Australian Christianity

Andrew Evans on the rise and rise of the Australian Assemblies of God

andrew-evans-1.jpg Andrew Evans was born in India to missionary parents. He served as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. Back in Australia he took a church of 150 people and grew it to thousands—Paradise AOG. For twenty years he led the Assemblies of God (now Australian Christian Churches) in exponential growth of both churches and people.

He was the National Superintendent 1977 to 1997. In 2002 he started the Family First Party and was elected into the Legislative Council of South Australia.

I met up with Andrew in Adelaide just before he retired from parliament. We talked about the astonishing growth of the Assemblies of God under his leadership.

The Assemblies of God grew steadily from its formation in 1937. Then in the late 1970s the growth became exponential. What happened?

We didn't sit down on day one and said okay this is the way to make it happen. It was an evolving thing, I think that God just gave us clues for each stage as we needed them. All along we felt we were led.

I was narrowly elected National Superintendent at our 1977 National Conference. I was just 41 years old. Afterwards, the deputy, Phil Hills, came up to me and said, before we wind up the conference could you set some goals? We'd never set goals in 40 years of meetings.

We'd set goals for overseas missions and the remarkable thing is we always reached them.

Phil said, what about a growth goal? And I said, let's do it. How much? And he said 50%. I said okay.

50% growth in what timeframe?

The next two years.

It seemed impossible. So I got up and told the conference, we're going to suggest that we go for 50% increase and everyone put their hands up and voted and it happened.

After the conference I began to think how are we going to achieve this. I wrote to each of our churches and challenged them to trust God for a certain number of new decisions for Christ.

Two years later we'd grown by 68%.

So, the next two years, we said we'd go for 100%. And we got 128%.

Risk nothing and you get nothing. If you aim at something your faith will grow.

What else contributed to the change?

Another thing we did was challenge our pastors to visit Korea together. Two hundred and forty came on trip. It was faith building to see the finances come in.

We saw what God was doing in Korea and it inspired us. We were all on a high, all wanting to go back and take the word of God to the nation.

Some pastors went too far. They may have a church of 50, and they believed they would have thousands in two years. It didn’t happen. We learnt that it was far better for a church of 50 to trust God for 70 rather than a 1,000.

Despite this, it was still important to stretch people's faith.

We came back and in the next two years saw a 120% increase. At our next conference I felt God speak say, little by little we'll take the nation.

How was that going to happen?

We decided we'd go for a church in every Australian town of over 1,000 people within two years (1981-83). Then we had to work out how to do that.

And we set out a four point strategy:

1. Identify the towns. 2. Adopt the town in prayer. 3. Seek to start a home group. 4. Begin a small church.

We asked each church of 100 to try and plant a new church every two years. We didn’t want to make it too hard.

Some did some didn’t. Some planted two or three. Others planted none.

Every two years at the National Conference the figures and the stories would come in and people got inspired.

Some states were better than others. Queensland did particularly well. They identified all their towns and they got their districts to allocate where churches should be planted. They reorganised very well.

In the 1990's they'd reached every town of over 1,000.

Sounds like the National Conference played a key role.

Right from the start it was important to change the tone and purpose of our National Conference. Since our beginning it was focused on the issues that divided us. There were long and heated debates about theological technicalities. The rest of the time was taken up with business.

And so, I made my decision that I'd make the conferences inspirational. We reduced the business and limited the time spent debating non-issues.

Year after year the Conference became a place for corporate vision and inspiration as stories came in of progress and as we set new faith goals.

Next post: Andrew Evans part 2

The aging of Australian Christianity

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Forty years ago the age profile of the Australian church matched the that of the nation. Today church attenders are much older than other Australians.

According to a recent NCLS report, it was the young who first started to leave the churches in the 1960s and 1970s, and they have not returned. Now, younger generations are absent from the churches in greater numbers.

Age Profile - Aus V Church
The larger mainstream denominations are in the worst trouble. You couldn't get a more stark contrast between the Uniting Church (largest age group 70-79 years old) and the combined Pentecostal churches (largest age group 20-29 years old).

Age Profile - Uniting V Pentecostal
The mainline churches cannot sustain this age profile. As those in their 70s and 80s pass away in the next few decades, it is extremely unlikely that they will be replaced.

The trend is not inevitable. Other denominations (typically more evangelical and/or Pentecostal than the mainline) continue to have very high levels of younger people. The average age of the combined Pentecostal denominations and movements is 39 years of age. Their age profile is actually younger than the wider Australian community.

I wonder why?

More on the Australian census figures

 Images Sa2 Clergy-Abp-ImgPeter Jensen

The latest figures for the 2006 Australian census are out. Here are some highlights on religious identification: 2006 Australian Census.

To be expected: the continuing decline of the mainline Protestant denominations and the growth of Pentecostalism. In NSW alone, Pentecostal churches grew 48 per cent.

The big surprise? The decline in the number of people in Sydney identifying as Anglican—down 61,185 in five years. From a movements perspective I would expect the evangelical Sydney Anglicans to be swimming against the tide of overall Anglican decline.

But wait there's more.

A report in The Australian quoting Archbishop Peter Jensen stating actual attendance in his diocese is growing annually at 1 to 2 per cent. If that's true, there is a decreasing number of nominal Anglicans in Sydney but a growing number of active Anglicans. Remember, the census only tracks religious self identification not active involvement.

Maybe I got it right after all.

Australia closes 1,000 churches

Istock 000002406681SmallA friend of mine received a flyer in his letterbox last year from the church across the road.

It was an invitation to church. No, it was a plea for help. The letter came from concerned members of the congregation pleading the community to “please attend their church” or they would face closure.

Twelve months later the bulldozers moved in and demolished the church building.

In 2001 there were 10,447 Protestant congregations in Australia, Between 1991 and 2001 there was a 6% decline in number of congregations resulting in a 3% decline in overall weekly attendance. If my maths are right that's a loss of 627 churches in ten years. In fact, we lost more when you factor in the number of new starts during that period.

According to the NCLS, one denomination lost a staggering 22% of it's congregations in this ten year period. That's not decline, that's disaster.

If the overall decline has continued, the number of congregations today is probably just over 10,000, with a corresponding drop in weekly attendance. That means in the last fifteen years we have lost over 1,000 churches throughout Australia. We'll know for sure when the National Church Life Survey 2006 is released.

In 2005, there were 1363 Catholic parishes in Australia. I'm not sure if that number is increasing or declining but the number of priests and membership in the Catholic orders are is serious decline: Where have all the Priests gone? My guess is the Catholic church will be reluctant to close parishes but numbers of active Catholics are in decline.

The Protestant mainline is shutting churches down and declining in regular attendance. That trend will not go away. The evangelical-pentecostal-charismatic churches are planting churches and growing but not at a fast enough rate to stem overall decline of the church in Australia.

The Emerging church is a relatively new phenomena in Australia and I'm not aware of accurate research on it's impact. We don't really know how many Emerging churches there are or how many people are actively involved. We do know that Emerging Christians love to blog.

Ruth Powell from the NCLS is currently researching the Emerging church in Australia: NCLS Seeks All Things New: new project maps fresh expressions of church

My impression so far is that most of the Emerging growth has come from migrations out of existing churches and the movement is not yet seeing significant evangelistic growth.

What's the best way to turn this reality around? Plant healthy missional churches. One thousand would be a good start. Who wants in?