The Church In the Land That Time Forgot

 

“The future depends on our capacity to manage change  amid uncertainty” Paul Kelly

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I read this quote in an article by Paul Kelly in the “Weekend Australian” newspaper recently just after returning from a Sunday church service and I was struck by its relevance to the church. For I had observed once again that if I had gone to a service at the same place 20 years ago the experience would have been pretty much the same. In other words, the change in the form, style and content of corporate Sunday gatherings over the last twenty years or so has really been miniscule.

It seems that paraphrasing the well known statement by the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr that-

Plus ça change, Plus c’est la Même Chose” (usually translated “the more things change, the more they stay the same“) as –

“the more the world changes, the more the Church stays the same”

is very apt in relation to the contemporary Australian (and maybe Western) church scene. For while Kelly’s article is written in the context of social and political change, his observation applies just as much to the Church.

We live in times that can truly be described as unique, defined as they are by a rapidly and constantly changing culture, changes being inexorably driven by brilliant technological innovation and the immigration flows reordering society’s ethnic mix. The fact is that the mono-cultural European Christendom society in which and for which most mainline churches were developed and designed, is now shattered into a shimmering Kaleidoscope of ‘Live, Work and Play’ micro-communities, cultural ‘universes’ that are alien to the ‘church’ universe.

Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of chronic and serious decline in church attendances and the well documented failure of its mission to 21st century society, a visit to most current church services is to enter a ‘Time Warp’, indeed to visit a cultural landscape where time has stood still.

The primary missional challenge we face is to fully grasp that our time is truly unique, the main characteristics of which uniqueness are rapid cultural change and uncertainty. All that can be said with any certainty of the cultural changes which will take place over the next ten, twenty, thirty years or so is that they will be rapid and unpredictable. The ‘Church of the Land That Time Forgot’ simply has almost zero capacity to manage that change amid uncertainty.

The brute reality is, that for the church to be effective in mission, intrinsic to its DNA must be a capability to constantly reinvent itself. Here is the key ‘Mind-shift’ required , because the missional church, contra the existing one, must not be locked into any specific shape.

Indeed, applying Kelly’s truism to the church, its future depends on the church’s “capacity to manage change amid uncertainty”, for one thing is certain in the future and that is uncertainty.

The church’s capacity to manage change in this uncertainty will govern its future. So, given the current evidence that its capacity for change management is miniscule, the future looks bleak, for the reality is that in the ongoing cultural ferment, current, unresponsive fixed models of ‘church’ and mission will not survive.

It must be stated that the essential core of the Gospel, that salvation is only by Grace alone through Faith alone in Christ alone, cannot change. However, the way that message is communicated to those stumbling in the gathering spiritual darkness of the 21st century must change, not just once but repeatedly with the ever rotating cultural kaleidoscope.

This will be costly. Indeed there is a massive cost to change, not least because it will bring great opposition (mostly from church members and leaders), for as the former United States President Woodrow Wilson once said “if you want to make enemies try to change something”. Tragically and regrettably that cost is now far higher than it would have been if this issue had been taken seriously and addressed 20 or 30 years ago, but it is a cost that must be paid.

For “The Church’s future will depend on its capacity to manage change amid uncertainty”, yet there is currently a general resounding refusal to acknowledge the need for radical change, and a myopia to the realities of the swirling seas of cultural uncertainty of the future missional landscape.

However, in that uncertainty there is actually one thing that is certain, which is that the more the world changes and the Church stays in ‘the Land that Time Forgot’ the more it will decline.


 

2 thoughts on “The Church In the Land That Time Forgot

  1. I think in the past, keeping contemporary has meant little more than allowing drums and guitars. As you say, the form hasn’t changed much – perhaps for half a millennium! I find it hard to believe, if someone had absolutely no knowledge or experience of church, they would read the gospels and the NT generally and come up with what we see.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, generally ‘Contemporary’ relates to music, but also in the last 50 years or so there has in most places been some change to a more informal dress code for clergy and others ‘up front’ . However, the style and form of most church services is little changed from the last century. But really all that is superficial. The real issues, which urgently need to be addressed are the substantive matters of ‘What is church?’ (Ecclesiology) and what that means for missional strategies (our Missiology). It is a failure to deal at a deep level with those issues that just continues the missional paralysis and unfruitfulness we have now seen for decades. Tragically those that are willing to do that are very few.

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