It is the first Sunday of the new year; Christmas 21 is now a fading image in the rear-view mirror of time’s flow. Churches ‘were packed’ according to a Channel Nine news report. Except that while some were, many were not, as a little enquiry will reveal. In any case, it has been my experience that Christmas attendance bears very little relationship to weekly attendance in the following year.
One thing that is true however, is that at this time of year the normal busyness of life, including ‘Church’ life, slows down and gives the opportunity for reflection on where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. I wonder whether the ‘Church’ and its networks of congregations will use this time for such reflection? Previous years’ opportunities for Reflection do not inspire confidence.
Such news headlines as ‘Worshippers pack Christmas church services’ give false hope given the decades-long attendance decline, where weekly attenders, many (although not all) of whom it is reasonable to assume are likely to be the most committed, number only about 2% of the population.
This brings me to a very important, yet regrettably little discussed, Reality which should be seriously reflected upon by those who are truly committed to Christ and His mission rather than ‘Church’, the Reality that-
We are now a ‘Remnant’
and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Why is this so important? The reason is that this Reality should reshape our understanding and practice of Church and Mission to our society.
There is a theme running through the biblical narrative (also in the history of the Church) that particularly becomes evident in God’s actions at key points in the history of His plan of salvation. The theme is that of ‘The ‘Remnant’. The dictionary meaning of the word ‘Remnant’ is-
‘a part or quantity that is left after the greater part has been . . . . removed, or destroyed’
In the biblical story the concept of the ‘Remnant’ appears at a number of times of great ungodliness when God’s people have mixed the worship of Yahweh (God) with that of other pagan ‘gods’, and where society has become characterized by injustice and unrighteousness, particularly by the elites. God’s response is often to remove and or destroy most of the people who had corrupted their faith, just keeping and setting aside a ‘‘Remnant’’; that is an often relatively small group of people to continue His work.
Arguably, the first group of people who can be described as a ‘Remnant’ are Noah and his family in Genesis 6:5. In a time when-
‘The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’
In response to that, God extracted from the midst of a sea of unrighteousness just Noah and his family as a righteous ‘Remnant’, whom He protected in the Ark while destroying the rest of the society.
A second example of ‘The ‘Remnant’’ is in the time of Elijah, when the society of the northern Kingdom of Israel had been seduced into mixing the worship of God with the pagan ‘gods’ introduced by the Queen Jezebel, the great proponent of the Baal cult. Again, it was a time of great ungodliness, abuse of the poor by the Elites and corrupted worship.
The faithful prophet Elijah flees from Jezebel, who has put a Contract out on his life, and hides in a cave in the desert to escape the pursuing army of the Queen. There, in utter despair, he complains bitterly to God that only he, Elijah, was left, and now his life too was under threat, and so he asked God to just let him die.
However, the fact was that Elijah was not the ‘only one left’ for God had reserved a ‘‘Remnant’’ of 7000 faithful people that had not bowed the knee to the Baal ‘gods’ (1 Kings 19:18). Here is encouragement for those who grieve the state of the Church today, that even when things look blackest, the Big Picture is that God always keeps a ‘‘Remnant’’, those whom He sets aside to continue his work.
A further example of ‘The ‘Remnant’’ is that of the Babylonian exile. In the early 6th century BC after years of ignoring the warnings of the prophets regarding the worship of the ’gods’ of the age and the apostasy of His people, the breaching of the Law and the disregard of His expectation of righteousness and justice, God allowed the Babylonian army to occupy and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, the centre of the Israelite Faith.
Most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were killed or dispersed to other nations, but one particular group were taken into captivity in Babylon itself. It was this group that, as the ‘‘Remnant’’, God intended to use to restore Jerusalem. Seventy years after the captivity a group of the Babylonian ‘‘Remnant’’ lead by Nehemiah returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.
More recent examples of the ‘Remnant’ occur in several former Soviet Union countries as well as in Iran and Afghanistan where Christians have been greatly persecuted and their numbers reduced to a very few. In particular, the ‘Remnant’ in Afghanistan live under the constant threat of ‘Convert to Islam, leave, or be killed’.
