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 co