‘Our very long investment in ‘chapel’ simply has not worked. The enormous resources that are put into clergy – training them and paying them. Our expensive buildings, the creativity lavished: frankly has not delivered quality Christian community or convincing disciples of Christ. Rather, in the West, what we’ve seen, what we’ve lived through is a century of decline of attendance . . . . . and until we inside are changed by encounter with God, no investment in public worship is actually going to deliver the goods.’
George Lings-Former head Church Army Research Unit- UK
It’s raining. Big, fat, heavy drops falling like tears on the carpet of gum trees rising on the escarpment above my house and on the houses perched on the hillside. Rainey days such as this sometimes bring to mind the thought that the raindrops symbolize God’s tears falling on society generally but more particularly on the Church. Of course, that raises the question of ‘Does God actually cry?’.
The short answer to that question is of course yes. For when God came to us in human form in Jesus, we see him weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 189:41), the city representing God’s ‘Chosen’ people the Jews. The reason for his tears was that they had rejected him, the Messiah sent to establish a new Messianic Kingdom. However, for generations, indeed centuries, they had developed a self-centred view that the expected Messiah would be for just for them, to throw out the occupying Romans and to restore a new glorious Davidic Kingdom. So when he turned out not to be what they wanted they rejected him. Long before that however, indeed for centuries the ‘Chosen’ people had abdicated their God-given mission to be a ‘light to the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 49:6)-
(God) says: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
In fact they had replaced that mission to be a ‘light to the Gentiles’ with a self-centred, ritualistic and legalistic religiosity. And so God in Jesus wept.
Of course, evidence of God’s pain, even tears, is a theme throughout the history of the Jews, the people He had created and chosen to be His vehicle for the salvation of humankind. as they regularly rejected the purpose for which they had been chosen, by turning their mission into legalistic, self-centred religiosity.
One of the most well known examples of God’s anguish over the Israelites’ faithlessness is in the ‘’Song of the Vineyard’ (Isaiah 5:1-4). In it we hear how God had done everything possible to shower blessings on His people and had provided for them in every way (the Vineyard). However, the result was only ‘bad fruit’.
We also see (in Jeremiah 14:17) God’s anguish at His people’s unfaithfulness and the consequent disaster that befell them when He puts these words in the prophet Jeremiah’s mouth-
‘let my eyes overflow with tears, Night and day without ceasing’.
These, and other events, including Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, are examples of God’s anguish at the repeated faithlessness of His chosen people to their appointed mission; that is to be agents of His purpose in drawing the lost to Him. This mission was repeatedly displaced by that ritualistic, legalistic, self-centred religiosity.
Looking around the current state of Christianity in Australia (and the West generally), one can only wonder as to whether God’s tears are ‘Overflowing’ today. For it would seem that, to borrow Michael Griffith’s book title, the ‘Church’ has become a ‘Cinderella with Amnesia’, and that much like the Jews, it has forgotten its primary purpose, which has always been to draw the Gentiles (the lost) to Him.
The signs of that ‘Amnesia’ are not hard to see, indeed they have been exposed and amplified as local churches seek to transition out of the Covid 19 crisis. That Crisis effectively closed down the ‘business as usual’ model of church, the missional platform that had been failing for decades. However, instead of grasping this, unlikely to be repeated, golden opportunity to reset, reimagine and start to develop new, 21st century-appropriate vehicles for its primary task of mission, the opportunity is being squandered.
Instead, the emphasis seems to be to ‘get back to church’ as soon as possible. By this is meant back to the pre-Covid ‘business as usual’ Sunday-Centric, come-to-us, centuries old form. The one called ‘Chapel’ by George Lings, which he accurately characterised as an enormously expensive, in fact a voracious resource-consuming behemoth, in terms of clergy and buildings. The results of that ongoing massive investment of resources has only produced very long-term attendance decline, and ineffective disciple-making.
The current rush back to the dismally failing ‘church as usual’ is a strong indication of the need for the Church in the West to have, as Lings puts it, a new ‘encounter’ with the God who is more concerned with the carrying out of His mission rather than box-ticking religiosity and rituals, as He declared to the ‘Chosen’ people through the mouth of Amos-
‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals, Your assemblies are a stench to me . .
Away with the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the music of your harps’
But let justice roll on like a river . . .’ (Amos 5:21-24)
The Covid 19 crisis forced most of the ‘Church’ to meet in small groups, in homes or on-line, the very format of the missionally effective early church, the northern European Celtic missionary movements in the 5th and 6th centuries and movements in various parts of the world today. It is sheer stubborn disobedience to cling to an idolatry of rituals, forms and buildings in the face of the well documented ‘Church’ decline. Yet tragically there is little to indicate that this will not continue.
Some Australian National Census-derived religious affiliation figures may focus our minds on reality-
A note on the above graphs-
- These graphs are based on expressions of ‘Affiliation’ data from the ABS (e.g. ‘My religion is Anglican’) not ‘Attendance’ at weekly church services which is barely 10% of the Affiliation figure.
- 10% of the Anglican ‘Affiliation’ figure works out at an attendance of only 1 to 2% of the population across the country.
- In the major population centres of Sydney and Melbourne weekly attendance is barely 1% and under 0.5% respectively.
- The Anglican Church has been shown because it is still the largest non-Roman Catholic denomination, and therefore has a significant influence on the bigger picture.
- The most alarming point to be noted is that extrapolation of the above trends indicates that the number of those claiming their religion as Anglican (which is 25% of Australians who claim to be Christian) will hit the ‘Iceberg’, that is zero, by around 2036.
- The total number of those claiming to be Christian will hit the same mark around 2070.
The question we started with was ‘Is God crying?’. On the basis of what we know of His expectations of His ‘Chosen’ people, both in the Old and New Testaments (the Church), in carrying His mission of Love to the world, one would have to think He is.
The key point to be noted from extrapolating the above trends is that those claiming their religion as Anglican (25% of Australians who claim to be Christian) will hit the ‘Iceberg’, that is zero, by 2036, and the total of those claiming to be Christian will hit the same mark around 2070.
In case we find that scenario too scary to contemplate, others are perhaps more realistic, as we see in a report submitted to the Anglican Church of Canada, Council of General Synod meeting in November 2019 which made the dismal statement that-
‘Projections from our data indicate that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.’
Also, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, has stated that the ‘Church of England is one generation from extinction.’
Our response must be to seek a new ‘encounter’ with the God of Mission that will bring a repentance of our idolatries. Such repentance, as always, means to change direction. This must involve a willingness to switch resource use away from ‘Sunday-Centric’ platforms for church and mission to the creation of new, 21st century-appropriate vehicles of God’s love, Kingdom Outbreaks, that will enter and stay in the mosaic of ‘Live, Work and play’ micro-communities of the lost.
To be continued . . . . . . .