been out for a while and there are plenty of reviews around.  If you want to know more of what is actually in the book I suggest Geoff Page (Australian poet and self-confessed agnostic).  I’m going to respond to it with my own thoughts – so this post is more about me than Tom Frame!

I have been bemused by the preoccupation with Atheists of late.  As a single mother of small children I don’t watch TV news or listen to news radio and I hardly ever get to pick up a newspaper.  Most of my interactions at the time of the Atheists convention in 2010 were with other school and kinder Mums and pastoring a church in a time of transition.  I would have missed the event if it had not been for the extraordinary public response from Church.  Tom Frame recognises that social research reveals most positive atheists are men aged over 60 years and this is definitely reflected in my experience.  In fact, the Atheists convention was just as bewildering to my friends as our discussions on Christian attitudes to sexuality!  However, with these same girlfriends, when I raise the experiences of prayer, meditation, grace, love, forgiveness and a spiritual power for living through the difficult years of early child rearing, we can talk for hours!  Spirituality is part of the conversation  just as is swapping strategies about how to get the kids to eat their vegetables and sleep in their own beds!

So what is going on?  Is this a gender divide or a life stage divide?  Are Gen Xers rejecting atheism just as they are rejecting institutional religion because it is overly rational and irrelevant to our lives?  Are women more in tune with the emotional and intuitive aspects of believing in God?  Is this experience limited to me and the friends I attract?  The social research is revealing an increasing number of ‘spiritual but not religious’ Australians, and those in their 30s and 40s are more represented in these categories.  It is also true that middle class Australians (of which I am undeniably one) are more into religion and spirituality than working class Australians who, unless they are from a recent migrant population, are much more likely to tick ‘no religion’ on any social survey.  Are my friends simply indicative of a particular Australian cohort?

The spirituality I encounter in my non-religious peers is not interested in argument.  We are primarily interested in what gets us through the day, keeps our marriages in tact (analysing the ones that don’t stay in tact!), things that help us grieve the aging of our parents and, above all, whatever enables us and our children to be happy.  By in large, any experimentation with attendance at a local church does not provide for those things and instead seems to promise more burdens on depleted supplies of time and energy!  If we are a cohort of Australian spirituality, then the church is not where we find solace (and yes, I bravely include myself in this declaration).

Tom Frame focuses on unbelief from the perspective of the conscientious intellectual objector, but neither does he dismiss the existence of my cohort it is just not explored fully in the book.  For many Australians belief has simply become irrelevant and unnecessary.  There is no denial of faith required.  There is no defense of faith required.  It just is what it is and if it helps you live better well and good.  The most frequent response I receive when I declare my occupation as an anglican priest is – “Wow, good on you!”  People are interested.  They want to know how my personal spirituality functions.  I have often said that I love living where I live because my lifestyle as a radical follower of Jesus is honored for what it is without fear or favour –  just as the lesbian couple with IVF children are respected for their lifestyle and integrity and the recent migrants are welcomed even though we find them less comfortable because of the language barrier.

If the church’s response to unbelief in Australia focuses on intellectual argument to the exclusion of exploring new types of connections with fellow spiritual travellers, the church will slide further into obscurity.  The numbers of spiritual but not religious are on the rise, and the numbers of dogmatic atheists will continue to decline with the fragmentation of Enlightenment Rationalism as a cultural paradigm.  Similarly, if our faith communities functionally require a complete investment of time, energy and relationship to the exclusion of other neighborhood, family and friend networks, the church will attract only those who are interested in an approach to spirituality and religion that retreats from the wider culture to create an alternative world.  Whilst this might be biblical justified (Jesus followers are sojourners in a strange land), it does not make for easy entry for spiritual seekers and I fear that they may miss out on the depths of knowing Jesus – the most blessed source of life and love and hope.


Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century by Gary Bouma

(Cambridge University Press; Melbourne, 2006)

“‘A whisper in the mind and a shy hope in the heart’ is a phrase used by Manning Clark to describe… a key characteristic of the ANZAC psyche or spirit… ‘A shy hope in the heart’ aptly expresses the nature of Australian religion and spirituality.” (p2)

Gary Bouma reviews qualitative and quantitative material to construct a sociological picture of Australian religion and spirituality which are accompanied by some observations and reflections.  He identifies several changes in Australian culture which have marginalised religion in it’s institutional forms, which to some extent has suited institutional Christianity by freeing it from the bonds of nominalism and an inherited negative associations with English colonial rule.

