lifecycle

A change of strategy — from failing institution to committed minority

Greg sheridan 

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of the Australian newspaper, and a Catholic, has some advice for Christian churches.

Face reality — you are now in the minority. 

In Western Europe, on the east and west coasts of the US, and in Australia, the new religion of aggressive secularism is on the rise, more self-confident and fundamentalist than ever.

Widespread, prolonged affluence has been more effective than oppression ever was in killing religious belief and practice.

You’ve been fighting a losing battle for 120 years.

Across the past 120 years, the Christian churches in Europe and Australia have lost every significant, long-term battle about social norms and legal measures to underpin them.

In these 120 years no victory was ever more than a temporary slowdown in secularism. While there seemed to be many tactical wins, the war was lost. In each case, the church misunderstood the extent and nature of its support and the long-term threat it faced.

The battles were lost because of a losing strategy.

They remind me of South Vietnam’s government in 1974. It over-estimated its strength and tried to hang on to all of its territory, including the long narrow neck of its north. It did not retreat to its formidable heartland in the south, which would have been vastly more defensible. Had it done so, it might have survived. Instead, the next year, the armoured divisions of North Vietnam invaded and Saigon lost everything.

Historic churches are most in danger.

The established churches are gentle institutions in a long, gentle decline. The Anglican Church in England shows the way. It has hung on to its status as the established church. Its bishops still sit in the House of Lords. It owns some of the most splendid buildings in Europe and is associated with the most prestigious institutions of its nation. It would say that it is involved in a respectful dialogue with contemporary society. Yet barely 700,000 English Anglicans, a trace over 1 per cent of the population, go to church on Sundays. It is dying

Christian churches must become a self-confident committed minorities.

The Christian churches now need to reconceive of themselves as representing a distinct and not all that big minority (of practising Christians). They should conduct themselves as a self-confident minority, seeking to win conversion through example and persuasion and not to defend endlessly legal protections and enforcements that are increasingly untenable or meaningless.

Here’s an example. . .

Recently Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was willing to hear a complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart for circulating a pamphlet which upheld the view that marriage is between a man and a woman. The complaint was eventually dropped. But what should the Catholic church do if the complaint had gone ahead?

If the churches saw themselves as a strong minority with clear values under attack they might respond differently.

A robust archbishop leading a self-confident community that believed in its future might respond to the attack on Don’t Mess with Marriage by finding the most public square available in Hobart and reading the document out in full, then instructing all the priests in his diocese to read it from the pulpit on Sunday.

Would the commission prosecute them all?

We can no longer regard ourselves as a powerful institution of society. We must rediscover who we are as a confident, committed minority. That’s what movements do.

You foolish Lilydalians

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Matt Glover, freelance cartoonist and pastor, is an advocate for same-sex unions.

His church, Lilydale Baptist, is in turmoil. They've only just found out via this gay website or maybe this one?

A church meeting to deal with the issue was cancelled a few days ago. A newspaper report states confidently that Pastor Matt has the numbers.

I'd be surprised.

Matt assured the reporter that his church members were not "homophobic," just a bit uptight about public displays of affection between gay couples."

[Ed. I suppose if any church members were "homophobic" they may need psychiatric treatment. Homophobia is not to be confused with homilophobia (fear of sermons) or homichlophobia (fear of fog), or hobophobia (fear of beggars). Anyway, let's hope there's counselling and medication available for any sufferers out there].

I remember Lylidale Baptist as a thriving evangelical church of around 400 people, once active in planting churches like this one.

The article states that "Lilydale Baptist has a strong community presence, offering financial services, counselling, an opportunity shop [pictured above], cafe, food bank and welfare assistance. Besides the usual youth and play groups, it has a Burmese congregation and a Tuesday night meeting of 'hard-core'' music fans."

All these ministries were set up before Matt arrived by previous pastors who were evangelical.

Lilydale Baptist is in trouble. Expect the church community shrink, and the ministries above to become unsustainable, if they aren't already.

The tragedy is, this was all avoidable.

If you want to know what decline and decay looks like at a local church level, this is it. This story is being played out all around the western world, in mainstream churches, missional churches, theological seminaries, and denominational headquarters. The drift starts with the clergy who are less likely to uphold biblical orthodoxy than ordinary disciples.

