“Sometimes, Hem, things change, and they are never the same again.
This looks like one of those times. That’s life! Life moves on. And so should we.”
Haw – one of the ‘Little People’ in ‘Who Moved My Cheese’
by Dr Spencer Johnson
The trail of history is marked with many great turning points, both events and processes, that we might call Mega-Shifts. Examples of which are the Magna Carta of 1215, which became the foundation stone of constitutional and parliamentary governments around the world; the invention of the Printing Press, at least in the West, that allowed the Bible to be rapidly copied and distributed; the Reformation which restored Biblical Christianity to the European Church such that the Bible became the foundation of, and shaping instrument of, Western countries, and which further spawned a new era of mission, as Jesus commanded in Acts 8, to ‘the ends earth’. My key point in citing these things is that they all brought about, or instigated, cultural shifts of Tectonic proportions.
I would suggest that we are now living through another Mega-Shift in the West? A cultural Mega-Shift that has three major causes. These are first, the invention of the Internet; second, the large people movements and immigration flows taking place into and across western countries; and third, the now catastrophic collapse of western Christianity, leading to what I call the Desalination process, that is the ongoing decline in the percentage of Christians, the SALT of Matthew 5:13, in the population with the plain-to-see corresponding reduction of Gospel influence in schools, universities, homes and schools.
This is a Shift that most of those happily turning up to ‘church’ on Sundays seem to be blissfully, or deliberately choose to be, ignorant of, while at the same time often bemoaning the consequences in society to which their own apathy is actually contributing.
This is a Shift that the Covid 19 Pandemic has, or should have, brought into focus.
So as we slowly emerge from the Covid-enforced shutdown and disruption of the usual business-model of Church, ministry and mission, at a time that may well be a cultural Mega Shift in the West, I wonder if we can hope that finally we may get a glimpse of that endangered species called ‘Critical analysis’. Such an analysis, while frequently spotted roaming through virtually every other organization, is rarely encountered in most of the western Church, but would provide a useful tool for plotting future ministry and mission.
As a vehicle for such an analysis it might be helpful to analyse what might be called the Church’s Covid-Era journey in three stages. Decline; Opportunity; and Emergence, and dot that journey with mostly unasked and often uncomfortable Questions.
Decline – A Reality Check
The western Pre-Covid Church operated almost everywhere with a ‘SIC’ model platform for Ministry and Mission i.e. Sunday-Centric, In-Drag (into Sunday services) and Christendom Form.
An honest, Big Picture analysis of the statistics relating to the Pre-Covid Church shows it declining on almost every measure, although you wouldn’t hear this spoken about very much.
Such statistics show several decades of decline in weekly attendance; a 50 year National Census-measured decline in those declaring Christian affiliation; a 20 year NCLS-measured decline in the percentage of what the National Church Life Survey calls ‘Newcomers’ (De-churched/Unchurched) in congregations (a significant measure of missional effectiveness); an ongoing decline in youth involvement coupled with rising average age of attendees.
Very significantly, and very obviously, in schools, universities and Governments there has been an ongoing decline in Christian influence in society. This is caused by the decades long decline in the SALT Index. That is the ratio of the number of active Christians in any societal area to the population of the same area. A basic Question for the design of future missional strategies that should be, but I see little evidence that it has been, asked is-
1. ’What percentage increase in ‘Newcomers’ is required per year to just to maintain the value of the SALT Index in the face of rapid population growth?
Based on Australian population growth between 2000 (18M) and 2020 (25M), there has been a 40% population increase in 20 years. So on average, just to maintain the status quo, each congregation must have grown by 2% each year every year, and specifically the 2% MUST BE Newcomers, for Transferees do not contribute to the total pool of Christians in the nation. Total membership is not a relevant figure in this context.
Of course, in some places a congregation will claim to be bucking the trend with growth in new members. However, when such a claim is made it is rarely subject to honest Critical Analysis as to the reality of the ‘growth’ and it is important to ask this rarely asked ‘Uncomfortable’ Question-
2. ‘Where did the new members come from?’
While there are rare exceptions, the answer is nearly always ‘they are transferees from another congregation elsewhere’, either from people moving into the area or having been ‘poached’ from a nearby congregation. Such ‘growth’ is not missional fruit, nor Kingdom growth but an example of the ‘Transferee Mirage’.
Another Uncomfortable Question that every congregation should have regularly asked is-
3. ‘What proportion of our resources, human and financial, are used for ministry to the congregation and how much to local mission?’
The answer to that Question will usually show that however much a congregation talks about local Mission, its use of resources is usually heavily skewed to other non-missional priorities (as much as 90%).
