‘The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church!’
Around five years ago I wrote the following paragraph as an introduction to a booklet I was writing at the time.
‘Up to some point on that icy, dark north Atlantic night in 1912, on the SS Titanic’s fatal journey towards the notorious iceberg, there remained a window of opportunity during which decisive action could have been taken that would have averted the death and disaster that ultimately took place. We know of course that such action was not taken, at least before it was too late, the window of opportunity closed and the ship full of party mood passengers plunged into its icy tomb. I wonder whether that kind of closing window image, a terminating ‘Kairos’, a fading time of opportunity, is now apt for the Australian (western) church of our time? The well documented trends of decline across denominations must beg the question ‘how long have we got’? Indeed, is there still time to change the direction of SS ‘Church’, or is the ’Window’ already closed?’
Five years later I have sadly come to the ‘Melancholy Conclusion’ that the answer to the ‘is the ‘Window’ already closed?’ question is now most probably yes. This dismal conclusion is the result of many more than five years of close engagement with pastors of congregations; with those responsible for both the theological and ministry training of future leaders; as well as close analysis of the regular releases of data in regard to church attendance and the well documented trends of decline in virtually every metric of missional fruitfulness. The particular metric that should raise serious alarm is the longstanding and chronic reduction in the de-churched and unchurched ‘Newcomer’ component of congregations, a metric that indicates ongoing missional failure.
My ‘Melancholy Conclusion’ is that, to paraphrase the title of a book by Douglas Murray ‘The Strange Death of Europe’, what we appear to be witnessing is the ‘Strange Death of the Traditional Church’ as the result of the fact that-
‘Unpalatable to many though it may be, ignored or denied by many as it appears to be, the unarguable reality is that the current longstanding local (parish) church structure has not been for 20 years or more, is not, nor can it be made to be, capable of achieving trend-reversing missional goals’.
There is a variety of factors that can be posited as reasons for this which may be described as ‘Missional Handbrakes’. ‘Missional Handbrakes’ are those attitudes, practices and actions that systemically vitiate the development of fruitful, culturally appropriate missional activity. Briefly some of the most damaging are-
- Despite the constantly morphing kaleidoscope of socio-religious cultural universes that now comprise an Australian society unecognisable from that of even 20 years ago, there generally has been no signficant change (or even willingness to change) in the basic platfom used as the vehicle for mission, i.e. the traditional Sunday Centric, In-Drag, Christendom-Form (SIC) church model. The ‘SIC’ church mindset assumes that growing Sunday congregations is the purpose of evangelistic activities, that this is achieved by getting (dragging) more people into them, and that maintenance of the church forms and styles of the more ‘Christianized’ society of the late 20th century should be continued.
- Countless conversations with church leaderships over recent years reinforce the reality that, in terms of the prevailing mindset in regard to missional strategy, there has still been no substantive change over many years. Much as I regret this conclusion, the evidence is that, while many will seek to deny the reality of it even if subconsciously, the majority of leaders either refuse to and/or seem to be not capable of comprehending the need for and/or engaging in the radically creative ‘outside the box’ thinking required for 21st century mission.
- There has been no change in the widespread apathy towards local mission by congregations which continue to be filled with large numbers of comfortable, Christianity-Lite members, largely uninformed by their pastors as to the ‘iceberg’ (i.e. existential crisis) that has been fast approaching for years. Even when they are made aware, there is a cloying apathy to the sacrificial, costly, self-denying, comfortable model of church denying, demands of any missional effort likely to be effective.
- Even where new missional initiatives are implemented they are rarely more than the latest versions of the ‘More and Better’ (M and B) strategies that have been the norm for decades. These are the strategies that churches have used, and failed with, for a long time, but continue to seek to do ‘More’ of them and to do them ‘Better’. This would seem to be a classic illustration of the definition of ‘Insanity’ ascribed to Albert Einstein. Viz-
‘Insanity- Keeping on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’.
This missional insanity is characterised by persistence with ‘Square Wheels’, that is the repeated use of, often resource-heavy, missional strategies which were an underwhelming success last time they were used.
- There has been little substantive change in the way ministers and other church leaders are trained. Training is still primarily focused on preparing them to run the missionally failing ‘SIC’ church model. In this regard the old adage comes to mind-
‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing,
you will keep on getting what you have been getting!’
- For generations, 90% plus of resources available to churches, both human and financial, have been devoted to funding the standard church model. Only a small percentage was devoted to local mission. It still is!
- From the 1960s Australian (Western) culture has been in a ferment of change, yet there continues to be no lessening of the ‘Cultural Intelligence Deficit’ manifesting as a stubborn cultural myopia. This appears to blind church leaderships to the need for new and radically different culturally accessible forms of church and mission.
