So Easter has passed once more. The most important time in the Christian calendar as we rehearse what has been described as the ‘greatest story ever told, about the greatest offer ever made by the greatest person who ever lived’. The media reported thousands filling Easter services supported by pictures of crowded churches, as would be expected at this major Christian festival.
However, as a measure of church health these reports of service crowds portray a mirage, a delusion as to reality. In the Channel Nine news report it was stated that 16% of the Australian population attended an Easter service. This is a not unreasonable figure, anything much bigger than that and existing church buildings would run out of space, but let us drill down a bit into that figure.
An attendance figure of 16% of the population amounts to only one third of the Australian population claiming to be Christian in the last national census. So the remaining two thirds are so nominal that they can’t even be bothered to turn up for the most important event of the Christian year. Of the one third who did, we know that many only attend church at Christmas and Easter anyway. In terms of those who attend church reasonably often at other times a more realistic figure is around 10%, and as to weekly attendance, that has fallen to below 3%, or less than 750,000 members of the 25 Million population.
Why is all this relevant? It is because it both gives a reality check as to the health of the Australian church AND, very importantly, it provides a major reason for the chronic and worsening failure of the Australian (Western) church’s mission.
The Bible tells us that becoming, and living as, a Christian is both an ‘Event’ and a ‘Process’ that requires the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. The ‘Event’ is the day they are ‘born again’ (John 3:3). On that day the Holy Spirit, who is God, takes up residence in the new convert. One would expect that if God Almighty is actually living in a person it would most certainly obvious! However, with many who claim to be a Christian, even after decades of at least some level of church attendance, there is little to no evidence of this. The result of this apparently Spirit-less ‘Christianity’ is the many who claim to be Christian yet never or very rarely attend a Christian gathering.
Why is this important in regard to the Missional Malaise? It is important because the ‘Process’ following the ‘Event’ is the result of the work of the indwelling Spirit in the Christian’s heart as He reshapes their thinking. This results in a change in their priorities as to how they use their God-given resources (gifts, money, energy and today perhaps especially time) for God’s purposes in ministry and mission. Those who have genuinely been born again, are adopted as a child of God, received the Spirit and grafted into the body of Christ will have a passion for involvement not just in Ministry but most importantly in Mission. Not so much because they choose it, but because such passion and inner drive is actual evidence of the presence of the Spirit dwelling in the truly converted.
It should not be remarkable that churches are filled at Easter, rather it would be remarkable if they were not because for those who are genuinely ‘In Christ’ this is the great celebration of their receiving the benefit of the great paradox of the cross. This is the ‘Divine Paradox’ of ‘Extreme Love’ being transmitted through unfathomable ‘Extreme Suffering’.
What tragically is worthy of remark however, is that the full churches reported in the news media are actually an ‘Easter Mirage’ that disguises the reality of a declining church and particularly the well documented reality of largely impotent mission.
The Missional Malaise will not be turned around by the large numbers of low to minimal commitment attenders at Easter services, but by those who manifest a Spirit-Driven sacrificial willingness to ‘Deny themselves’ and be-
‘All things to all people so that by all possible means (we) might save some’
1 Corinthians 9:22
Such are an endangered species in the Australian church, a fact neither disguised by nor denied by the ‘Easter Mirage’.
At Easter we praise God for the greatest event in human history. That is the sending, dying and rising of His Son that we might have life both qualitatively and quantitively eternal. We must also however, as I am sure He does, lament the spiritual apathy that binds the church in terms of its primary mission, i.e. to use all possible means to ‘save some’,
The urgent need of the hour is not to be deceived into complacency by the fleeting comfort of the ‘Easter Mirage’ each year which blinds many to the reality of the worsening Missional Malaise. Rather the task of those who have actually received the Spirit of Life from the Author of Life is to ‘unbind’ the church from its anachronistic forms and related but chronically failing missional strategies of the last century, and to engineer new missional forms that will actually engage the lost in their ‘Live, Work and Play’ cultural contexts with the life-saving Easter message of Christ.