Matt is not the only well known Baptist leader who has come out publicly in support of gay marriage. What has happened at Lilydale is part of a general trend in the local denominational leadership.

The slide gains momentum because nobody wants to admit there's an elephant in the room.

Decline and decay is always the result. There may be a time lag. But there are no exceptions.

You foolish Lilydalians. Get back to basics.

UPDATE

The Baptist Union of Australia has made it's position clear by defining marriage as  the union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life, although not all Baptist pastors, college lecturers and denominational executives agree.

UPDATE

Paul Kelly, editor of the Australian, on the political and social agenda behind the push for "marriage equality."

UPDATE

Rev Matt Glover is no longer the minister at Lilydale Baptist Church. The Age newspaper reports that he had been "sacked" at a "secret meeting." Rev Andrew Woff, acting Director of Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria (BUV), denied Rev Glover had been sacked. Although Woff agreed the process was not "all fair." On behalf of the BUV, Woff stated, "He [Glover] is a competent and gifted minister, and there is no reason he can't be called by another church."

So where does the BUV stand on same-sex unions?

Drifting in calm waters

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Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.

Blaise Pascal

I caught up with an old friend a few years ago over coffee. He confided in me that he wasn’t sure if he believed in hell any more. He was a church leader with an evangelical background. He didn’t seem concerned. After all, he told me, it could have been worse—he knew a church leader who wasn't sure if he believed in heaven any more.

Over time, movements tend to plateau, institutionalize and decline. At the heart of their demise is often a drift to a more secular faith that is led by religious professionals.

By "secularized" I mean that this life becomes more important than the world to come. Conceptions of God become vague and distant. Moral restrictions on members are relaxed and, the exclusive claim to truth is surrendered (see Stark and Finke).

It strikes me as curious that we would take upon ourselves the right to exchange biblical beliefs that no longer suit us. As though we had the power in ourselves to determine what is true and what is right.

At a whim we abolish heaven and hell. We recast the image of God in our own likeness. We sit in judgement on scripture rather than let it judge us. We redefine sin and remove the need for the Cross.

Worst of all, is the harmony carefully preserved within Christian movements as they calmly drift from the gospel.

Those wobbling bishops

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The Ugly Vicar explains the dynamics of how church leaders come to undermine the very beliefs and values they are called to uphold.

Note the public silence of key moral issues until they build a consensus to change rules and regulations.

The only effective response to this undermining of the Christian faith? — radical principled action. Sometimes "nice" can be a health hazard.

Here are some edited highlights.

When a system — or a person — is under stress, collapse may be a long time coming, but when it comes, it tends to be abrupt rather than gradual.

What we are now seeing in the House of Bishops on the matter of homosexuality is an increasing number of ‘wobbling plates’. When they fall, though, I predict they will do so both dramatically and abruptly.

Richard John Neuhaus observed, the crucial damage is done not when orthodoxy is overthrown, but when it is included as an option.

Thus traditionalists are held together with revisionists until, such time as revisionists can “build a consensus to change rules and regulations”.

Of course, the traditionalists will never be rubbed out or ruled out — not until there are too few of them for anyone to care any longer — but the very act of establishing the consensus between orthodoxy and change establishes that only those who accept the consensus will henceforth be allowed centre place in the institution.

Why don’t wobbling bishops take a stand and openly challenge the Church, instead of sneakily undermining it?

The answer, I would have thought, is obvious. They are biding their time. But the time will certainly come.

When it does, and it cannot be far off, there is only one possible way that traditionalists can respond effectively — the way that has always most affected and changed the Church of England — and that will be radical principled action.

Issues in Human Sexuality: the bishops begin to wobble

HT: Dave Price

The life and death of Christian movements

Desert Flower
I've reflected recently about God's activity in shaping a leader through the painful experience of being unravelled: the Wall. It's a recurring pattern in the lives of leaders who finish well.

The same pattern is clearly discerned in the birth and rebirth of Christian movements. God unmakes his people in order to reshape them.

The church in the West is going through such a time.

