One night as I drove home, I heard an interview with Margaret Heffernan about her then new book, Wilful Blindness. As she explained the premise of her book it occurred to me that we, the church, suffer from this phenomena. Wilful blindness can be seen in marriages (why did she never ask about all those business trips?), in hospitals (why did he skip his check-ups?) and in boardrooms (why did nobody question those deals?). Indeed it can be seen in every walk of life. And I think it explains what’s going on in the church.
For over two decades researchers from the National Church Life Survey, among others, have been telling us that unless we change drastically, church decline will become terminal by around 2020. The researchers were vilified when their first results were published and yet, with very few exceptions, mainline Christian denominations in Australia, the UCA included, have continued to age and decline. And we’re still not doing anything significant about it.
Yes, we talk about it a lot. We tinker around the edges of worship; we even talk the language of emerging church and fresh expressions. But we continue to do what we’ve always done but with fewer and fewer people, and little or no hope. We continue to behave like a church that is considerably bigger and more influential than it is; we continue to place almost all our time and energy and resourcing on Sunday worship despite the fact that we know that any newcomers are most likely transfers from another congregation or denomination.
In recent years we have been given some great ideas about how we can become more relevant to the changed world in which we live. One of those ideas comes out of the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK. A whole-of-church initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church, Fresh Expressions are a form of church established for the benefit of people who are not members of any church. Fresh Expressions are not about the existing church revamping what it is already doing, or changing worship styles or adding in Godly Play.
Such things are simply appealing to people who already have a connection with the church — it used to be called ‘sheep stealing’.
Fresh Expressions serve those outside the church; listen to people and enter their culture; build relationships without agenda which may result in opportunities to share the gospel. Unfortunately quite a few people have adopted the language of ‘Fresh Expressions of church,’ then use the label to cover just about everything. But the important thing is intention: when a new mission project or group begins, what is the intention? If it is to work towards establishing a new community or congregation especially for those who have never been involved in church (un-churched) or once were, but left for whatever reason (de-churched), then it is a fresh expression of church in the making.
We have the capacity to change the future, but do we have the courage?
We may think being blind makes us safer, but in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable and powerless. But when we confront our fears and facts, we can unleash our capacity for change.
Do we have the nerve? If you want to find out more about Fresh Expressions of church, you can go to the Fresh Expressions website http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk.
Karyl Davison, team leader of the Eaton/Millbridge Project, an Fresh Expression of church in the Wellington Regional Mission.