The Future of the Church: change or die

I had a striking dream the other night in which I found myself putting a Bible, a cross and a picture of Jesus in a rubbish bin during worship.  As I pondered the meaning of this dream, I found myself considering the death of the church.

In a recent article in The Age (“Why Western Christianity has a Death Wish,” Sept. 18), Tim Stanley wrote,” The truth is that Western Christianity isn’t dying out from natural causes or murder; it’s committing suicide.”  He wrote of a Christianity that is weak, not in the sense of bloodied and bruised by combat, but weak as in submissive, and criticised its leaders for having transformed a faith, which only has extended as far as it did through preaching and martyrdom, into something anxious and introspective.

“Make no mistake,” warned Mr. Stanley,  “this isn’t a debate about Left vs Right in Church politics; there’s room for both. No, it’s about whether the Church talks chiefly about man or about God; whether Christians have a distinct message at all. 

When the Rev. Hamish Christie-Johnston was moderator of the Victorian Synod, he spoke at my church and shared his opinion that the church in its current form will die, but he also expressed faith that it would be born again in a different form.  The image of the phoenix comes to mind. 

Mr. Christie-Johnston’s opinion is supported by our knowledge of the life cycle of organisations, which we see most clearly at the congregational level. A congregation grows quickly at the start, driven by excitement of the new, then the growth rate eases as before finally levelling off at the mature stage.  If redefining changes are made before the growth stops, it is possible to keep it going, but by the time the congregation’s size becomes stable, it becomes harder to recapture growth and the opportunity is lost and ultimate death becomes more probable.  Once the growth rate becomes sufficiently negative, death is unlikely to be avoided.  

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What applies to congregational life must also apply to the whole church, although the application is certainly more complex. Being inherently a conservative institution, the church has been less likely than most organisations to make the changes required to renew itself.  The longer such changes are avoided, the more radical they must be in order to reconstitute life, until the degree of change become practically impossible, especially given that the actual death of the church will not likely happen in the lifetime of its adherents.  (It’s a bit like climate change: Why should I change my life style? The ecosystem is not going to collapse until after I’m gone.)   

But ideas and practices formed 2000 years ago are difficult to ‘sell’ to a 21st century people.  Perhaps this is why today’s church seems to prosper in the developing nations, but is in decline in Europe, North America and Australia.

Before he died, one of my mentors and one of the authors of the Basis of Union, Rev. Prof. Robert Anderson talked to me about the changes he thought were needed in the church.  The critical aspect, he believed, was to foster an image of God more relevant to the experiences of a modern, educated person. I agree (see “G-O-D” elsewhere in “Word of the Word”). Once we allow people to have an image of God congruent with their own experiences, the teachings of Jesus will begin to make more practical sense for life in this world, and the hope derived from this will enable a reimagining of the world and the start of action to create this vision.

That which follows is a rather blunt assessment of the church; nevertheless, there is a vanguard among church members that carries the seeds of a new beginning, so I am not pessimistic about the long-term future of the church.  However, the existing structure probably must die in order to make room for the new.

My love of alliteration probably will result in the omission of some important aspects, but here are my Seven deadly Sins that eat away at the health of the church, all beginning with S, of course.

Sabbath (Sunday) Focus:  For most people, ‘church’ is what happens on Sunday, yet for the vast majority of our society, Sunday has become a day for so many other things that the church has been pushed well down the priority list.  Even for most church members, ‘church’ is limited to Sunday mornings.  In the tradition of the Church, we gather to celebrate (mostly for an hour on Sunday mornings), but it rarely carries the mood of celebration.  In fact, even if people saw it as a celebration, they would be hard-pressed to identify what they are celebrating in a way that makes celebration a reality for them.  The form of worship is not a big issue; more important is a reason to celebrate.

Social Club Function:  For most people the deciding factor that brings them to church on any given occasion is the web of friendships formed there. This is not a bad thing, but it makes the church no different from any other community organisation. With so many organisations from which to choose as a social outlet, is it any wonder that church membership has decreased?  We need another reason for gathering not offered by secular organisations. We need to be Special.

Scientific Challenge:  Many people imagine a contradiction between the tenets of the Church and the description of reality through science, and this is a challenge that, for educated people, science will always win, as it should. I use the word ‘imagine’ because any argument between real science and true Christianity is imaginary. I have always believed (with Rene Descartes), that which our faith perceives is above, but is not contrary to, what our senses perceive. In other words, there must be no discontinuity between the facts science brings to light and the beliefs faith reveals. 

