Oops, don’t look now but our slip is showing. Something is just slightly out of whack, out of shape. There’s just one small problem: we are not correcting the situation. Perhaps it is too hard!
According to the latest set of figures for Baptists in the Garden State, not everything is rosy:
* Two thirds of our churches are plateaued
* Just nineteen churches accounted for more than half the baptisms last year “Six churches accounted for just on one third of the total baptisms
* More than 40% of our churches baptised no one
* We are more adept at roll revisions than roll additions
Given the prayer, sincere effort and hard work which goes into the work of our churches, why is there so little going on around the traps? Have we fallen on hard times? Has the fire gone out? Have we become good people simply doing good things with no lasting effect? Are there no more lost people out there any more? An objective outsider would be justified in deciding that we are close to being dead in the water.
And where have all the evangelists gone? Plenty of pastors are happy to describe themselves as teachers, equippers and preachers but not too many are comfortable with the idea of being known as evangelists. Has the sharing of faith gone out of fashion? Have we strayed away from the task of confronting people with the claims of Christ upon their lives? Is it a case of being unhappy with the style of evangelism of another day but not really knowing how to relate to today’s changing environment? Have we lost touch and, if so, how? Are we concerned that we might get carried away with a meaningless numbers game? Has the resistance to church growth principles on the part of some created the situation where non growth is acceptable, even trendy?
Evangelism has always been at the very heart of our life together. Whatever the differing flavours, understandings and approaches to ministry, at the end of the day our desire has always been to see people coming to faith in Jesus Christ. There was a day, it seems, when the term “evangelism” was interpreted and practiced in very much the same way across the board. But much water has gone under the bridge. We seem to be less certain about the practice of evangelism. One thing we can be sure of though and that is the Lord of the harvest does not mean us to sit on the fence simply looking at the fields in all their whiteness. We are not meant to be energetically going nowhere.
There are reasons for encouragement: many of our new churches are seeing people coming to faith in significant numbers as are some or our ethnic congregations. Rural churches are managing to keep the doors open in the face of declining numbers and, in some places, increasing rural poverty. A quiet work of evangelism is going on in many churches through small groups. Creative bridge builders are contacting the marginalised and the unchurched. But why the disappointing response generally? Why is the struggle to survive going on in churches which are still surrounded by countless thousands of people? Why are congregations moving to part time ministries when there is a full time challenge on the door step? Why are we failing to connect?
The evidence suggests that there is a long term pattern of church life which is apparently not open to any great variation:
A church commences in a new housing area and flourishes as people move in; growth continues as families increase; a ministry to children and young people moves into high gear as they mature; the young adults though are not able to stay in what has now become an expensive, established area and move out to the fringes of the city; the parents stay on as the senior citizens of the church which is now truly plateaued and ready for decline; the large facilities built in the hey day of the church are under utilised and represent a maintenance nightmare. A once busy church reduces to a part time ministry remembering the glory of former days.
The great danger is that, confronted with increasing ineffectiveness in the sharing of faith and the growth of the church, we may opt for simplistic responses which do not really address the pressing questions. So what are the pressing issues? Some suggestions:
The Broader Concerns
1. In the last few years our Australian community has changed much more than most pastors and congregations realise. Where there was once a reasonable social uniformity in which Baptists functioned well, that uniformity has now departed. We are now a society of extraordinary diversity. We are surrounded by endless sub groups: greenies, yuppies, numerous ethnic cultures (most having arrived since the end of World War 2), single parents (and all the fragile people attempting to cope with family brokenness), revitalised Kooris, gays, de facto couples, a growing number of unmarried professionals, the homeless, dispossessed, long term unemployed, early retirees, and so the list goes. All have special and often very different needs. And every church (except perhaps those in rural areas) has a good supply of representatives of all groups within walking distance.
2. Given this momentous social change the fact is that only a small proportion of congregations have adjusted their ministries to reflect these developments. The sheer challenge of building the right bridges to all these different groups represents a fresh adventure in cross cultural communication normally considered appropriate only in overseas missions. Are we training pastors and people for such an immense challenge? Further, where the changes are recognised, where do you start given that no local church can reach out to every group at once anyway? It is no wonder that some churches find ministry to their own kind a good deal more straightforward. But the price for this is high as the church inexorably begins to lose contact with its community which continues on in constant transition.
3. The decreasing relevance of the church is firmly attested to by the thousands of our fellow Victorians who vote every Sunday with their feet. They may make it to the Sunday market, or the beach, or the garden, or sports events, or horse riding but they do not darken the church door. What is even more concerning is the growing trend reported in many churches: as much as one third of the regulars will be absent on any given Sunday making communication difficult and continuity in preaching and teaching almost impossible. The point is that the local congregation is not seen as the place to be. Worship simply does not belong as a priority activity. The media knows this and sees the institutional church as an easy target for criticism. Errant clergy have not helped in the creation of a positive view of the church.
