Sydney’s traditional Bible belt falling behind up and coming Christian suburbs

NEWS | Tess Holgate
Wednesday 5 August 2015

The number of Christians in the Sutherland Shire is on the rise, with more people claiming a Christian faith in the most recent census.

Traditionally the Bible belt of Sydney has stretched across northwestern Sydney (known as the ‘Hills district’), but statistics now show that higher percentages of people are claiming a Christian or Catholic faith in southern Sydney (known by Sydneysiders as ‘The Shire’).

The data shows that around 75 per cent of people who live in the Sutherland area identify as Christians compared to 69.3 per cent in the Hills district.

Mark McCrindle, director of social research organisation McCrindle says Protestant denominations in the Hills are significantly smaller than in Sutherland.

Cronulla Beach

Cronulla Beach

“25.8 per cent of people in the [Sutherland] Shire identify as Anglican [the biggest Protestant denomination]. Only 21 per cent of people in the Hills identify as Anglican.

“Sutherland also has a higher proportion of Catholics – 31 per cent – as compared to 30.6 per cent in the Hills.”

McCrindle suggests a key reason for the difference and strong connection with Anglicanism in Sutherland is that it’s “less culturally diverse”.

The 2011 census data shows that 69.8 per cent of Australians were born in Australia. Residents of Baulkham Hills sit below the national average (67 per cent), whereas in the Shire it’s almost ten percentage points higher (79 per cent).

Even of those who were not born in Australia, the top three countries of origin in the Hills are England, China and India. In the Sutherland Shire it’s England, New Zealand, and China.

“On the whole, there is a greater number of people in the Shire with a European ancestry,” says McCrindle. “This is more likely to be a Christian ancestry, so more people are likely to identify as Christians.”

Pastor Lee Murray from Establish Church (a new Congregational church) is a young church planter in Cronulla, in the Shire. He says that despite the majority of the Shire identifying as Christian, that’s not what they see at church on Sunday.

“There are thousands of people in Cronulla who are lost outside of Christ,” says Lee. “We estimate about 2 per cent of the 27,000 people in the Cronulla area (Cronulla, Burraneer, Woolooware, Kurnell) currently go to church.”

“I think that for some [Christianity] will be a label of their heritage. Cronulla is one of the most Anglo-Saxon areas in Sydney,” says Lee.

For Lee, that “Christian heritage” is one of the particular challenges of ministry in the Shire.

“Rather than it making people more receptive, it tends to make them feel that they know enough to side step the gospel,” he says.

Associate Pastor of Shirelive Kristy Mills agrees, but in her 30 years at Shirelive she’s observed an increasing spiritual hunger.

“There’s a spiritual hunger increasing across Australia, not just in the Shire. People are reaching out for spiritual answers. In Sutherland and northwest Sydney – generally seen as wealthy areas – there comes a point where materialism doesn’t satisfy.”

Compared to when Kristy was growing up in church, she says, “these days I notice more unchurched families connecting with the church”.

Shirelive is passionate about every person hearing the gospel in a way that is meaningful and lets them make a personal decision.

Murray family

Lee Murray, with wife Cathra, and children Joshua, Grace, Sophie and Eva.

Back at Establish Church, Lee shares that passion.

“We want to see a church and churches who are relentless about seeing the gospel go out to every hub, every home and every heart in the Shire. We want to see a church that is relentless about that with gospel urgency, armed with the gospel as the power of salvation. We want to see a church that connects with and reaches new people and emerging generations.

“We have to and we must reach people who have never been to church before. This is what every gospel centred pastor and church wants in the Shire.”

Image: Rivchard Winchell on Flickr, used under CC License.

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