While certainly being no expert I’ve always been interested in astronomy and the awesome panoply of the star-spattered night sky. With this interest has come some knowledge of the constellations one of which I always look for is the Hunter, Orion. One of the stars comprising Orion, Betelgeuse, is in the class of stars called Red Giants and one aspect of my interest is that I think the Red Giants work as a metaphor for the western church in this 21st century.
Red Giants start out their star life as massive very hot Blue Stars (ten times the mass of our Sun) which burn enormous amount of their hydrogen fuel in order to sustain themselves and prevent collapsing inward under massive inward gravitational force.
Because of this rapid fuel burn after a relatively short (in star terms) amount of time this type of star runs out of fuel and cannot sustain itself collapsing inward to become a shadow of its former glory as a cool Red Giant. These Red Giants are thus stars nearing the end of their lives which ultimately lose their futile battle against inward collapsing forces.
Is this not an appropriate analogy for western churches, which while being formerly glorious ‘Blue Star’ churches in their missional Christendom-creating vitality are now in chronic serious decline. This diminished state of churches is analogous to the end stage of star life, fading Red Giants, often with still large infrastructure but ever reducing spiritual energy. In such Red Giant churches while the language of life-giving ‘Mission’ is still spoken (by a few anyway), the brute reality is that nearly all available resources (‘missional fuel’), and the efforts of church leaders, are devoted to maintenance and just ‘maintaining what is’. Such efforts can range from desperate ‘survival’ parish amalgamations to church fete and ‘chook’ raffle fundraisers. Even alleged ‘Outreach activities’ are often more about “getting the numbers up” (a recent quote) for survival, rather than Kingdom building.
The well documented trends of decline across denominations must beg the question ‘how long have we got’? Indeed, is there still time to change the direction of SS ‘Church’, or is the ’Window’ already closed?
Of course, the age of the ‘Red Giant’ church was long ago forecast, an age which we now see in which ‘Red Giant’ congregations dominate, characterised by members who “have the form of religion but lack its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). Thus, in the star-spangled ‘spiritual’ sky we see the slowly unfolding tragedy of ‘Red Giants’ consuming their last resources in futile efforts to survive before one by one fading into nothingness. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that not all but most church leaderships at all levels appear to be like rabbits frozen in the headlights, seemingly unable, unwilling or plain incapable of any action that just might bring about rejuvenation despite repeated ‘Crisis’ numbers in church attendance data.
Four or five years ago I first wrote this ‘Titanic’ analogy-
“Up to some point on that icy, dark north Atlantic night in 1912, on the SS Titanic’s fatal journey towards the notorious iceberg, there remained a window of opportunity during which decisive action could have been taken that would have averted the death and disaster that ultimately took place. We know of course that such action was not taken, at least before it was too late, the window of opportunity closed and the ship full of party mood passengers plunged into its icy tomb. I wonder is that kind of closing window image, a terminating ‘Kairos’, a fading time of opportunity now apt for the Australian (western) church of our time? The well documented trends of decline across denominations must beg the question ‘how long have we got’? Indeed, is there still time to change the direction of SS ‘Church’, or is the ’Window’ already closed?
Now years later it pains me to answer my own question by saying that because things have been allowed to decline so far, the probability now is that the ‘Window is indeed closed”. This is because despite a few lonely ‘boys in the crowd’ calling out that the ‘Missional Emperor’ is naked, nothing of significance has been done that is likely to even remotely turn the tide of the chronic, now decades long missional failure of the western institutional church.
However, if I left this commentary at that point, it would be a statement of depressing ‘Red Giant’-fading hopelessness. Yet there is hope, for God is the God of the remnant. As the biblical story tells us even at times when the people of God, usually as a result of disobedience, were on the verge of being extinguished, for example at the time of the Babylonian exile, God keeps a remnant of people to Himself into which he breathes new life and with which he makes a new start.
This is exactly what we see happening now. Even as the ‘Red Giants’ of the institutional church myopically cling to their old ways and exhaust themselves in their protracted and ultimately futile reality-denying death throes of spiritual bankruptcy, God is raised up ‘Green Shoots’. These are new churches of very different, culturally appropriate, and missionally effective, kinds. Indeed, it could be said that the light shining on the road ahead is turning from Red to Green- and praise God it is so!
We see this particularly in the United Kingdom where the catastrophic decline of traditional churches is paralleled by the rise of now thousands of ‘Green Shoot’ churches. This is what this site generically defines as the ‘Unbounded Church’, networks of networks of Missional Communities which form missionally effective movements. Such communities engage with and enfold non- Christians at rates often ten or more times that of traditional churches.
So rather than a depressing ‘Red Giant’ fading hopelessness, there is reason to hope, a hope that is in the change from the Red to the Green, from ‘Red Giants’ fading to ‘Green Shoots’ rising. This is a task that all Christians are called to commit themselves to, to the glory of God.