“The origins of post-1788 Australia have set the pattern for a distinctive Australian religion and spirituality:  low to moderate levels of participation in organised forms of religion and spirituality, individual responsibility, distrust of organisations – especially those associated with the Crown – and the expectation tht formal religion will be organised by professionals for ordinary people while they must tend to their own spirituality.” (p.45)

The move to the margins has enabled some elements of traditional Christianity to take up more critical positions against the State and others to ignore the State and develop their own self-contained, religious-social world.  Bouma sees some signs of religious rejuvenation within this.   However, the decline of ‘British protestantism’ has given way to an eclectic and anti-institutional approach to spirituality.

“The future of religion may be upbeat, but that of a particular religious organisation that may once have been central to a society but is now missing the trend may well be less rosy.” (p.205)

The cultural shifts which Bouma identifies as having most impact on the role of religion in Australia are:

  • a move from a preference for rationality to experience (moving into a post-secular culture)
  • end of Empire and Colonisation as elements of Australian identity
  • hyper-consumer culture
  • multi-culturalism and thereby multi-faith
  • reinvention of family life

He identifies three key drivers in the evolution of religion in Australia’s future:

  • the need for “hope, and meaning grounded in a connection with that which is more than passing, partial and broken.” (p.205)
  • increasing diversity
  • faith based education producing “a cohort of religiously articulate young people who have a much more developed sense of their spirituality than previous generations.” (p.206)

Christian Research Association – 2 recent releases

Spirit Matters:  How making sense of life affects wellbeing by Peter Kaldor, Philip Hughes & Alan Black, (Mosaic Press; Melbourne, 2010)

Shaping Australia’s Spirituality: A Review of Christian Ministry in the Australian Context by Philip Hughes et al (Mosaic Press; Melbourne, 2010)

These two publications examine social research into spirituality and religion  in Australia.  The first is the write up of a 2002 ‘Wellbeing and Security Survey’ which had a sample size of about 1500 Australians (conducted through Edith Cowan, Deakin & NSLC).  The second is an extended discussion prepared for the CRA 2010 National Roundtable conference on ‘Shaping Australia’s Spirituality’, which includes research from the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (conducted through ANU) which had a sample size of about 1700 Australians.  The two surveys are not exactly comparable due to variations in the survey questions, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the results back each other up, and that the patterns of spirituality and religiosity described in 2002 are continuing within Australian culture.  Shaping Australia’s Spirituality also draws on research from several other projects and census data.

To GROSSLY over simplify, here is my nutshell reflection:

  • Just under half of all Australians would be happy to call themselves spiritual, religious or both.  What is meant by those terms however, varies a great deal!  Less than half of this group would walk into a church building.
  • The other half of Australians are happy to say they have no religion, but only around 15% of this group intend this as a definitive statement about God or metaphysical realities.  That is, most people who have no religion do so because they don’t care or don’t know enough about it.

Take a look at this helpful table from Spirit Matters: (hope you can read it!)

There have been three perspectives on Australian religiosity and spirituality in recent years, each with a slightly different interpretation of our culture.  Gary Bouma (my old Sociology lecturer!) thinks that there is a ‘low temperature’ culture of religion which is still influential in the Australian psyche.  David Tacey thinks that there is a kind of spiritual revolution going on where Australians are rejecting religion but not spirituality.  Tom Frame argues that most Australians are predominantly secular.  Shaping Australia’s Spirituality suggests that there is evidence for all three perspectives!

This table is derived from the 2009 survey: (please have a giggle at my scanning skills!)

The CRA mob have some helpful suggestions as to where to dig deeper.

  • There is significant interest in a spirituality which connects with nature and grapples with the ecological crisis and may also have it’s roots in the experience of being Australian.  This extends across various categories in the spiritual and/or religious grouping.  If the church grapple with the earth story in a meaningful way, they may yet have a contribution to make to the Australian story.
  • Gender, ethnicity and age are all significant factors in mapping Australian spirituality/religiosity.  For example, the majority of atheists are men over 60.  The majority of ‘fundamentalist’ religious believers are over 70 and/or from a recent migrant population.  Young people (under 30) express more interest in spiritual things than their older counterparts, but simultaneously emphasize the need to create one’s own synchronistic meaning and also express the greatest amount of indecision as to what they believe.
  • The capitalist market approach to life has well and truly infiltrated the Australian cultural expressions of spirituality and religion.  This gives the church two options:  adapt; or define itself as counter-cultural.  Both approaches will gain some interest from some Australians, but counter-cultural sub-groups will by definition be marginal in society.
  • The broader social changes to community formation affect the way that spiritual/religious communities are formed.  Generally speaking, they fall into being either 1. close knit sub-group communities formed around a non-religious social grouping like ethnicity.   2.  networks of friends/family/acquaintances who are gathered by specific events or connections.

My questions:

  • What are the options for a market spirituality approach that remain authentic to Jesus’ vision for humanity?
  • What are the options for network communities of faith that remain authentic to Jesus’ vision for the church?