Living in The Perfect Storm

A number of years back I went fishing with my friend Stuart and his son in the usually calm waters of Geographe Bay. This day was windy and choppy, but we anchored around 100m from the Busso jetty (the left side of this image) and began casting for fish, not realising that the sand anchor was slipping and the wind was shunting our boat closer and closer to the jetty. When I realised what was happening I immediately tried to start the motor and move us away from danger. But my normally reliable Johnson outboard flooded and refused to fire. We continued to drift, so I turned to the auxiliary motor. By this time we were literally within metres of the large wooden piers. In the panic to get it started I didn’t realise I had left it in gear, so it also failed to start. Both motors were out of action, the anchor wouldn’t hold and we were quite literally at the mercies of the ocean as we headed for the massive jetty piers. It was a frightening moment and I envisaged the boat being smashed to pieces and us swimming for shore. We sent 10 year old Jordan under cover of the deck while Stuart and I tried to guide this large fiberglass boat between the piers. Miraculously we made it with only minimal damage, but it was a reminder of how quickly apparently favourable conditions can change and combine to create a perfect storm.

In a similar vein the church has long been anchored in the calm safe harbour of Christendom, the 1700 year era where Christianity was central to society. In this time pastors have evolved to become trained and qualified professionals, whose job it is to ensure the church performs its core business correctly. While different denominations might debate what that ‘business’ is there is no question that a lot of it revolved around ‘getting Sunday right’. Whether it was ensuring orthodox, expository teaching was the norm, or making sure hymns were sung rather than ‘that modern stuff’. Up until the early 80’s there was little thought beyond Sundays, Wednesday evenings and pastoral care. Christendom really only needs a pastor / teacher to keep the system ticking along.

While the Christendom culture held firm, the role of the professional pastor was to give oversight and often personal leadership to the core activities of the church. Pastors led all the worship, preached all the sermons, visited all the people and dealt with all of the pastoral needs of the flock. That’s an exaggeration I realise, but not far from the truth. We expected these men (no women – sorry!) – who were usually solo pastors – to be able to manage all of this because they has been trained for it. Over the 1700 years of Christendom we came to see this as normal.

But then our tried and true measures for running a church began to fail. People began leaving the church first in dribbles and then in droves. It started with the ‘nominals’ who were only there for appearances anyway, but before long it impacted us ‘evangelicals’ (a word I fear we have lost…). Now our people were leaving and that really didn’t equate. The culture was changing and they felt they had permission to skip Sundays or stop attending altogether.

People also stopped coming to church when they were seeking spiritual insight and began trying other eastern spiritualities. It was the 70’s and 80’s – the early days of secularism. Church started to become ‘irrelevant’ so we figured that one of the keys to regaining ground was ensuring what we did was ‘relevant’ to the people we were hoping would come (back). It was also the era of trying to work out what people’s felt needs were and then meeting these with various programs.

In short it was the beginning of our wrestle with consumerism. Oh I’m sure this was happening long before in subtle forms, but the hard reality for anyone wanting to join the church in the 70’s and before was that they needed to conform to our standards if they wanted in. Today we speak of ‘belonging, believing and then behaving’ in that order – you are welcome as you are (and that is GOOD!), but back then you stubbed your cigarette by the car door, popped a breath freshener and then joined the gathering. You behaved right, then you believed our stuff and finally you belonged. Not very Jesus like at all, but that’s what happens in a Christendom based world. We called the shots.

‘Up and to the right!’

However as Christendom dwindled and churches began to decline further, we began to adjust our posture, some of it for the better and some of it not so good. Now we sought to attract people in with attempts at relevance and by attending to felt needs. We preached topical sermons on family issues, we spruced up the building, created visitors carparks and so it went on. I don’t know if we were ever aware that the anchor was slipping and this ‘perfect storm’ of secularism, professionalised ministry and a consumer culture were shunting us slowly towards the jetty.

It was like something shifted in the DNA of the church as we tried everything we could to avoid disaster. Now instead of being pastors and teachers our professionals needed to be visionaries, marketers and strategists with a five year plan for the future of the church. We didn’t just learn from the corporate world – we swallowed their stuff in one gulp – or maybe that was just me?

One of the unavoidable consequences of ‘marketing’ the church and appealing to felt needs was the emergence of competition. You simply can’t adopt business methodologies and marketing strategies without hoping to beat the guy down the road. I know we nodded, winked and spoke the BS of it being ‘all for the kingdom’, but reality was everyone was seeking to carve out their market share to ensure the enterprise remained viable. People were spoken of in some church circles as ‘giving units’ and budgets were forecast based on the projected giving from those ‘units’. (By now you should be dry retching.)