The brute reality is, that all the trend-metrics regarding church attendance, numbers of previously de-churched and unchurched members of congregations, Youth involvement, rising congregational average age, an ever thinning ‘SALT’ density in society (Matthew 5:13) and the plunging number of Australians affiliating with Christianity (according to the national census) etc, continue their 20 year plus dismal decline. Incredibly, despite these well documented harsh realities, the ‘Missional Handbrakes’ are being as firmly applied as they were 5, 10, 20 years ago.
Given all of the above, it beggars belief that anyone would any longer believe that it is possible that the current, change-averse ‘SIC’ model local church structure can be resurrected as a platform for the dramatically improved missional fruitfulness urgently required. Baseless ‘she’ll be right’ wishful thinking that things can be turned around, at the same time as the many ‘Missional Handbrakes’ continue to be firmly applied, will not bring about increased missional fruitulness.
So what should those who actually recognise the Crisis do?
As year follows year, decade follows decade, objective observation shows that rather than releasing the ‘Missional Handbrakes’ those who hold them just pull on them harder. I will be more than happy to be proved to be wrong, but if my ‘Melancholy Conclusion’ is correct, then we must look for a completely new way of reaching the lost in the ever shifting mosaic of cultures that comprise 21st century Australian (Western) society.
Could it be that an appropriate slogan for this new way is ‘The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church?’.
If the Phoenix of a ‘Church that lives’ can actually arise from the ashes of this present insanity, it needs to be in a very different form to the one upon which the ‘window of opportunity’ is now closed, or at least very close to being closed. For this to happen requires a number of key things, all of which are totally dependant on the development a currently generally lacking new ‘Mindset’.
- There must be a far greater grasp of the missional Crisis, an understanding, truly shocking to many, that in terms of fruitful 21st century mission the traditional local church structure is beyond redemption, i.e. the ‘Window has closed’
- The ‘very different form’ will require a mindset that actually grasps the swirling cultural mosaic of today and will embrace ‘Radical Change’. Only such new thinking will produce the required ‘New Paradigms’ needed for an effective approach to mission to a now largely pagan society.
- For the ‘church that lives’ to arise requires a large dose of ‘Adaptability’. There is no doubt that Charles Darwin’s statement regarding biological organisms that-
‘It’s not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the most responsive to change’.
applies equally to the spiritual organism that is the church. Yet change- responsiveness is something that the traditional change-averse form has generally, and for decades, shown itself to be chronically incapable of.
- There must be an increase in ‘Cultural Intelligence’ that drives a shift away from the traditional inward (In-Drag) ‘Our place, our style, our language, our time’ missional thinking to an outward one of ‘Their place, their style, their language, their time’ approach.
- Available resources need to be redirected away from the missional resource-devouring sink that is the traditional local church structure into new forms of church and mission.
- For effective mission to take place, and this is for many the hardest mindset shift to make by far, large numbers of Christians must reorganise their lives. This in part requires the re-allocation of the time resource currently allocated to the weekly Sunday meeting, to the establishment of missional communities of all shapes, sizes and styles, on every day of the week, in the Public ‘Live, work and play’ places where the lost spend their time.
Such missionally intentional time re-allocation would enable reconnection with a society increasingly alienated from the Christian community, something current generally used strategies fail to do. Further, and most importantly, such reconnection will create real opportunities for engaging the lost, by both word and deed, with the saving love of Christ on a regular basis.
As an example, one easy, very simple first step would be to relocate the standard weekly Bible study from somebody’s lounge room to a coffee shop, restaurant, pub, park etc.
It also is true to say that there are, praise God, other examples of the some development of this new thinking (sadly few in Australia although many more overseas) where churches have started to meet only fortnightly or monthly as one congregation. On the other weeks they break up to meet in small Missional Communities, often interest based, at various public locations.
Praise God for these pioneers who are demonstrating how ‘Out of the Ashes of this Present Insanity the Phoenix of the Church that Lives’ can arise.
Tragically, and greatly unpopular to say it though it might be, I do not believe that an objective assessment of the facts can lead to anything other than my ‘Melancholy Conclusion’. This is the conclusion that, in terms of resurrecting the traditional church structure as a platform for significantly effective mission to the Australian society, the ‘Window is Closed’. The ongoing effect of the ‘Missional Handbrakes’ ensures that the already experienced, long, slow decline into missional impotency and societal irrelevancy will continue.
However, praise God, that is not the end of the story. For while it can be argued that the ‘Church is Dead’ it is also a case of ‘Long Live the Church!’ For by the Grace of God, those who are not blind to missional realities, who are open to what He wants to do and are prepared to go with it no matter how difficut, will see that-
‘Out of the Ashes of this Present Insanity,
the Phoenix of a ‘Church that Lives’ Can Arise.