In terms of missional strategies, the Pre-Covid church mostly majored on reinventing the Square Wheel, that is the repeated use of strategies (often re-badged but usually invented in the 1990s) that didn’t work very well when used last time, or even the time before that!
Uncomfortable Question 4 that should have been asked is-
4. ‘How many Newcomers (unchurched/de-churched) did our largely Square Wheel missional activities actually produce?’
Lockdown – An Opportunity
At the height of the Covid pandemic the Church’s ‘Business model’ was shut down, with large gatherings not possible. A number of things followed.
Firstly, Square Wheel missional activities disappeared as the ‘SIC’ platform went into hibernation.
Secondly, and very importantly, the Church didn’t die but generally morphed into networks of small groups, Zoom groups and House churches. With this came a stunning realization- Wow! There are other ways of doing church! It also shows a vital characteristic of the Church when you strip away its buildings – An ability to change – and quickly!
This realization should not have really been that much of a shock. One only has to look at the Church over the centuries – the early Church which comprised networks of small House churches; the Missional Community plants of Celtic missionaries; John Wesley’s ‘Classes’; or the Network churches around the World today.
Thirdly, the Covid shutdown provided a golden opportunity to re-evaluate and critically analyse the well documented chronic missional failure.
Questions 5, 6, 7 and 8 that ‘shutdown’ time could have been used to ask, and brutally and honestly answer, are-
5. ‘Why do our ‘SIC’ platform missional efforts chronically and consistently fail?’
6. ‘What can we learn from how we have ‘done Church’ in this time of forced change? (Think small, flexible, cheap)
7. Are we really prepared to make the significant and painful changes that actually may have the prospect of being much more missionally fruitful?’
Emergence – A Fork in the Road
‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing,
you will keep on getting what you have been getting!’
As the Church emerges from its Covid-forced reinvention, it is faced with a choice, a fork in the road which begs Question –
8. ‘Which prong of the fork should we take’?
The first option is to jump back onto the business-as-usual ‘Down Escalator’ the western Church has been on for decades. Tragically this appears for the most part the direction chosen, for all the evidence is that there has been a focus on getting back to ‘Church’, that is to the resource-devouring, low fruit ‘SIC’ platform.
Worst of all, resource-consuming Square Wheels now seem to be sprouting again! Various recent examples of this can be seen in the church press and on websites which laud the building of costly new ‘SIC’ model facilities, complete with expensive staff teams, and the resurgence of ‘new’ 1990s type ‘church’, not community-penetrating, In-Drag activities.
Slow to establish, and even slower to multiply, the still relatively expensive Classic Church Planting strategies also seem to continue unabated.
All these are the result of a complete lack of Critical Analysis of the traditional ‘SIC’ model which would show that, while there may be some localised ‘success’, it is a missional platform that is not remotely capable of reversing the decline trends.
A serious Critical Analysis of the mathematics of the decline trends shows that the sheer number of new Christian fellowships needed is simply unattainable by the ‘SIC’ platform model, if for no other reason than it is totally unaffordable. So another, what might be called the ‘Go Figure’, Question that needs to be asked is-
9. ‘In the context of now generational failure of missional strategies, why would we rush back to continuing with those same strategies?’
And, finally the last three Questions we should ask are-
10. ‘Today’s ‘SIC’ model of Church developed in and was primarily designed for the pastoral maintenance of Christian congregations in Christianized European communities. Can we seriously believe that it will be appropriate for 21st century mission to a neo-pagan society in the throes of a cultural Mega-Shift?’
11. Could it be that the Covid-enforced metamorphosis of Church is a once in many generations, God-given opportunity to go back to Biblical basics for Christian Community (i.e. Church) in order to produce more fruitful local mission?
12. Which ‘Fork in the road’ will we take?
The answer to the last Question must surely be encapsulated by the phrase ‘Carpe Diem’. That is to Seize the Day of Opportunity provided by Covid 19. For at least an outline of a possibly far more missionally fruitful alternative has been sketched by the Covid-forced small group ‘Church’ that appeared almost overnight.
Whatever the details, a ‘Church’ for the Mega Shift must require few paid staff and not need expensive buildings. Both of which, whether we like it or not, make the ‘SIC’ model unviable in the future.
To establish such a Church for the Mega-Shift will mean applying the results of what has been learned about doing ‘Church’ differently and taking the decision to shoulder the undoubtedly significant pain of reinvention for a creative, more missionally effective future which at least has some possibility of saving it.
In the peerless wosdom wisdom of Haw once more-
“If you do not change you can become extinct”