The Biggest Elephant – 4 – The Fatal Assumption

It’s more missionaries we need, without more missionaries we will lose’

(A paraphrase of Air Chief Marshall Dowding’s comment on Pilots during the Battle of Britain)

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I was having a coffee recently with a very successful businessman friend, also a committed Christian who has invested a great deal of his financial resources in his local church. However, during our conversation he said to me that he has come to the conclusion that the current Covid Crisis has presented the institutional church with a last opportunity to reinvent itself in order to become more missionally effective. He went on to say that this opportunity had an end date which would occur either with the arrival of a vaccine or an very effective treatment, either of which will allow ‘churches’ to just return to their former missionally failing ‘business as usual’. Whether of course such a ‘reinvention’ takes place however depends totally on Leadership.

This is the fourth in a series of posts on that topic, what I call the ‘Biggest Elephant’ in the ‘Mission Operations Room’, namely Church Leadership. In this series I have mentioned a number of characteristics of the Australian church (that I have called the ‘lesser Elephants’) which are to various degrees causative factors in the Western Church’s chronic lack of missional fruit. These include issues such as persisting with the standard, long-failing ‘SIC’ church model as the platform for mission, (‘SIC’ being an acronym for Sunday-Centric, In- Drag, into Sunday services, Christendom-Form, i.e. the same centuries-old basic form of church); the use of 90% plus of available church resources for the maintenance and operation of the standard church rather than mission; the lack of Cultural Intelligence in developing culturally appropriate missional strategies; and the repeated use of previously failed outreach activities and many more. See ‘Something Completely Different’ for more details.

The relevance of Church Leadership to this issue is quite obvious, because it is only leaders (at all levels) who are in a position to bring about urgently needed substantive change and to deal with the systemic roadblocks that continue to vitiate missional endeavours. The chronic tragedy is however that, with a very few glorious exceptions, they do not!

This leads me to the subject of this post, one that is central to missional failure, and that is what I call the ‘Fatal Assumption’.

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The Fatal Assumption

It is the role of Leadership in any organization to lead whatever body is being led to a better and more productive future. This is no less true in the case of Church leadership. However, this post on the issue of Church leadership highlights what might be called a ‘Fatal Assumption’, one that appears to be the default mindset of Church leaderships across the board, and which strongly militates against that better and more missionally productive future.

We might illustrate this ‘Fatal Assumption’ with this story.

A couple are sitting in their lounge room on a Sunday morning. It is during the Covid Pandemic of 2020 when church attendance is banned, and so they are watching a service streamed from their church. Their Minister, as do most others, runs the on-line service with basically the same format as when they met physically. He even emails out relevant pages of the formal liturgy some of their services normally use. When it comes to the songs/hymns (in exactly the same place in the running order as in normal services) he introduces each one by asking them to stand to sing!’

Imagine this, couples or even single people standing in their lounge room being asked to stand to sing the songs/hymns on the screen. In what other area of life would people stand in their lounge room to sing a song being played on TV!’

The above true story from local church is a good illustration of the ‘Fatal Assumption’ long held by, and still it would seem entrenched in the thinking of, the majority of contemporary church leaders at all levels, one that underlies virtually all conversations and thinking in regard to planning missional strategy. This ‘Fatal Assumption’ is that the only platform for mission is and will remain the entrenched and long-failing ‘SIC’ church model, without any consideration of ‘Something Completely Different’.

This ‘Fatal Assumption’ is the result of what many years ago Alan Roxburgh called the ‘frozen imaginations’ amongst church members and leaders. Such imaginations are locked into a 20th century culturally inappropriate, biblically permitted yes, but Not mandated mindset as to what ‘proper’ church should be. This paralysis of thinking is  such that even when dragged unwillingly on-line into something different by the Covid crisis, the opportunity for creative new ways is squandered and in the vast majority of cases leaders do everything in their power to mimic the Sunday ‘business as usual’ format.

This frozen mindset is further confirmed by the fact that as Covid restrictions are eased what we see for the most part are Leaders moving as quickly as possible to restore ‘business as usual’ Sunday-Centric church. This has four primary consequences for the existential Crisis faced by Christianity in western societies.

1. What is being restored is the ‘SIC’ church platform which, as all the statistics show, in terms of mission hasn’t worked for decades, isn’t working and any belief that is can work in the future (i.e. the Fatal Assumption) is pure fancy.

2. Arguably the most serious consequence is that the resources available to churches, both human and financial, will continue to be devoured by the insatiable behemoth of the institutional Church just to keep the ‘show on the road’, with vastly too little being invested in, and so starving, creative missional endeavours .

3. Church leaders will continue to be ‘managers of decline’ rather than developers of vehicles that will achieve a better and more productive missional future.

4. Missional failure will ensure that Gospel influence in society will continue to decline’ with all the negative effects that entails.

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Another Way?

So given that it is the role of Church Leadership to lead the Christian community into a new and more fruitful missional future, I would suggest that, rather than pursue a ‘Forward to the Past’ approach as the Church comes out of the Covid Crisis as seems to generally be the case, this new way will require Leaderships to imagine and create networks of new missional vehicles of all sorts, sizes, shapes, forms and styles (this is not a ‘One size fits all suggestion). Such will require many if not all of the following suggested list of design principles, which will address many of the systemic missional roadblocks previously mentioned. Vehices for future mission should-

  • Not Be Sunday-Centric- For large numbers (over 40%) of Australians are simply not free to attend on Sundays, because of work and locked-in recreational and sporting activities.
  • Be able to Go, Penetrate and Stay’ in the constantly morphing multiplicity of socio-spiritual cultural universes that comprise 21st century Australian society.
  • Be Easily and Rapidly Multiplied. This is simply a mathematical necessity if the Church is to even match the population growth, let alone increase the gospel footprint.
  • Be led by a new breed of Leaders who are both gifted and trained to be ‘Missionaries’ in a Neo-Pagan society.
  • Be largely a Lay led movement, due to the large number of Missional Communities required.
  • Be Small and very low cost. Given the high rate of multiplication of new fellowships needed.
  • Be functionally separate from the traditional church.[1] Because the DNA of the standard church and its members is generally governed by the old, missionally constraining, mindset not the radically ‘New Mindset’ required for 21st century mission.
  • Be capable of both Re-imagination and Self-Reinvention. This is because the future missional landscape is not, and cannot be, known with any certainty due to the ongoing cultural ferment.

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The largely ignored ‘Elephant’ in the mission operations room is that of Leadership. It is the ‘Biggest Elephant because it is only church leaders who can address the many ‘Lesser Elephants’, that is the systemic mission-vitiating characteristics of the ‘SIC’ church platform. Yet this does not happen because of the widely held ‘Fatal Assumption’ that it is that platform that is the only way to do church and mission.

The Church is facing an existential Crisis that actually existed before the Covid-19 Pandemic. All Covid-19 has done, particularly the transition out of it, is to expose more clearly the failure of Leaderships generally which just continue to double down on the ‘Fatal Assumption’.

Time is limited. As my friend said, there is an end date to the season of opportunity, and the degree to which that opportunity is taken will depend on whether or not anything is done to address ‘The Biggest Elephant’ issue, namely that of Leadership, for it only Leadership that can bring about positive change.


[1] This is what is called a Mixed Economy church.

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