“I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”
in Alice in Wonderland
There is an ever-popular young child’s toy that generations have played with and still do today. It consists of a hollow ball (usually plastic) with various shaped holes in it together with a set of solid blocks variously shaped to fit the differently shaped holes in the ball. The aim is for the child to solve the problem of which shape matches which hole so that it can be pushed into the ball. The wrong shape will not go through no matter how much effort is expended. This toy comes to mind an analysing the current status of missional journey of the church.
In its journey along ‘Time’s Pathway’ Western society up until World War 2 still largely manifested the marks of Christendom. Large numbers regularly attended church services on Sundays, indeed 96% of Australian soldiers enlisting for World War 1 put their religion down as Christian. For this reason, there was really no need for what later came to be called ‘Outreach’ activities to attract people to church because they mostly turned up anyway.
In addition, Church culture was virtually the same as that of society in general and so there was no real culture barrier to cross for those who needed to be invited. There was one common language for the vast majority and largely one ethnicity.
The Biblical world view still largely permeated the way people thought, even if subconsciously, and this gave an innate sense of right/wrong that conditioned peoples thinking and actions without myriads of laws being passed to control them. Children also were raised imbibing that same sense of appropriate behaviour, a sense that was reinforced by home and school.
As ‘Time’s Pathway’ passed through the upheaval of Word War 2 things started to change. What had generally been a church-going society, slowly turned into a ‘church-sending’ society. That are parents increasingly stayed home on Sundays to do other things (except for special church services such as at Christmas and Easter) but continued to send their children to Sunday School. This why an examination of Australian church attendance records for the 1950s and 60s showed very large Sunday School attendances. However, this was accompanied by declining adult attendance.
The biblical world view was still highly influential in how people thought and behaved. However, as the end of the 20th century approached, the previously broadly imbibed and accepted bible shaped world view and associated behavioural norms of the ‘Christianised’ society started to crumble.
Faced with the problem of increasing numbers of ‘church-sending’ adults there was some adaptation by churches regarding how and what things were done. Some changes were made to church services (e.g. the divestment of clergy robes and use of guitars and drums in place of Organs) to make them ‘friendlier’ to newcomers and there was some development of ‘Outreach’ activities to attract non-attenders.
While many of these had significant degrees of success, it is important to ask the question ‘Why’? One very important reason is that these were carried out in a still ‘Christianised’ society, one where there was still a high proportion of the population who, despite not being church members, having gone to Sunday School, had to some extent a world view shaped by the bible, and some degree of biblical literacy. Further, the cultural distance between the church and society, while widening, was still bridgeable.
Then the Rabbit Hole
When Alice followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carol’s famous story of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, she found herself in a strange world, where the people, and pretty much everything else, were simply weird. It might even be called Weird-Land’.
As it passed through what might be called Millennium Gate, society plunged down a cultural ‘Rabbit Hole’, and here is the key point-
‘The Church Didn’t’!
While it had done some reshaping as it moved through the ‘Christianised’ late 20th century society, when it came to the Millennium Gate the Church got jammed in the entrance to the ‘Rabbit Hole’ because it was simply the wrong shape and didn’t fit. Ever since, churches in general, with some honourable exceptions, have been like the child who hasn’t yet worked out that no matter how much energy is expended, an object simply cannot be made to go through a hole in the ball if it is the wrong shape. The church generally continues to maintain a shape that cannot enter the socio-spiritual cultural ‘Rabbit Hole’ of 21st century western society in order to proclaim the message of God’s love in Christ.
In ‘Weird-Land’ people speak ‘Humpty Dumpty-speak’ where a word means “What I want it to mean” (for example ‘Marriage and ‘Family’) and simply do not understand church-speak and Bible-speak. The Rabbit Hole leads into a new world, an ever-morphing Kaleidoscope of cultural images, where the biblical world view is drowned out by an ever-mutating mosaic of mix and match world views each Weird-Land resident constructs for themselves. Spiritually, it is a Pagan land where each creates and worships their own ‘gods’, of which materialism, hedonism (pleasure seeking) and consumerism are major examples.
It is a realm where Truth is relative, what I want it to be; where mutually exclusive beliefs are held at the same time; where the biblically inculcated and generally accepted ‘right/wrong’ value system of pre-Weird-Land days has largely vanished
Yet, and this beggars belief, as the third decade of the 21st century is already upon us, the churches continue with the same 1990s style Outreach strategies designed to get people back into Sunday church (In-Drag) despite, now for decades, low and decreasing missional fruit. The largely unacknowledged reality (whether through incomprehension or wilfulness) , by both congregations and leaderships, is that churches generally are wedged in the ‘Rabbit Hole’ entrance because they are simply the ‘Wrong Shape’.
The urgent challenge for those of us who have some influence, is to bring about a significant reshaping of the church’s mindset re its purpose and mission. For, as after a time any child will learn, no matter how much effort is applied, the wrong shaped block will simply not go through the hole!