I recently was able to read the Mission Action Plan for a local Anglican church. What struck me upon reviewing the dot point list of their priorities for the immediate future was the amount of overlap with the outcomes of my home church’s Unfreeze program of five years ago. Whilst five years might seem like a long time in today’s hectic world, it’s well recognised that time within Church circles travels much more slowly, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the issues raised then are still very much current and still in need of resolution.
My church is currently discussing the future of ministry, mission and the church through a series of small in-home meetings. If my church, which is a reasonably affluent and semi-traditional protestant congregation in the middle-upper class south-east, can be challenged to think about change and the possibility of a future in which the Sunday 10am service does not loom pre-eminent, then just about any church may be similarly challenged. And it does seem that every churchman and his dog is talking about emergent ministry, the future of church and mission, and the place of faith and religion in a post-Christendom world. It forms the basis of classes in theology and ministry at bible colleges across Australia, it is the subject of dozens of books over the past decade, and it’s being discussed by church boards and vestries. It seems unfortunate that emergent ministry is being discussed primarily in terms of a response to a challenge, rather than as a source of new opportunities, but at least it is now being talked about.
Churches and church leaders are having to face a challenging future. Church rolls, church/life surveys, and a preponderance of anecdotal evidence points to the fact that the demographic of the church reflects the demographic of society. We are, apparently, in the midst of a crisis of talent, as the populace ages and tired (and, eventually, retires). In the modern business environment, policymakers and politicians are stressing about having more, older and frailer people to support and fewer able-bodied workers/taxpayers to pay for it. In the church, as in the workplace, there are not as many young people to take up the baton as there are seniors they will replace. For the church to continue as it has been, it must find a way to retain the involvement of its youth and shape them into the church leaders of tomorrow. For a long time tomorrow has been a ways off, but it is now looming large.
The crisis in church leadership and support is aggravated by the fact that for many young Christians today, the church as it stands holds little relevance to their sense of Christian identity. In a post-modern world of rationality and science, Christianity stands out as being perhaps too concrete. As much as – perhaps more than – ever, people today are searching for spiritual meaning and a deeper understanding of the universe. People are ready and willing to accept and embrace that there is more to the world than meets the naked eye.
In this environment, Christianity insists upon personalising the concept of “God” into Christ the man. Whilst understanding the trinity might have been the stumbling block of previous generations, these days I suspect that seeking youth might have fewer difficulties with the ideas of God the Father (distant, omnipotent being) and Holy Spirit (omnipresent ghostly force) than with accepting the divinity of Jesus Christ (historical figure and fully human). For many people seeking spiritual understanding, perhaps Jesus is not spiritual enough.
Even amongst those in younger generations who accept the idea of Christianity, however, the church is doubly hampered by changing attitudes to faith and to church. I count these separately, although they are of course related. In fact, I suspect that a lot of the problems facing today’s church come down to the distinction between faith and religion, and the fact that for many decades now there has been an unhealthy blurring of the lines. For many in our culture today, the ideas of “church” – probably as represented by Hollywood renditions of Catholic masses – and Christianity are inextricably intertwined. This confusion manifests itself in all sorts of ways. It leads to dissonance when people see Christian bikie gangs, surprise when an avowedly Christian workmate swears, drinks or smokes, and difficulty in understanding the concept of pub churches. It leads to besmirchment of Christians – and Christ Himself – when a church holds large amounts of wealth, or when a priest is convicted of misbehaviour, or when a charity spends most of its money on wages for its staff.
The current discussions of emergent church are nothing less than an attempt to correct this longstanding conception that faith in Christ must equal membership in a church organisation.
The Anglican church in Melbourne this past Sunday held “Back to Church Sunday”. In the congregation I attended – and, it is probably safe to assume, many others across the city – it was boldly stated that you couldn’t be a good Christian without engaging in a church. I will tentatively accept that membership in a faith community is always going to be helpful for one’s faith – but it seems quite clear to me that this community does not have to be a steepled church building on a Sunday morning.
There has been much talk of what makes a faith community. What are the bedrock standards that distinguish a faith group from a social activity? In the recent church discussions I attended, we agreed some general standards – an acceptance of the concept of God and the pre-eminence of Christ, a component of teaching and learning about theology, and an element of worship. After these, however, debate reigned. How do the sacraments fit into a non-liturgical practice? Can you even be a Christian congregation without engaging in Communion/Mass and baptism? There is so much variety already within the established Christian churches that we’re not likely to come to agreement any time soon on what makes a non-Church faith community.
So churches will continue to hold their Mission Action Planning meetings. They will continue to come up with lists of dot points of priorities for accepting, supporting and hopefully co-opting emergent faith groups. And whilst they are discussing, Christians will keep meeting outside of the walls of the established church. Whilst nobody can confidently predict what the Christianity of the future will look like, the one thing that seems certain is that it will be very different to what we have now. The current Church can only hold on for the ride – and stand ready to accept whatever changes may come.