re-inventing the Church in Australia

Some people love the Church, some are suspicious of the Church and still others hate it with a vengeance!But which Church do they love or hate? Is it the greying, largely traditional Church; the aggressive, contemporary mega or regional Church; or the almost hidden (no buildings) emerging Church? And which Church needs to change?

The pundits are predicting the demise of many of the established congregations over the next 20 years due to their failure to attract young adults. This happened in the UK amongst the Methodists two decades ago and out of the closures of many Churches there arose a whole new vibrant Church planting movement which successfully engaged people with the Gospel.

It is a foolish thing to write off the Church when Christ said He Himself would build it! Individual congregations may become non-viable but the Church will always be with us in some form or another.

The question many Church leaders are asking is, “How can the Church in Australia re-invent itself in order to get back on message and fulfil Christ’s mission in the world?”

This question implies there are certain non-negotiables that are presumably sacrosanct due to Biblical constraints.

I am fairly certain there has not been enough homework done on these issues to date. For this reason we may have made the mistake of calling some emerging models ‘Churches’, when in fact they do not fulfil the basic functions according to the Bible.

The question also implies it is possible re-invent the Church in any age. There is a need for clear contextualisation here.

If we can determine the difference between what is obviously Biblical and valid in all cultures, and what is clearly cultural in the Australian Church, then it will be possible for a new Church to emerge that is clothed in the Australian culture yet challenging to those aspects that defy the Bible.

Eddie Gibbs in Church Next declared our Churches can display one of three attitudes towards the world around them.

Firstly, we can display an attitude of judgmental isolation. This head-in-the sand attitude ignores the fact that complete isolation is impossible because most of our people have to cope with the pressures of the world on a daily basis.

Secondly, we may display an attitude of protective separation. This attitude involves engagement with the world, but it also demands that individuals who wish to enter the Church must clean up their lives first and undergo cultural indoctrination and initiation.

The third attitude is one of missionary engagement according to Gibbs. In this case, the Church recognises its distinctive identity in the Gospel but also its calling within a specific culture.

In this preferred third alternative, The Church goes into the world with the same degree of dependence as Jesus demonstrated towards His Heavenly Father, and also with humility and repentance in communicating its message. This third attitude best describes where the Church should be.

The primary challenge facing the Australian Church is not the challenge of re-inventing itself, but the challenge of re-connecting with people who have a different worldview so as to present the Gospel in a way that makes sense to them.

This challenge necessitates a missionary mindset and demands all the skills employed by cross-cultural missionaries overseas.

Three of us who minister together out of this missionary conviction are embarking on a journey together. I (John Tanner) am a missiologist, Colin Stoodley is a Church planter and the training director of The Pines Training Centre, and Dean Thomas is a pastor evangelist. We also represent three generations. Were not sure where our journey will take us because we know we don’t have all the answers. We need input from others that we meet on the road.

[John] During the years when the influence of Christendom was pervasive within Australian culture, people connected with the Church as a relevant and necessary part of their community. Now Australia is a multi-cultural nation in a post-Christian phase. We shouldn’t allow the high profile of a few mega Churches to hide this fact from us.

We are correct to view Australia as a mission field that requires us to re-connect with various sectors of our society in redemptive ways.

[Dean] John’s point regarding the decline of influence of Christendom within Australian society can no longer be argued against. For some within the Church, this has been a frightening development causing all sorts of negative reactions detrimental to the cause of winning Aussies for Christ.

Some Churches are now so disconnected to society that unless a miracle occurs the Church will continue to be, at best, irrelevant or at worst, counter-productive to reaching the unsaved.

[John] The first step in the journey to re-connection is preparation. Everyone knows the key to a successful journey lies in being properly prepared. Our preparation involves: understanding the worldview of the people were trying to reach determining what is to be contextualised, and identifying appropriate ministry models

1. Understanding Worldview We can think of worldview in three general categories. The surface category is the cognitive dimension dealing with what people know, the way they think logically and how they view wisdom. The intermediate level of worldview is the affective dimension which deals with feelings and aesthetics. The deepest level of worldview is the evaluative dimension which is comprised of beliefs, values and allegiances. In order to reach people with the Gospel, we must first understand and appreciate their worldview.

The worldview of the Baby Boomer is radically different from that of the Gen Xer. Similarly, recent immigrants from Hong Kong will have a different worldview from third generation Australian Chinese. Unless the Gospel penetrates deep down to the level of beliefs and values, true conversion is not possible.

One of the greatest challenges facing the Australian Church is to understand and appreciate the worldview of people under thirty-five years of age in order to re-connect with them and to introduce them to Jesus.

2. Contextualisation [John] The second task in preparing ourselves to re-invent the Church is the work of contextualisation. Because Jesus commanded us to preach the Gospel to all the people groups, we may safely assume that the Gospel will fit within every sub-culture on the planet. One problem we have is that we constantly fail to distinguish between what is Biblical in the Church and what is cultural.

