The Cockle-Picking Tragedy

Wake up the church and . . . encourage it to strengthen itself, while there is still time’                                                                                                                                         Rod Dreher

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Morecambe Bay in the north west of England is noted for its cockles (a type of edible mollusc) and indeed there is a commercial cockling industry there. The Bay also has another feature which is that the beach where the cockle beds are is extremely flat which means not only that the ebbing tide disappears to the horizon but also when it returns it does so at breakneck speed, a fact that those picking cockles need to be very aware of.

On the night of 5th of February 2004 a bunch of men and women, not native to the area, were picking cockles to earn some income. Although they had been warned by local fishermen familiar with the threat of the rapid tides, they just continued on regardless and so were oblivious of the tide rushing towards them until it was too late. At least twenty one men and two women were drowned. It seems to me that this tragedy provides an effective analogy for the current situation of the Australian church, as the rushing tide of God-hostile neo-paganism sweeps the land.

In the writing of his book ‘The Benedict Option’ the American author Rod Dreher states his purpose as ‘to wake up the church and to encourage it to strengthen itself, while there is still time’. He warns of a cultural tide that is ‘pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation’ of the American landscape, this being aided by what he describes as the ‘cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what is happening’.

Both of those aspects, the ‘cultural tide’ and the ‘cluelessness of Christians’ are equally relevant to the Australian scene. For the

‘Sea of Faith’ that ‘Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore‘

                                                                       (Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold)

is now a tide retreated over the distant horizon, being replaced by a inrushing Christian-hostile, church-hostile, tribalizing, divisive ‘political correctness’-driven swamping tide destroying the God-intended unity of humanity. This tide is surging through the halls of academia, our schools and homes, the very places where the minds of the impressionable young, the future generations and future leaders are formed. In today’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ world where ‘a Word means what I say it means’ (for example Marriage and Gender) we see all the prescient horrors of ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’ enslaving Western society in a sea of ungodliness.

Yet in the face of this destroying tide, accompanied by now well documented chronic trends of church membership and attendance decline, it beggars belief that traditional churches carry on ‘picking cockles’, i.e. continue with the largely Sunday-Centric ‘business as usual’ carry on regardless responses characteristic of the last century. Further, church members generally, using Dreher’s term, are ‘clueless’ as to what the response should be, even if they are aware that a response is needed. There are several reasons for this.

  1. The ‘Dead hand of apathy’ characteristic of large numbers of church members means they are not interested in any call to arms or the ‘deny yourself’ (Mark 8:34) type of Christianity required to fight the battle the church currently faces.
  2. Congregations are rarely if ever informed or challenged by their leaders regarding the true state of the church at large. Nor are they generally taught or equipped for the battle that must be fought.

3. There is an abject and longstanding failure by those in the institutional churches who influence missional strategies to grasp the nature of what has been called theliquid modernity’ or ‘liquid culture’ which Australian society now is, a revolving kaleidoscope of ever morphing tribes for which NO fixed missional model can be appropriate. That applies especially to the current standard form of church that assumes a still Christianized 20th century society. This ‘cultural myopia’ in the face of the surging cultural tide results in a persistence with ‘cockle-picking’ missional strategies, i.e. continuing to do what we have been doing but attempting to do it ‘More and Better’. Some recent large, resource-heavy examples would confirm that, rather than learning from the decades of declining missional fruit that indicate the need for ‘Something Completely Different’, for the most part there is a doubling down on failure of mind-blowing proportions.

However, before we get thoroughly depressed as the foregoing might make us there are reasons for encouragement.

Firstly, Jesus told us that the forces of Hell, which are the reality both driving the neo-pagan tide as well as blinding the traditional church to the existential danger of continuing to ‘pick cockles’, will not defeat His church (Matthew 16:18), so we can be assured that the cause of Christ will ultimately prevail.

However a warning, we cannot read this to say that God guarantees that our particular, form, denomination, flavour of church will continue. This is illustrated by the many parts of the world where the church was previously strong but has now mostly or completely disappeared, such as many of the places where Paul established churches e.g. in what is now modern Turkey.

A second reason for encouragement is that, rather than being in decline, there are many areas in the world where, often in the face of severe persecution (e.g. in Africa and China), the church is growing rapidly. More, there are many examples of new forms of church even in western countries that are actually highly missionally fruitful from which we can learn. So rather than capitulating to despair we should forensically ask the big and urgent ‘Why’ question. That is, why do we see decline when others do not and what to we need to change?

One thing certain is that in order to produce greater missional fruit ‘Something Completely Different’ (SCD) is required. What this ‘SCD’ will actually look like is a matter for debate. It can take many forms according to time and context but the fundamental requirement is the need to develop a ‘Go and Stay’ strategy that creates and embeds Missional Communities ‘In the socio-spiritual cultural universes in which the lost spend their lives’. The sheer size of this challenge requires that such communities, whatever their size, style or shape, will be small, low cost and easily multiplied, everything traditional churches are not. These characteristics are not generally reflected in the vast majority of current mission strategies but are the only way the density of the ‘SALT’ of Matthew 5:13 can be increased in society.

A vital characteristic of MCs is that they must be ‘Kingdom Outbreaks’, i.e. Gospel trojans planted in the spiritual darkness that are specifically marked by the sacrificial servant-heartedness which is a genuine expression of God’s love, such that they are ‘Enjoying the favour of all the people (Acts 2:47).

*****

The story of the ‘Cockle-pickers’ is a tragedy. However, it serves well as an analogy for the tragedy of the institutional Australian (western) church which, with some honourable and praiseworthy exceptions, fails to respond to the surging tide of cultural ferment driven by the gale of brilliant technological advance and people flows reordering society’s ethnic mix, but primarily by the new paganism gripping Australian minds.

Against the roar of the surging tide it is long past time to stop ‘picking cockles’.

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