Mike Tyson once said ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ Reality is that right now the church is getting punched in the face and the plan is looking shaky. No doubt those who have hired competent marketing staff will continue to expand their enterprise and eliminate the competition, but increasingly the church landscape will look a bit like that of the hardware store. We all know that sooner or later ‘Bunnings’ is going to land in our community and beat us on the bottom line every time.

Our local hardware… gone…

This is some of what the future holds. The ‘Bunnings’ franchise churches will continue to eliminate the competition, the Home hardwares will do their best to compete and the local hardware store, where the owner runs the store and sources any product for you even if it’s not in stock now will either quickly fold, or find alternative ways to survive. The same part of me that wants to start a family owned local hardware store in my own community is the part that wants church to be local, personal and connected to the people. It doesn’t want to compete. It wants to acknowledge the diversity of churches needed for people to encounter God, but it wants to unravel the mess that we have currently become.

I’m not convinced we can do that while we are part of the ‘church industry’, either as a pastor, a consultant or a conference speaker. I’m not convinced that while we depend on the system for an income we have the ability, let alone the credibility to call for the kind of change that is needed. It has been said that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Perhaps this may explain part of our predicament. The ‘system’ works for those who are paid by it and who also have the most power to change it. Why would you intentionally subvert a system that is working to your advantage? Why would you risk your own livelihood? Reality is that we all have bills to pay and families to support, so the chances of us rocking the very boat in which we are sailing is slim.

But the boat is still headed for the jetty and our answers are not compelling.

Is it possible we could develop churches that are not dependent on ‘professionals’, who in turn are reliant on meeting their KPI’s for ongoing salary? This morning I sat down to edit some of the book I have been writing on the importance of bivocational mission and ministry in the coming decades – having pastoral leaders who are not bound to the church for their income, who can lead with integrity and engage in the world around them with credibility. I got distracted and ended up writing this post – which is essentially the ‘why’ of the book.

Secularism, professionalism and consumerism have combined to create the perfect storm, but we aren’t ready with any kind of perfect answer. Chances are if you are a pastor – or someone paid by the church industry – then reading this post will have touched a nerve in you and you will either be bewildered by the complexity of the situation in which we find ourselves, or you may just be ready to list all the reasons I am wrong, and why my perception is off key. Well… knock yourself out. Comment away! I would love to be wrong. I would love to have a much simpler, richer expression of church as the norm.

You may not know what this is if you are under 40…

Interestingly in our travels around Australia for the last 3 months we have sought to join a church gathering on every Sunday. Had we done this 50 years ago we would dressed up nice and attended a ‘church-like’ building where a man in a suit would have handed us a hymn book from his stack and we would then have been careful to choose a pew that wasn’t the domain of a regular. If you’re my age or older the you know the scenario. This was the norm. Dull, bland, predictable and dreadfully un-engaging. (Part of the reason I am a pastor today is because of my experience as a teen – I don’t want that for my own children.) The ‘norm’ today however is to enter a darkened room, where loud music pulses and the spotlights focus us on the stage. As visitors we usually get a ‘free coffee ticket’ for some actual real coffee after the service in the ‘guest lounge’.

While I would never advocate a return to the dull dark days of the 70’s, I am even less a fan of the ‘new normal’, where I am treated as a consumer to be wooed, impressed and hopefully ‘converted’ into regular attendance – and of course giving…

Maybe I’m just a 57 year old cynic… or maybe I’m someone in the system who isn’t dependent on it for his livelihood and as a result it’s easier to call BS. My deep and great hope is that we can create local communities of faith that are truly engaged with the neighbourhoods in which they live, where the people are trained and equipped to be disciples of Jesus in every day life and where no one is worried about your capacity to contribute financially to the bottom line. If we can dismantle the current competition based model then we may be able to do something that genuinely feels like it is ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Until then dim the lights, crank the music and reach for your wallets.

10 thoughts on “Living in The Perfect Storm

  1. Andrew
    Thank you so much for this blog , I feel like you have been listening in to many of my recent conversations and thoughts.
    I hear your plea and challenge.
    Warm regards in Christ , brother

  2. Good stuff, I agree with every word. I have a lot less answers than I thought i had 20 years ago, mainly because those with imagination are out, and those in don’t have much imagination. So I’m out and keeping my eyes open but not seeing much that works for me. My belief hasn’t changed, but more hypothetical these days. Best wishes

  3. Hi Andrew, Thank you for sharing this article.
    I appreciated your insights.
    Enjoy your holidays around Australia

  4. Related to this is something I’ve often considered. The workers and resources (inc buildings) in the Christian world that get most easily funded are those in proximity to giving Christians, ie mature Christians with money. You have noted that churches able to attract more Christians will remain financially viable. Going further, I note that it is the pastor/teacher/administrator/worship-house roles that get more easily funded – those based around Christians – and work on the fringe (evangelism), or among believers without much money that miss out or have to rattle their can to get funded.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *