”This is not a gentle decline. It is a Bus hurtling over a cliff’.
It is of the essence of the Christian faith that Christians are essentially optimists even when as now, in human terms, there appears to be not much going on in the world to encourage optimism. However, a Christian’s optimism is not based on contemporary events or circumstances but on their relationship with God through Christ. For we know who we are, why we are here, who has our back, and that we have a certain unlosable destiny no matter, to quote Hamlet, what ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ life may throw at us.
However, we must admit that our optimism is sorely tested at times. For example, for a while I was optimistic that the forced Covid-induced shutdowns of ‘normal church’, and the consequential formation of small group churches either in virtual meetings or in small house groups would show that ‘church’ can be done legitimately in other and creative ways; indeed as it has been done down the centuries. This optimism hoped that this would cause congregations and their leaders to rethink how ‘new’ (in reality, actually old) forms of church could be created that would be more culturally-appropriate and missionally fruitful for 21st century mission to Australian society.
O vain hope! That optimism that was soon shown to be little more than an ephemeral mist blown away by the rushing wind of a ‘let’s get back to business as usual’ mindset.
Then out of the ashes of that disappointment, hope Phoenix-like rose once more with the recent release of the 2021 National Census statistics on religious affiliation that I discussed in my last post How Long O Lord?
That data, described by the author and journalist Greg Sheridan as indicative of“Not a gentle decline. It is a Bus hurtling over a cliff”, was so dismal that I thought surely there would be an awakening among Christian leaders as to the state of Christianity in Australia that would at last cause a rethink as to what Church is and how local Mission should be carried out.
However, rather than Phoenix rising, and sadly not surprisingly, it has been on the downside of dispiriting to observe the responses by many Christian Leaders and those with significant influence in the Australian Church. Here are just a few of them to make my point.
It’s not really that bad!
One respected author and commentator expressed the view that the decline in Christian affiliation was just due to ‘nominals’ falling away, and then made the staggering claim that there was still a core of genuine, committed Christians who truly trusted in Jesus of around 25% of the population.
The same respondent also expressed the view that this Core would remain when all the nominals no longer retained any sense of Christian affiliation, and then asserted that from that point the number of Christians would begin to grow again, but there is simply no evidence for any such claims. That there is a Core of strong faith Christians of around 25% in Australia when the fact is that only about 2% regularly turn up on Sundays quite frankly defies belief.
Yes, it is true that ‘there are people becoming Christians all over the country’, and praise God for that! However, there are not remotely enough to reverse current trends, with the NCLS data showing that the number of unchurched and de-churched people joining congregations is in a decades long decline. The idea that, once having shed all the nominals, the true Christian cohort would magically start to grow again is a ‘she’ll be right’ fancy.
The reality is that, while I am sure the above claims are made with a genuine and sincere heart to see the church grow and intended to paint an encouraging picture that things are not as bad as they seem, such assertions are misleading and would seem to be firmly in the realm of wishful thinking with no evidential basis.
It’s the Vibe!
Another commentator on the ABS release, a researcher very involved in the area of Church data, seemed to propose that, despite the data, and with apologies to the ‘Castle’ movie, we should be encouraged by ‘The Vibe’. That is that there is still a spiritual ‘Vibe’ in the nation, a spiritual feeling in many who are not atheists and, while not claiming to be Christian, are open to spiritual things.
That may be true but this ‘openness’ is not a new thing, it has been claimed for many years but, even if it is true, the Church has not been able to tap into it as a mine for new disciples. To believe it can somehow in the future can only be an exercise in wishful thinking.
The same respondent also is quoted as saying that we should not assume that those who don’t tick the Christian box are closed or hostile to Christianity, but yet again, all the evidence is that the fact is that there is actually a growing hostility to Christians and Christianity; something increasingly evident in the media (print and electronic), in universities, in schools and in the renewed push to remove the Lord’s Prayer from the opening of the Parliamentary day. The Vibe is not some gentle pool of spirituality and openness, in fact the contrary is true.
