It’s the shortest and snappiest of comments on the state of the church in Australia.
After presenting her data for 30 minutes and showing the ongoing decline of the majority of churches in Australia, this was Ruth Powell’s conclusion.
‘It’s not working…‘
What we have been doing to live out the gospel in our society and culture is not working’
And it hasn’t been working for a long time!
Now to be fair Ruth did indicate that by this simple numeric metric larger churches did appear to be ‘working’. ‘The attractional church works‘, she said. The problem is that it is resource intensive, so that when small churches try to copy them it usually results in either leader burnout or a pale imitation of what can be achieved with top rate musicians, speakers and resources.
Her point was that the vast majority of Australian churches are small 50-60 people and while the larger ones may be able to attract people into the building, 95% of those without those capacities are struggling just to fill their rosters each Sunday let alone fill the building.
We put a lot of weight on filling the building don’t we?… As if this was the best indicator of health and maturity. Don’t get me wrong – it does tell a story. When we count the numbers on a Sunday morning it tells us exactly how many people were present in church on that day.
Let’s be clear – this is what we are measuring and by that measurement the National Church Life Survey tells us that the church in Australia has been in decline for some time now.
I would assume a correlation between higher attendance and formation into Christlikeness, but it’s not a given. I remember having this smash me in the face one Sunday. I looked out when I was preaching and saw Clive in the congregation. Inwardly I thought ‘it’s good to see Clive in church so consistently.’ As Clive was a new Christian I was happy to see he had begun to prioritise church attendance. But what about his wife Jane? She was rarely in church. I worried about her.’
Eventually one morning I caught up with her and began chatting. She was quick to let me know why she was rarely in church. ‘I can’t stand to be around him! He’s off with prostitutes Saturday night, then in church on Sunday morning. I can’t stand by him and sing songs of worship!’
I realised I had equated regular church attendance with ‘doing ok’ and regular absence with ‘not doing ok.’ Not in this case. Perhaps not in other cases too.
To be fair I think there is a correlation of sorts, but it’s not a straight line. Perhaps it’s our easiest measurement to take as it would be a lot trickier to measure Christlikeness, unselfishness, kindness, generosity and so on.
But back to the ‘it’s not working’ statement. How do we progress from here? Do smaller churches just keep trying harder to be a pale imitation of their highly resourced larger churches? In my own context I stopped worrying about the attendance numbers a long time ago and became more concerned with the question of how we are living our faith out in the world. This quote from Martin Robinson has been formative in my own leadership:
“What would it look like for a church to function in such a way that the primary goal of church life was not to attract more people into attendance and membership, but to produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with them”
~ Martin Robinson ‘Invading Secular Space’ p.111.
I’m not sure that question is given sufficient priority in our thinking, but rather it is hoped that if they come on Sunday they will be then ready to go back out. If our goal were to prepare people for the life that they live each day then I wonder what we would change to enable this to actually take place?
I know for some who are busy and focused in their workplace the Sunday gathering is like a drink of fresh water after walking in a desert. For some their Sunday experience is an essential part of their ongoing sustenance, but given we now count 1 in 4 attendance as ‘regular’ it would seem that for many it is not the case.
It’s been said many times that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. I sense many of us are feeling the reality of this, but we are mystified as to what we can do that is different – and that will actually better equip people for their everyday life.
We can safely assume that if someone is turning up 1 in 4 to a Sunday gig then then either a) they are struggling to see the value of the gathering, or b) They have found ‘better’ things to do with their Sundays and are simply ‘ticking a box’.
When it comes to reimagining how we can “produce people who had a profound sense of their personal relationship to God, their resource in Christ and could take that reality into the world with them” we are often caught in a type of Sunday centric stalemate. If we try to adjust the parameters of discipleship by re-shaping or scaling back on Sunday events we instantly run into opposition from those who find sustenance in Sundays and also those who struggle with change. This often leads to a decline in attendance – a correlating decline in giving and then the inability to pay the pastor who initiated the process. That pastor is then forced to leave and it is concluded that ‘these new ideas really don’t work! Best to stick with what we know, even if it isn’t working…’ If you’ve led churches for long enough then you would be aware of this challenge.
Perhaps the answer is to plant a new church and instill something completely different in the DNA – a focus on discipleship for everyday life rather than simply Sunday gathering? But what does that look like? Having been down this road around 20 years ago with our Upstream community church plant I know that for many Christians anything that doesn’t resemble their safe familiar Sunday experience can be a bridge too far. Entering a space without a dedicated kid’s program or a tight band can make them weak at the knees. For many it just doesn’t ‘feel like church’ so they resist. Even for those who aren’t Christians we had the experience of them asking ‘ok so when do you guys do the real thing?’
Perhaps we need to seriously look at combining our efforts in such a way that smaller neighbourhood churches operate in partnership with a larger regional church? I dunno how that would all play out, but perhaps it would mean that smaller churches working their butts off just to get Sunday happening could throw their hand in with a well resourced church and then turn their own efforts to highly focused discipleship groups. (Of course this is in an ideal world where people’s egos are deflated and where personal agendas don’t rule the roost.)
I am aware of 4 country churches all within driving distance of one another who are struggling to find pastors. And the focus of their efforts is largely on making their own Sunday gathering happen. Surely… surely… surely… they could see their way to having larger combined gatherings and then operating in smaller focused groups outside of those gatherings?
But I sense I am dreaming and expecting too much – that people would be able to lay down minor theological differences (even bigger ones too) to pursue a church better equipped for the world in which they live.
The bottom line is that more of the same isn’t the answer to impacting our society with the message of Jesus. And that ought to concern us more than it currently does.
As a ‘non-pastor’ at the moment i can theorise all I like but dreaming and scheming is easy. What gets hard – really hard – is putting new ideas into action with a community of people who are weary, dis-spirited and suspicious of anything that differs from the norm. If you are one of those leaders well aware that ‘it isn’t working’, but completely at sea when it comes to fresh alternatives then I pray you are blessed with wisdom, courage, creativity and perseverance because you will need all of these qualities and more.
For now I cheer from the side-lines and I add my voice to those who are saying ‘surely we aren’t just going to keep flogging this horse because she died a long time ago.’