One of my favourite movies is Groundhog Day. This is the story of a man (‘Phil’ played by Bill Murray) who is trapped in a repeated cycle of having to live the same day over and over again. This is even to the detail of getting his foot soaked in the same puddle every morning! Clearly the story is a very clever fantasy, it couldn’t really happen could it? However, every now and again an event happens that creates that Groundhog Day feeling, the sense of repeating the same experience multiple times. Such an event was the recent release of some of the data from the 2016 National Survey of churches which takes place every 5 years.
One of the most important pieces of data is the ‘Newcomer’ percentage in congregations. Newcomers are those who 5 years previously were not attending church because they had previously left (the de-churched) or because they had never attended (the unchurched).
The Newcomer statistic is of great significance because it is arguably the best metric we have for ‘Missional Effectiveness’. Yet here again, for the third 5 year period in a row, it was ‘Groundhog Day’ again, that is the Newcomer statistic had fallen significantly once more. This continues a now over 15 year trend. While depressing it is not surprising, for the missiological strategies of most mainline churches have generally not changed since the last century. This despite the New Testament-voiced ‘Divine Freedom’ to do things very differently, the very freedom exercised by the Apostle Paul who said-
“I have become ALL things to ALL people
so that by ALL possible means I might save some.”
It is so important to emphasise he does not say ‘Some’ but ALL things, people, means. Yet it is largely the case that centuries of our current model have left many church leaders and members like rabbits paralysed in the headlights of oncoming disaster in regard to how we ‘do church’ and mission, with no real response to the, what I believe will turn out to be, looming existential ‘Crisis’. So once more it’s Groundhog day- Again!
In human terms the cause of the Groundhog Day nightmare is to a large extent the result of a strategic paralysis that limits our missional efforts and methods to what we have been doing and failing in for decades, and of course what fits with our particular traditional church paradigm. However, to break free from the existential cycle of death we must develop a church that is specifically designed to be an effective ‘Missional’ church to the kaleidoscope of largely unchurched tribes which constitutes this post-modern, post Christendom, pluralistic, pagan culture in a constant state of change. This requires that we think and strategize more as if we are faced with evangelizing a pagan Africa of 200 years ago or a Celtic Europe of 1500 years ago, not a residual part of Christendom.
This is all for the sake of the mission of the gospel of Jesus into the tribal mosaic in which the pagans live, stumbling in darkness with the scent of hell in their nostrils. We must not forget this is our core business.
It’s Groundhog day again, with once more evidence of the missional malaise, and once more we return to where we were, a repeating cycle of little effective action and ongoing decline, once more stepping into the same ‘puddle’ but deeper! And all the while sleep walking into the iceberg.
But wait! As SS Church sails ‘Titanic’ like through the deepening night, if we peer into the forward radar screen something has changed in the last 5 years.
The iceberg is larger!