4. The very public divisions between the various branches of the church are also dynamite. In some places (especially some of our provincial towns) a more coÂ¬operative image of the church is emerging but there is still a long way to go. Our own denominational position is not exactly helpful: while we manage to be derailed by doctrinal differences (yet talk freely about being all one in Christ), ordinary Australians quickly see the gap between rhetoric and action. If we cannot get along with each other, why in the world should the unchurched ever consider throwing in their lot with the divided people of God? We have foolishly concentrated on our differences and overlooked our common calling in Christ. And the end result is not to anybody’s advantage. It is an evangelistic disaster. The fact that too many of our churches are internally accident prone does not help.
The Local Congregational Concerns
5. There is no doubt that one of the greatest barriers to evangelism is our innate fear of change. How else can resistance to fresh initiatives and the desire to remain with the old forms of ministry be explained? Surrounded by change on every hand and confronted with the need to try new ways of communicating the faith under the guidance of the Spirit, we have opted for the safe and the familiar. In the process we have confused theology with methodology. New ways of ministry have appeared to many of our people to be trivialising or altering the substance of our faith and belief. As a consequence creativity has been stifled and initiative strangled. There are too many pastors who have lost the heart for change and have been demoralised just once too often by diaconates and members’ meetings where change was not welcomed. Even pastors can become easily unsettled and alarmed if our own understanding of life and order is touched by change. Until we opt for the courageous cutting edge and entertain the real possibility of a few failures along the way, new styles of ministry will be hard to come by.
6. We have failed to understand that we live in a largely informal culture. We prefer to function on a first name basis; we tire quickly of unnecessary pomp and ceremony; we do not enjoy people coming the “heavy” on us; we do not tolerate wind bags and con men. But we do enjoy the barbecue syndrome: the undirected chatter of an informal meal, the firm grasp of a genuine hand shake, the Aussie humour with its easy put down style and earthy criticism (which actually confers considerable respect and affection). This characteristic is, of course, a total mystery to outsiders. But we try to ignore this dimension of who we are: too often we expect rank outsiders to take a huge, quantum leap and be comfortable in a church setting where we engage in the very forms which produce uneasiness and anxiety. We forget that the small group has a much better chance of helping people find the faith than “bringing them under the sound of the gospel” through a high powered sermon. This is not to deny the place of evangelistic preaching but our preaching tends to be for those of the faith with no call for conversion or consecration.
7. Our problem is that, in so many of our churches, we do not really expect that there will be unsaved, searching people in the congregation. This low level of expectation regarding “outsiders” is evidence of a major problem with local church self esteem. Basically too many of our people lack real confidence in what their church is on about. They may be happily sharing their faith in the real world but would think twice about inviting an unchurched neighbour of friend along to a service. The language, the music, the limited interest in newcomers in so many places are ample reasons for giving it a miss. In our hearts we know that the culture of the local church is too often pitched inwards not outwards. The shabby appearance of church buildings, notice boards and gardens also says volumes about the way we feel about ourselves and our ministry. We forget the body language of the church and just how off putting this can be to a hesitant unbeliever.
8. In essence our churches have disconnected themselves from our communities. We have found dramatic change too risky and, instead of being a genuinely daring people of faith, we have devoted and debated our way into a corner leaving the rest of the world to puddle along. We have not wanted to upset our gatekeepers and, in the process, we have chosen the path of decreasing effectiveness. Worse, we have expected unsaved people to measure up to what we are on about and, if they choose not to attend church and believe, then they have to accept the coming judgement an their own heads. We have done our bit, so we think. In fact all we have done is to walk away from the total missionary task of the church and the evangelistic endeavour which is part of this.
So where to from here? There are no easy responses but there are ways forward. It is not just a matter of being more prayerful, or having a bigger vision, or getting more organised.
It is the need for a complete overhaul of all that we understand the local church to be. It is also the need to rediscover the mission field in which we have been placed:
* As a prerequisite we must want our churches to reach new Christians! There is no point expecting that the Lord will build His church if His people have other plans.
* Let’s identify the sub groups in our community, start building the bridges to connect meaningfully with them and nurture an inclusive fellowship able to accept newcomers readily. It will take time and we will require patience, determination and great flexibility. It will also be very risky for most.
* We must develop and adjust the ministries we exercise as congregations so that we really are meeting the deep needs of others and not just our own. This will not happen overnight.
* It’s time to leam from and contribute to our sister churches and denominations.
* Since an openness to change is so vital, we must help our people to take the first, essential steps to fresh ways of being the church. It will not be easy and not all will be able to cope with this.
* We should be fashioning an Australian flavoured church. If relationships are so important, our people will need assistance to relate easily and warmly to newcomers.
* Let’s start thinking deeply about ways of building the self esteem of the local church. We need to looking for ways to affirm our people in their life together.
Clearly it is time for a serious and far reaching renewal not just of what we do but in our attitudes to the Lord, each other and the community. Evangelism will only remain our heart beat if we are prepared to pay the price to leave the plateau and be the witnessing, compassionate church which does exactly what Jesus did during His own earthly ministry: be one with the Father and not selective about the company we keep. Yes, there are plenty of lost people out there! But we need to abandon the safety of the known for the unsettling insecurity of new ways of becoming the finding, growing church.
THE BAPTIST UNION OF VICTORIA
Ministry Perspectives #5