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"Are we losing our religion?" the ABC asked in June. The results from the 2016 Census had just been revealed, and for the first time atheism had eclipsed Catholicism as the most common religious status. With a major drop in the total number of people who identify as Christian, it was quickly declared that Australia is becoming less religious than ever.
But maybe Australia is just becoming religious in a different way. After all, between 2011 and 2016, the fastest growing religion in Australia is a branch of Christianity. More specifically, it's the International Network of Churches, also known as Christian Outreach Centres, a global network of Pentecostal churches. Their churches are all over Australia, New Zealand, Oceania, and South America, spanning as far and wide to Fiji, Buenos Aires, Kalgoorlie, and everywhere in between. And they're not just the refuge of ageing boomers looking for answers.
"Winning souls and influencing communities," their website reads. Their mission, "to make disciples, empower leaders, and to multiply health churches across Oceania", is set out below a photo of young people raising their hands towards towards the sky, except instead of their Sunday best they're wearing neon headbands and t-shirts emblazoned with the Adidas logo. The website of Citipointe, one of the churches that's part of the network and has centres as far afield as Bulgaria, says "There should be a spiritual climate change, an absence of darkness, a shift for the good surrounding the people of God. It is, after all, why we are here… Influence."
They are not the neighbourhood church from decades gone by in Australia, where services are sitting in pews in silence and then listening to hymns played on an organ, followed by watered down cordial and biscuits downstairs. Christian Outreach Centres are unrecognisable. They closely resemble Hillsong, the megachurch that now calls 19 countries home and has around 40 000 followers in Australia alone, with around half under the age of 30. They are music, crowds, and noise that resemble a rock concert. Spurning all statistics that say Christianity is becoming less important in the future of Australia, they can't stop growing. They saw a 126 percent increase in attendees between 2011 and 2016.
To understand the way branches of Christianity like the International Network of Churches are changing the way they present themselves is to understand the faith. In 2014, the Instagram account Sociality Barbie went viral for its spoof of meticulously crafted casualness, capitalism-friendly environmental consciousness, and aesthetically pleasing authenticity. But what few realised was the connection of the aesthetic it was spoofing to religion.
Sociality is a Christian organisation founded in 2014 that preaches creating an online community that embeds Christianity in daily life with the #cleanliving, hipstery aesthetic. They aim to connect people online, but their website offers an option to "find and connect with your local community". "People often ask, "What is Socality?"," their website's about page reads "and the answer is easy. You are Socality. You are the movement!". Like the services that resemble nothing of the majority definition of worshipping or a church, it is not image of faith that is conjured by most at all. The only overt presence is in the carefully chosen Bible verse as a caption. The community may be discovered online, but it's the real-life tangibility of the community found in a church that counts.
Scroll through the many Instagram accounts of each location of the International Network of Churches and their ministries, and the appeal of the community offered to an adherent emerges further. They advertise everything from upcoming gatherings in addition to Sunday services, which range from pancake breakfasts to celebrate father's day, album recordings, and community outreach initiatives.
The accounts for their youth groups are even more active. Those for Citipointe's New Youth Society, which has groups scattered all over Queensland, post reminders for their yearly youth camp on the Sunshine Coast, along with Friday night and Sunday morning gatherings, share photos from the previous week, and even offer free rides for people who want to attend services, encouraging to bring their friends along. Sleek and resembling the social media of any youth-targeting business, there's no mistaking their audience predominantly is young families and teenagers looking for like-minded people to connect with.
Pentecostal churches, as well as other denominations like Mormonism, are adapting to the modern world (and young people, as a result) to grow their bases of followers in ways that other Christian faiths have struggled with. In addition to the Instagram-savvy tactics of Pentecostal groups (don't forget that Justin Bieber literally quit his world tour to devote himself to Hillsong, no doubt bringing countless fans into the fold), countless popular family vloggers on YouTube are devoutly Christian, particularly Mormon, though it is scarcely the topic of the videos. They adopt the language of now.
Most notably there's the Shaytards, run by husband and wife Shay and Colette Butler, who posted daily vlogs about mundane trips to the dentist, cheerleading practice, and the last day of school from 2008 until earlier this year. There is an occasional mention of worship, or a trip to the largest Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, but the emphasis is on family. It pays, to boot—they were estimated to be earning over $700 000 per year at the channel's peak, in addition to profits from selling part-owned production company Maker Studios for $500 million to Disney in 2014.
The aesthetic of Sociality is one present in everyday life whether secular or faith-based—looking for naturalism and the tangible bounds of community that are absent from school or home, and is perhaps what is craved the most. An article in The Atlantic in September said that young people were going out less than ever, with those in year 12 going out less often than those in year 8 did as recently as 2009. In the age of technology and all kinds of paranoia about the world, parents are letting their children go outside the home without them less and less, seeing a sharp drop in experimenting with drugs, and this is continuing into adulthood. These days, under the more oppressive thumb of parents, a large amount of socialising has no option but be done without even leaving the house. Most other spaces, including shopping centres and clubs, are no longer an option.
However, this doesn't mean that socialising offline is any less craved. With less places to go that offer it gladly, the allure of community that speaks and understands the current world—the visceral sway of bodies and rising voices towards something in common—is more intoxicating than ever. "Born for more," the International Network of Churches' homepage reads. It's hard to not win souls with that kind of optimism.
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