Separation of church and state:  This phrase properly pertains to the protection of the church from the government, but has been interpreted by many to mean that the world of politics should be kept out of church. Yet, when the church is barred by its own members from involvement in the political world, it is shut out from the process by which human beings order their lives, and so becomes irrelevant in practical, everyday human affairs.  

Secularisation:  Once upon a time, not so long ago, the church was one of the major centres of our society.  It played a large role in starting public education, hospitals and aged care, and was the social hub of the community. Almost nothing else happened on Sundays except church activities, and it served as the conscience of the community, especially in areas such as family violence, neglect of children, and inappropriate use of gambling, drugs, alcohol and other human vices.  Today, church has been driven to the fringe of modern society.  It struggles to find a role and voice, and its functions in society have been largely been assumed by secular organisations.  

Sectarianism:  The separation of the Church into smaller churches has been a problem almost from the beginning.  When the church was thriving, it didn’t matter so much, but particularly in a culture which has seen mushrooming polarisation in politics, economics and religious beliefs, the partition of the church only serves to weaken it.  

Self-Focussed Salvation: How do I get to heaven?  Is there life after death? These questions give rise to the comment that Christians “are so heavenly-minded, they are no earthly good.” Fortunately, it is not a universally-accurate comment, but it has ring of truth. If Jesus was asked these questions, he probably would reply, “It is the wrong question,” because the moment one’s concern goes to oneself, the ‘eternal life’ Jesus proclaimed is out of reach.  

Perhaps due to inflation, the Seven Sins have become eight as I write this, with the addition of…

Structural and Statutory Baggage: Tradition, guidelines, leadership are all good things to have (in their place), but there is an unfortunate tendency for the structures we create to take on minds of their own, and become the “principalities and powers” of which St. Paul wrote. The weight of dogma, ‘thou shalt nots’, the politics of hierarchical power and old fashioned orthodoxy may be a security blanket for many, but they undermine and constrain the idea, captured in the title of a book by biblical scholar Ernst Kasemann, Jesus Means Freedom. In practice this baggage denies the church the nimbleness and freedom of creative thought needed to adapt to the needs of people in a fast-changing world.

If we imagine the church with which we are left as a human being, (s)he would look every bit of her/his 2000 or so years: dried up, wrinkled and hairless, dim of sight and hearing, physically unable to move or shift direction quickly, brain function impaired my hardening of the arteries and/or Alzheimers, no longer having the appetite for food, drink, sex or any of the other joys of life, and more concerned about her/his many aches and pains than imagining the future.  In fact, from every perspective, euthanasia would seem to be the best option.  Just as the life of the church began with the death of Jesus, so the new life of the church might not happen until the old one is gone.

What will arise from the ashes? If the neo-church is to avoid the ‘sins’ above that helped kill it, we will see groups of people who have once again latched on to the core of Jesus’ message, followed it to the experience of  ‘eternal’ life, and who have become such an effective witness to this new life that others are drawn in.

In becoming again ‘people of the way’ (as early Christians were known), they will recognise the way as too hard to follow alone, and will seek support of their ‘community’ for help in coming to the degree of self-awareness that Jesus termed ‘perfect’ (meaning whole, complete), and daring to give their whole selves over to loving, in the most general sense, to the extent that their own lives cease to be a source of concern.  

There will be no institution or dogma, for these are self-focussed means of exercising power over, and controlling others, which true ‘people of the way’ will shun.  The emphasis will be on groups small enough to allow for mutual openness and vulnerability.  These People of the Way may find so much joy in their life and fellowship that they choose to rejoice with other similar groups, but this celebration of thanksgiving will be a secondary activity, for real ‘church’ will be happening in the frequent meetings of the individual groups. Chances are, this ‘worship” won’t be on a defined day, for there will be no institutionalised sabbath.  These small groups also may link with others to accomplish tasks in the community that requires resources not available to one group, or to bring pressure on government or business in order to stand beside the powerless or disadvantaged of society. 

I imagine the new followers of the teachings of Jesus will not even bother with a name for their movement, for again, names are self-focussed.  And because they have no form of self-centredness, there will also be no sense of otherness applied to people or groups outside their own; no competition for members, no fear of the other, no ‘us vs. them’ mentality; just a recognition of the common humanity of all people.

I wish I could be around to see it.

What to do about it? Click here for thoughts on growing the congregation

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