Pastor Dan Rooney has spent “a lifetime being in the church”, but several years ago he found he needed a new way to lead others in religion. 

He started holding non-denominational services, which have attracted a small congregation in Pinnaroo in the South Australian Murray Mallee.

“We figured, given there are so many differences between the denominations, we would bring it to where we saw the essentials and have everyone welcomed into that,” he said.

Decline in Christian identity

Australian census data from 2021 revealed Christianity remained the most common religion in the country, but the religious identity had steadily declined since the 1980s.

It is a trend that Mr Rooney said was noticeable and that the Christian worshipping community was “getting smaller and smaller”.

“Within the [Pinnaroo] community, while many people might identify as a denomination or as a Christian, we don’t get a high percentage of people who would come to church,” he said.

The Pinnaroo Methodist Church is part of the town’s history.(Supplied: Caroline Forster)

However the Australian census shows there are a growing number of people who broadly identify as Christian, but not with specific denominations like Anglican or Catholic.

Mr Rooney’s wife, Helen, said the non-denominational structure of their church service meant everybody was accepted. 

“I think people can feel like church, and especially denominational church, is a little bit exclusive … but we really want to put the focus on everybody is welcome,” she said. 

Max Wurfel says church attendances date back to the town’s early days.(ABC News: Elyse Armanini)

Local Mallee historian Max Wurfel said many regional towns were started around a water source and a multi-use building that was often used as a school, a hall and a church. 

But he said church attendance had dropped over time. 

“At one stage we had three church services on a Sunday morning, afternoon and evening … so attendances certainly have dropped off.”

Church attendance in Pinnaroo has been on the decline in recent years.(ABC News: Elyse Armanini)

Looking for life’s meaning

Glenys Badger leads worship at the Barmera Uniting Church in South Australia’s Riverland and like those in Pinnaroo, she has seen a drop in congregation numbers in the 20 years she has lived and attended church in the town.

“In the past the church was the centre of social life, even in our youth, we didn’t need anything else … it was the hub of community, things have changed now and continue to change as society changes,” she said. 

But Ms Badger said she was not convinced people were not religious anymore, instead she believed the focus had shifted to spirituality.

“People are looking for meaning in life,” she said.

Glenys Badger believes there’s been a shift to spirituality.(ABC News: Sophie Holder)

Other religions flourishing

While some religions were seeing a decline in Australia, others have grown. 

From 2016 to 2021, there was a growth in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and also Sikhism, which had almost tripled in Australia since 2011. 

Sukraj Singh and Arjhan Arkan say the Sikh temple in Renmark provides a safe community space.(ABC News: Sophie Holder)

On Sunday evenings in the Riverland town of Renmark, the local Sikh Gurdwara (temple) fills with people singing and sharing meals. 

Temple president Arjhan Arkan said the congregation had grown significantly, particularly as people moved from India to regional areas for work. 

“It just helps them to come here, to a place that kind of reminds them of back at home … it keeps everyone still connected,” he said. 

Religious spaces such as Sikh temples are growing in Australia. (ABC News: Sophie Holder)

Sukraj Singh, treasurer of the temple, said it was important to create community spaces in regional areas. 

“It’s a very safe place here, when you come [to the temple] you know that everyone has the same intentions, to sit together, to eat together, to pray together,” he said.

“It feels like home, wherever home may be, everyone’s on the same page when they come here.”

As a senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle, with primary expertise in philosophy of religion, Timothy Stanley attributes Australia’s shifting religious landscape to increasing migration.

Timothy Stanley says globalisation has contributed to more diverse religions in Australia.(Supplied: Timothy Stanley)

“In a welcoming country like Australia, we welcome people from all over the world,” he said.

“You’re going to see people interacting and changing their beliefs.”

Parishioner Ian Langcake attends church services led by Mr Rooney.(ABC News: Sophie Holder)

Back in the Mallee, Mr Rooney said he felt grateful to be able to help his regional community to connect with their religious beliefs in a non-denominational space. 

“To fulfil that [role], as imperfectly as I do, it’s a huge privilege, and it needs someone to do that, and that’s fallen to me in this place,” he said. 

Get our local newsletter, delivered free each Tuesday