On the ground at the local church level, some 39% of churches reported having a prayer focus on indigenous ministries and reconciliation, either frequently or occasionally. Geography plays a part in having a direct relationship with first peoples, with 38% of rural churches reporting a direct relationship (compared with 20% of urban and regional churches). However just 9% of churches acknowledged country at church services, and in the previous 12 months only 14% had undertaken advocacy for reconciliation and justice for indigenous Australians.
Questions included in the 2016 Operations Survey provide an indication of the breadth, depth and type of engagement local churches have with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures.
When asked whether their local church had any direct relationship with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, across all denominations 76% of local churches indicated that they did not. Mainstream Protestants were the most likely to not have a direct relationship, with 84% reporting no connection. Pentecostals had the most direct connection (48% of local churches). Geography also appears to play its part with 38% of rural congregations reporting the existence of a direct relationship (compared with 20% of urban churches and 20% of regional churches). It is of interest that those churches with the longest presence in Australia were least likely to have a direct relationship, with 83% of local churches which were founded before 1900 reporting no relationship.
Churches were asked to indicate which, if any, of 10 different types of acknowledgement of or engagement with Aboriginal people and culture they had at their church. Only 37% of churches indicated at least one of these. The most common was special services/events (e.g. Sorry Day, NAIDOC Week), at only 12% of local churches. A tiny 1.9% had incorporated a Reconciliation Action Plan into the life of the local church (figure below). The likelihood of engagement increased with church size. The strongest result however was for Catholic parishes; some 68% indicated at least one of the 10 ways of engagement, including special services/events (46% of parishes) and Aboriginal art in the parish building (26%).
When asked to describe the local church’s current position with regard to ministry with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, 40% had “limited/no opportunity in our area for this type of ministry”. However it is interesting to note that 22% reported current involvement or taking first steps and a further 14% were open to involvement in the next two years (figure below). Against the background of long term marginalisation within the churches’ thinking, these responses suggest that positive engagement may be emerging or just around the corner.
Churches were also asked to reflect on how they had engaged with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people over the previous 12 months in a more detailed manner. They were invited to consider their frequency of participation in eight areas of possible connection. Some 69% reported they had never “built intentional direct relationships with local indigenous Australians” in this period (figure below). While over half of churches (54%) reported no giving in the form of donations to groups working with or for ATSI people, 11% of churches had done so frequently, and 27% occasionally. This suggests the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, while not front and centre, are not entirely off the radar of Australian church life. Giving and action, of course, are related to awareness, and in the Christian story this is often focused by prayer. Here, 39% of local churches reported at least an occasional prayer focus on indigenous ministries and reconciliation.
When asked whether they were aware of other churches or ministries in their locality that primarily serve Indigenous Australians, 58% indicated that they were not aware of any and 23% indicated that there were none nearby. Just under a fifth (19%) indicated that they were aware of such ministries. In terms of locality, rural churches were most likely to answer affirmatively (30% of rural churches versus 15% of urban churches and 16% of regional churches). Of the four denominational groups, Pentecostal churches were most likely to be aware, with 27% noting the presence of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander-focused ministries in their area.
Powell, R., Pepper, M., Hancock, N. and Sterland, S. (2017) 2016 NCLS Attender Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.