If the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting a different outcome, much of the Christian church can be classified as insane. We can explain our behaviour away by saying that we’re being true to our calling, but is that really the case?
Here in the Synod and Presbytery of WA we use the language of change, of being missional and contextual, but don’t have to scratch the surface much to see that we’re still doing the same things that we did 20, 30, 50 years ago. Alternatively we try to cover the church’s decline* with a layer of hope, but we don’t change anything.
And yet, if we think about what things were like back then, even only 20 years ago, it is obvious that while our lives, and the life of our communities have changed dramatically, church culture and practices have not. As a consequence, the relevance gap between the average person and the Christian church is growing increasingly wider. As Graham Horsley states, the church has not coped well with these massive changes happening around us. Too much of our restructuring hasn’t challenged our basic assumptions about church, ministry and mission. Changing policies doesn’t change our culture – and that’s what we need.
Congregations, church institutions, church leaders and church-going individuals really need to ask themselves are we really being true to the call of Jesus on our lives? Because, as I understand it, the call of Jesus is that we ‘make disciples’ which requires us to get out of the safety of our church buildings to do something other than ‘keep the doors open’ for worship.
If ‘keeping the doors open’ is the main focus of our church life, we’re not living out our call – we are simply trying to meet the spiritual needs of a small and ever shrinking club of Christians.
So, if we really want to live out our calls as followers of Jesus, I think there are some fundamental changes to be made. We need to:
- Go to where the people are – increasingly that is not in churches. Think about what your children, or your grandchildren are doing on Sunday morning? My experience is that when most churches are gathering for worship, many more people are gathering around tables in coffee shops or at the local recreation centre or sporting field.
- Listen with openness and humility. People have some very good reasons to be suspicious or hostile about the Christian church – not everyone has had the positive experience of church that you might have had.
- Stop putting all our limited people resources into keeping the doors open for worship services that cater for those who are already disciples and find ways to connect to those who are not already part of the club.
- Stop pouring money into maintaining buildings that cater for the very few and use it to create opportunities for connecting with our communities (that is people who don’t come to church).
- Find ways of joining others of goodwill in our communities – join with them rather than inviting people to join us.
- Find ways of demonstrating our faith to a community that is suspicious of the church and its motives.
- Connect with people simply because we’re interested in them rather than because we want to convert them, or get them to come to church. Try and understand their spiritual longings without forcing yours on them until eventually you can speak with each other as equals.
- Show we are Christians by acts of loving service – walk the walk, rather than talk the talk. In other words ‘Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.’
Are we really being true to the call of Jesus on our lives?
If we look at Gospel accounts of Jesus ministry, we see that Jesus spent most of his time outside the religious institutions, outside of the synagogues and the temple, sharing his life with ordinary, vulnerable, marginalised, desperate and broken people. He shared his table with unexpected people, people on the margins, not those who frequented ‘holy places’.
In the way Jesus lived his life, he modelled God’s love at least as often as he talked about God’s love. And it was love for everyone – not simply those who were already followers. And yet, many who experienced this love chose afterwards to follow Jesus.
*A survey conducted on behalf of Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, when he was president of the Uniting Church in Australia, showed a 39% decline in the number of congregations/locations in Western Australia from 1990 – 2013. We know that there has been further decline since 2013. Overall decline in attendance, across the Assembly is 40% from 1991 – 2013. Source NCLS 2013 UCA Census.