We tend to want to project our experience on the rest of the global Christian movement. I'm not convinced. We want to foist our doubt and confusion on the church of the Global South and they're not buying it.

How do we navigate such a time? We need to understand what is going on.

God is sovereign and he chooses the times and seasons for his people. Our call is to respond with faith and surrender.

To begin with we have the world as we know it. We know what the rules are. We know what works. We know what we should do. LIfe is predictable. The world makes sense.

Then come the losses. We lose our bearings. We lose our confidence. We lose our hope. The world becomes a confusing place. Doubt and despair enter in. We find ourselves in the wilderness with no way forward and no way back.

God is powerfully at work unravelling us so that he can reform us. But we don't know it. We just feel the terror and shame of our undoing.

The wilderness is the place of danger, devils and temptation. It is also the place of profound encounter with God where we return to the heart of our faith and prepare for the promised land.

There will be a new era. God is faithful. But there will be no resurrection without a cross. No new life without death.

Looking down from the mountain

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I've just spent a day trekking through the Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. Here's a shot I took from Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings) looking out across to Mt Tongariro.

Lost the trail and wandered through the snow for an hour or so in gale force winds. Terribly irresponsible of me. But lots of fun and I lived to tell the story.

The experience made me think of two recent conversations about the increasing scarcity of church planters. . .

The first with a leader whose denomination has a strong history of multiplying new churches. He was concerned because the younger leaders in their movement aspired not to pioneering but to gaining a position on the team of the larger, successful churches.

The second conversation with a leader in another church planting movement. She and her husband have planted three churches in their ministry together. When I talked to them about helping a new generation plant churches she told me, “I not sure if I can do that. I feel they'd be ”cannon fodder“. I'd be sending them out to face possible failure.”

It's natural to want to gravitate to what is successful. It's natural to want to protect people from ‘failure'. It's also a sign that a movement is transitioning out of it's dynamic phase and beginning to settle down.

When you're at the top of the mountain, you're at the height of your success. You look back and you remember when you had nothing. You remember when you risked it for a cause you believed in. Without the resources, without the know-how. In spite of the opposition.

But now you have accomplishments to protect. Instead of thinking about risk, you think of securing what you've achieved. At that point a movement plateaus. Decline has not yet set in, but the rate of advance tapers off.

People who change the world have a cause that is worth risking everything for. Their lives become like grains of wheat that fall to the ground and die and in doing so produce much fruit. They count the cost but consider the rewards worth the risk. They keep climbing the next mountain and the next. . .

God's business

According Adele Ferguson in the Business Review Weekly:

Religion is big business in Australia. If it were a corporation, it would be one of the biggest and fastest-growing in the country, accounting for more than $23 billion in revenue in 2005, employing hundreds of thousands of staff (salaried and volunteers) and wielding unsurpassed political and social clout.

Read on. . .

The tone of the article is revealing. It portrays churches as greedy corporations and largely ignores that much of the funds raised go towards education, health and aged care and emergency relief.

The article picks up the rise of the modern Pentecostal movement and its growing financial clout. Some of the larger churches are effectively corporations with turnovers in the millions. There's also a growing trend for Pentecostals to direct their energies into the business and political worlds with increasing success.

Movements begin on the fringe and then move to the centre. Pentecostalism is moving into the cultural mainstream of Australian society. I expect Australian Pentecostalism to continue to grow and adapt much to the dismay of those on the theological and political left. If history repeats itself, eventually we'll have a Pentecostal Prime Minister. Meanwhile the secularized mainstream denominations will barely survive on external life support.

Given a generation or two, success may eventually change the Pentecostal movement. As movements shift into the mainstream they become more rational, conformist and risk adverse. Expect “How to speak in tongues” to lose out to “10 Rules for Business Success”. Expect “How to plant a church” to lose out to “Growing what we've got bigger”. Expect “brother Ted Smith” to become “Rev Dr Edward Smith”.

Plateaued movements have too big a stake in this world to worry about the next. Led by the clergy, they begin to reflect the views of the cultural and social elites.

That's the bad news. The good news is that (1) there are exceptions to this trend and (2) God is in the business of raising up new movements—on the fringe.