NCLS offers clues for reaching a generation where majority will not attend church

( [email protected] ) Nov 10, 2003 11:40 AM EST

"What comes to your mind if I say Christmas and Jesus Christ in the same sentence?", Sally, a religious education teacher, asks her class. The smirks and laughter confirm what she expects. Jesus Christ is better known by her class as a profanity than a deity. "This scenario will become increasingly common", suggests Dr Ruth Powell of NCLS Research. "The current generation of school-aged children is likely to be the first where the majority has had no experience of church."

Parents have traditionally looked to the churches to help them provide values and belief frameworks for their young children. While fewer parents currently do this, the need for personal and moral foundations that can provide direction for living remains. This can be an opportunity for churches to, once again, make connections.

Many churches strive to connect with children and their families; they are a key group for mission and ministry. "To help strengthen these connections we want to provide some clues that will help churches identify ministry needs and opportunities. In our latest release, Profiling Australians, one group we look at are couples with dependent children" explains Dr Powell. Some of the other groups that are profiled include young adults, single parents, separated and divorced people, blue-collar workers, urban and rural dwellers. The work draws on the national census findings from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Australian Community Survey (ACS).

Mum, dad and the kids In a multicultural and diverse context, the modern family has many different shapes. However, among all Australians living in families, 61% still fit the description of 'mum, dad and the kids'. Some 45% have children aged 15 years or less living at home (ABS, 2002a). A further 16% are in couple families with dependent students or non-dependent children at home. Most people in couple-families with dependent children are aged 30-49 years (80%) and in their first marriage (84%).

Some of the busiest people around "I need one of those stickers that say 'Mum's taxi'" laughs Kaydee, mother of two school-aged children . "Competing children's schedules and interests as well as school, work and home make things very hectic. It is such a rewarding time of my life, but I do feel I never get time just to be on my own". On a scale ranging from 1 (not at all busy) to 7 (too busy to cope), 77% of such couples scored 5 or greater. Compared to a national average of 62%, this makes them some of the of the busiest people in our community.

They work longer hours than average and have fewer nights out on the town. Couples with children are less likely to go to cinemas, hotels, and restaurants. When they do have leisure time, it is more centred on their children. They are more likely than the general population to engage in outdoor recreational activities other than sport (55%), to be involved with sporting groups or organisations (40%), and to be involved with groups for children or youth such as playgroups or scouts (22%). They are much more likely to be involved with school groups or organisations (35% compared with 17% of the population).

If they go to church, they go together The church attendance of this grouping is average, with 21% attending at least monthly. However, church attendance is seen as something to be done -or not done - as a couple or family. Whether or not your partner goes is a most important predictor of one's own church attendance (ACS). Among those who rarely or never attend church, 88% have a partner who similarly does not attend church. At the other end of the spectrum, among those who attend church frequently, 74% have a partner who also attends frequently.

Confirmed by ACS data, many churches will have noticed that the number of children attending church services or Sunday school is not as great as it was in the past. Although churches usually provide activities for children, these are more often seen as optional by parents today than in previous generations. This means that the majority of current school-aged children may have few or no religious reference points from their upbringing.

Ministry needs and opportunities Commenting on this stage of life, Kaydee says, "Although it is physically less demanding as they get older, emotionally it gets more demanding as they compete for your attention. They also start to go through things where you need to guide them. It is more rewarding and challenging. You can talk to them more - but they argue too!"

Some people with young children do return to church life. However, across the population this return to church life is very small; much more needs to be done to connect intentionally with couples with children. This profile suggests a few clues for connection points:

* Use the window of opportunity: Parents may well have an interest in introducing values, ethics and belief frameworks to their young children. The church will be one option they consider. * Don't have unreasonable expectations: This group are among the busiest people in our community

* Offer activities and events suitable for children: They have a tendency to engage in community or leisure activities centred around their children

* Reach out to families not just individuals: The strong relationship between the church attendance levels of a person and their partner, combined with the tendency to engage in activities that incorporate their children, suggests that activities and events should be designed for families, not just individuals.

* Make the most of seasonal opportunities: Christmas time and school holidays is a great time to find ways to make connections with young families

The full profile of couples with dependent children can be found in Profiling Australians, available in the Community Social Profile Kit, sent to churches who participated in the NCLS and also through Openbook.