As Pastor Stephen McAlpine is quoted as saying, , Christians are now in a
“Hostile Babylon, where they confront a state and culture uninterested in their ideas, determined instead to bludgeon them into submission”
The denial of rising hostility seems to be another example of an understandable attempt to be encouraging with a ‘things aren’t as bad as they seem’ response to bad data, but it again distracts from reality.
All you need is Love.
Then there is what I call the ‘Beatles’ response which has been the response of many. This, while not denying the data and expressed in different ways, amounts to a strategy, if it indeed it can be called a strategy, of offering unconditional love to non-Christian Australians. The thinking is that even if we are not making disciples, we can at least continue to love the increasing number who don’t tick the Christian census box.
Of course, loving the lost has always been part of Christian witness as a reflection of God’s nature, and is the exhortation of the second great commandment. Indeed, one of the observations the Romans made, even while persecuting the Church, was ‘How these Christians love each other’.
The problem is that loving is only part of the Christian mandate, which includes making disciples. Given the current trajectory, unless the church quickly starts making disciples in much greater numbers it will effectively die out numerically and ironically as a vehicle of God’s love.
The Sound of Silence
Then there is the Sound of Silence, not Simon and Garfunkel’s, but silence from the pulpits. My current straw poll of congregational members from a range of different denominational churches has yet to reveal even one minister who had raised the ‘Bus hurtling over the cliff’ take out from the ABS census. This means that church members, apart from the few who have picked up on media releases, are ignorant of the parlous state of the Church, and are not engaged in any discussion on what should be done.
The examples above all relate to the issue of what I call the ‘Biggest Elephant’ in the Missions Operations room, namely that of Leadership. It is only Leadership that can develop the urgently needed creative, culturally appropriate forms of Church and Missional strategies that can be more missionally effective in Australian society.
The responses to the ABS data we have cited above, and many others that can be mentioned, do nothing to encourage the drastic, and urgently needed, rethink on how the Christian body should do Church and Mission to reverse the catastrophic, census-revealed realities.
It is of course true, as Sheridan again puts it, that-
“Christianity . . . has shown a genius in the past for bouncing back” but he follows that with-
“This always takes courage, resolution, shrewdness, innovation. New missions
for new times” (my emphasis).
However, as appears to be currently the case, when Christian leaders and influencers won’t or can’t face the real issues; hide behind a shield of rationalizations and Micawberish ‘something will turn up’ wishful thinking, there is minimal to zero hope of creating the “New missions for new times”that may bring urgently needed improvement in missional effectiveness or any reversal in the currently negative trends of all Church health metrics.
So, sadly, once again there would appear to be little reason for optimism in regard to any prospect of “courage, resolution, shrewdness, innovation” , when congregational leaders won’t even raise the ‘approaching cliff’ issue with their congregations.
So, what needs to happen?
- There is an urgent need for Acknowledgement of the approaching cliff, especially by those in leadership positions or having influence in the Christian Church.
- There needs to be communication of what is an ‘Existential Crisis’ to, and discussion with, the Christian body, i.e. congregations.
- There needs to be, using the lens of the New Testament, an honest rethink about what Church is and what Mission needs to be in today’s Australian society. As Darrell L Guder said (unbelievably more than twenty years ago)–
“The current predicament of churches . . . . . . . requires more than a mere tinkering with long-assumed notions about the identity and mission of the church.”
- There needs to be an energetic development of strategies for “New missions for new times”.
- There needs to be redirection of resources away from the, long failing, Sunday-centric model to the new missional ventures.
Not Love on its own, nor the Vibe, nor a ‘She’ll Be Right’ wishful thinking or Pulpit Silence will change the reality that ‘The Bus is hurtling towards the cliff’.
The question is – Who will grab the steering wheel and turn it?