Whenever we move across cultures we must be careful to leave behind the “cultural garments of our home Church and to plant relevant Biblical truth and practices within a whole new garment indigenous to the new culture. It is necessary for us to determine the Biblical nature and functions of the Church; the essence of the Gospel; the character of true conversion; the responsibilities of discipleship and the descriptors of spiritual maturity to begin with.

In our Churches we have added much to basic Biblical Christianity that is cultural. If we are to share the Gospel in redemptive ways to another culture or generation we had better understand what the message is, how it relates and what are the implications of conversion within that culture.

[Colin] The point John makes about contextualisation is absolutely vital. When I began ministry as a planter in the early 1980s there was no discussion about this among planters in Australia. Now it is rightly becoming a rigorous part of our preparation and ministry as planters.

As well as this, with regards to describing Australia as post-Christian I also like to think of Australia as pre-Christian because this helps me see the opportunity just as seeing us as a post-Christian nation helps me see the challenges realistically. This is a great day for us if we will accept the challenge. We must not be intimidated but release the creative elements of our lives to the task.

But seeing ourselves rightly also involves accepting the reality of what we have added to the Gospel by way of western enculturalisation. This involves examining our message and methods to discern what must be stripped away. This will be a painful process but among new Churches being planted there is a natural and amazing opportunity to do this without major dislocation. In planting new Churches we can not only do evangelism better but we can complete the reformation of the Church quicker.

[Dean] There are several emerging grassroots movements which have identified the need for careful contextualization in the preparation stage and have created a community of faith amongst those who understand evangelism is no longer an event but a process in context. The Engell scale (of evangelism) has become second nature to these people. The Engell scale, by nature, forces God’s people to contextualise. Succesful evangelism is no longer about getting the kill, it is working at moving people along the process from completely unaware of religion through to a conversion experience and on to becoming replicating followers of Christ.

With this in mind evangelism is no longer just the realm of the evangelist. It is now the responsibility of the whole Church! Once again the power is in the hands of the Church, not a select few.

3. Appropriate ministry models [John] Possibly the easiest task of the preparation stage is discovering and developing appropriate models of ministry. Note that I was careful to say ministry and not Church. Today there are experimental models that I would call ministries which do not qualify Biblically to be called Churches. I applaud those who have the courage to experiment and cheer them on to complete the task God has called them to do.

The appropriateness of the models will be determined by the worldview of the people we are seeking to reach. For example, anyone seeking to reach people under thirty-five must adopt a model that has a strong relational base because this generation relates to friends more than to family.

Church leaders tell us that the Mega Church model based on marketing techniques is no longer the preferred option. In some Denominations this policy shift will create a vacuum. There are many possible models, but we must be discerning in our choices.

[Colin] The models of our ministries will look different. We are already seeing that and, I believe, accepting that as a fact. But there are some very big picture things that we must somehow never lose sight of.

What underpins this three stage process that John presents is that we retain the element of God’s Spirit in a continuous process of transformation. Even if we understand worldview, do our contextualisation and change our ministry models, we must not lose what God Himself brings to the table. Being people of the Spirit and prayer cannot be replaced.

My great concern is that we will become clever but not consecrated.

When I was a planter the first time around, I attended a conference on the new thing at that time Church growth. For a while I think we lost the deep transforming work of the Spirit and became quick to analyse and adapt but not quick to yield. My prayer would be that what John is calling for will be adopted in lives that resound to the person and work of God the Holy Spirit. My sense as a Church Planter is that this dimension gives energy and vitality and effect to the disciplines we must adopt.

[Dean] I can also see a change regarding ministry models happening amongst my evangelist friends. The evangelists of the past who have been so successful in times gone by are no longer reaping the same size harvest in Australia. As a result, some of them are looking for someone to blame (eg lack of pre-crusade preparation on behalf of the Churches). This in turn increases the gap between Church leaders and evangelists.

These old models of evangelism won’t be successful in this postmodern culture. Modern evangelists (as opposed to those who operate within the current postmodern context) are looking for harvest fields in which they can once again see dramatic numeric results. So many are turning to other countries. The decline of the big time Evangelists hey-day has well and truly started and it won’t be long before it is complete.

Now I know this sounds dark and gloomy, but the story doesn’t end there. I believe the Scriptures and “not even the gates of hell shall prevail”! Before our very eyes we are witnessing grass roots movements that are changing the way Churches and evangelists work together to re-connect with everyday Australians in order to bring in the harvest. I for one am very hopeful.

[John] This is just the start of the discussion. If you would like to join us in the journey we would welcome your presence and comments. Together we may discover some principles that will help to shape the mission of the Church in the next five years.

~ John Tanner (Minister at large, Southern Cross Institute and Missiologist) ~ Colin Stoodley (Training Director, The Pines Training Centre) ~ Dean Thomas (Pastor/evangelist and pioneer in internet evangelism)

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