‘Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my Soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my Soul to take’
The above well-known prayer, prayed by generations of children at bedtime was first printed in the ‘The New England Primer’ published in 1750, and often causes me to think that when the time comes to die the best way would be to pass away peacefully in my sleep. In many ways ’Will I die before I wake’ is the unasked question every time we go to bed at night and answered in the negative every morning – so far! It seems to me that the church faces an analogous, but rarely asked, question.
Next Sunday in Australia one thing is certain. Several hundred thousand people will attend a church service. That in itself is a paltry number in a country of over 25 million. However, we should not be surprised, because it reflects the declining number of people who tick the ‘No Religion’ box in the five yearly Australian Census, now at 29% according to the 2016 census, up from 22% in 2011. This is a massive increase of 32% in only five years.
It also reflects the same census data showing that the percentage of Australians identifying with Christianity has fallen from 61% in 2011 to 52% in 2016 a decline of 15% in five years. Such data paints a picture of the rapid ‘de-Christianization’ of Australian culture, and represents nothing less than a catastrophic decline in both church health and gospel influence in society.
Yet, despite the stark reality of this continuing cascade of negative data, the Church’s response is, with a few honourable exceptions, a frozen inaction as it continues to sleepwalk towards the Iceberg. Continuing the ‘sleep’ motif, most church members slumber along each week to their Sunday service oblivious to, or disinterested in, the reality and threats of the tectonic shifting of the Australian spiritual landscape.
There are many reasons for this slumber but here are three.
- In many churches Sunday services still appear to be reasonably full. However, it only takes a few questions to reveal that the numbers are generally being propped up by ‘Transferees’ from other congregations, not because there is ‘Kingdom Growth’ resulting from missional activity. Additionally, the slow creeping ageing of the congregation goes unnoticed.
- Congregations are comforted by uncritically examined and often highly misleading reports of missional success regularly trumpeted by regional and national church newspapers. This encourages thinking that ‘while our congregation may not be doing too well, there are many who are’ so in the bigger scheme of things the church is ok over all. Again, critical examination of such alleged ‘successes’ generally reveals either that they are not really examples of ‘Kingdom Growth’, or they are due to special local circumstances not easily replicable and so not models that can bring about reversal of decline trends.
Any missional activity that produces new members of the Kingdom is something to praise God for. However, such activities that produce growth that is truly ‘Kingdom growth’, i.e. new Christians and not ‘Transfer Growth’ from churches elsewhere, are increasingly rare.
- Most congregations are left in blessed ignorance by their Pastors, few of whom ever speak to them about the Crisis engulfing the church. So they remain largely unaware of the sinking ‘ship’ they are sailing on and the implications for the future society their children and grandchildren will be living in.
The Church in general slumbers on, even as the tide of modern Paganism sweeps the nation, either unwilling or incapable of responding to the Crisis with any expressions of the radically new missional strategies that have the potential to produce the degree of trend reversing missional improvement urgently required.
As they go to sleep, ‘Will I die before I wake?’ is the question behind a child’s prayer.
Jesus assures us that ‘the Powers of Hell’ shall not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). However, as church history shows, that is not a promise that the church in every place will survive. So a parallel question for the Australian church to ponder might be-
‘Will we die before we wake?