‘Remnant’ is Us
Modern Australia was founded as a basically, if loosely, Christianized nation, a fact that governed it’s laws, its Constitution, and the world view of its population (96% of Australians that signed up for the armed forces in World War One stated their religion as Christian). However, Australia in 2022 is now fractured into a pluralistic nation of neo-pagan tribes (many of which worship the Unholy Trinity i.e. Materialism, Consumerism and Hedonism), in which the committed faithful are reduced to a very few, indeed a ‘Remnant’.
Some of the characteristics of a ‘Remnant’ environment are- that the Church is small minority; experiences varying degrees of hostility, sometimes violent (fortunately not so far in Australia); is pushed to the periphery of society; and lacks political power and influence. It should be noted that all these characteristics are the very opposite of those which applied to the Church in the previously Christendom, or at least Christianized, countries of the West up to the last century.
Sadly, this fact is one that seems for the most part to escape church leaderships across the country, whether wilfully or through a failure of critical thinking. The lack of such critical thinking allows the continuing delusion (or even pretence) that we still live in a Christianized society where people just need a little encouragement, through ‘Square Wheel (Click here) Activities’ (i.e. the ones that didn’t work that well last we tried them), and then they will come along to ‘Church’. However, decades-worth of statistics exposes this to be a delusion.
Why is the acceptance of the Reality that ‘We are a Remnant’ so important? It is because that such a Reality must shape how we do ‘Church’ and ‘mission’. This requires certain things to be taken into account.
Firstly, to state what should be quite obvious, the ‘Remnant’ and its leaderships must embrace the fact that ‘We are a Remnant’ in a society that has rejected its Christian origins.
Secondly, a highly relevant fact for consideration is that there are few if any examples of a ‘Remnant’ Church that has ever used a model that involved expensive buildings and expensively paid staff. Such a model is simply unaffordable and impracticable in a ‘Remnant’ context.
Thirdly, is the contemporary Missional landscape. This is one where faithful Christians are a shrinking minority set in the midst of a former Christianized society that has (since the 1960’s) been swamped by waves of neo-paganism; in which a Diabolical battle is being waged (Indeed now effectively won) in Universities, Schools and Parliaments to control the levers of power, a battle with which the institutional Church has failed to engage in any serious way. Indeed, as Melvin Tinkler has put it-
‘As the Judeo-Christian foundations of the West are being eroded, the Church sleeps’
Fourthly, in the Australian context, the reality of the previous point should drive the search for the development of creative and visionary ‘Remnant’-mission models, ones that will clearly be ‘Something Completely Different’ (Download here) from the centuries old, Sunday-Centric Christendom model. This also, despite the usual denial of proponents, includes most Church Plants that only meet on Sunday (or indeed any other single day of the week for that matter).
Fifthly, The ‘Remnant’ Church of the future will have few resources and so missional strategies must be very low cost. This something the current paid staff, funded building model is most certainly not.
One of the most important factors in any reflection of missional strategy, one which the Church desperately needs, but consistently fails, to grasp, is that we live at a Unique time in western society- a Uniqueness marked by one single characteristic –‘Rapid Cultural Change’. It is a time in which we are seeing the slow-motion collapse of western civilization, a civilization founded on and shaped by a Christendom that is now but a distant echo; yet a time in which, as Tinkler says, “the Church sleeps”.
So as we step onto the bare as yet untraversed stage that is 2022 it is a time for deep reflection. The question is, on that stage what drama will the Christian body play out? Will it continue to be more like a perpetual re-run of the Dying Swan Ballet? Or will it acknowledge and confess Reality; the Reality that it is now a ‘Remnant’ in a God-rejecting, hostile sea of neo-paganism (in which it has little to no influence in human terms); seek to allow that Reality to reshape how it views itself and its missional challenge in a neo-pagan society and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of decades long missional failure.
For, as we step over the threshold of year’s beginning, for the sake of the destiny of the vast majority of our compatriots, and the health of the nation, there is no more urgent question to not only be asked, but answered.