A puzzling thing about Sydney’s churches

Posted: September 20, 2012 by J in Church, Mission

Had a most interesting chat with a visitor on the weekend. She’s a young Christian woman, highly committed to her church, a generous giver, prayerful, concerned for mission – a pretty impressive person, in fact.

Here’s what she said:

She said, “I think a lot of Anglican churches in Sydney are a bit like mine. A lot of people at our church are into outreach, they’re doing all they can in local mission. The church is fully committed to the mission, there’s a lot going on. Over the past 5 years we’ve got really mobilised, with Connect 09 and all that.  And giving is up too, over the past 5 years giving’s up 45% per member.

And yet, there are no new people…”

What a striking comment. You can sense the puzzlement, the disappointment and frustration, can’t you. What more can they do? They’re already, as she put it, flat chat in outreach efforts.

They’re reaching out. They’re committed. They care. And yet hardly anyone is coming in.

And this young woman is right about the diocese – at least about growth. The stats suggest that many Sydney churches are a bit like hers. Hard to get stats on outreach efforts. But results: new Christians, growth from unchurched people? Not much there.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we could say, ‘the churches are apathetic, they need to get off their backsides and do something about mission.’ But perhaps that would be an unfair thing to say. It’s a disturbing idea that the churches might be mobilised, and yet still hardly any growth – that suggests a deeper and more intractable problem.

What could the explanation be for this perplexing situation?

We didn’t get much time to talk about this, but our visitor did make one comment:

“Society has moved so far away from the church and Christianity, it’s hard to reach them and bring them back.”

Maybe she’s right – maybe the problem is with society at large. Or maybe it’s with us. Or maybe a bit of both.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we at The Grit have our own opinions about this question. But this post is not about pushing those.

What it is about, is this: isn’t it time we talked openly about this issue? I was struck by the clear-sighted honesty of the woman who told me these things. I don’t often hear people in our churches talking in that way. It’s not easy to admit to failures. Our church tradition has been strong on projecting an image of confidence and success. Read Southern Cross magazine, it seems like things are going well across the board. Lots of happy stories.

It wouldn’t be easy for them to publish an edition titled, ‘Whatever happened to the mission?‘, in which the painful issue of mission-failure was openly examined. There would likely be more questions than answers, and it might have an unsettling effect on readers. It might turn out that we have few experts to guide us, and that a discussion across the whole diocese needs to go on before we can hope for ways forward to crystalise.

These things would be unsettling and upsetting.

But isn’t it time we did this anyhow? Is there really any future in going forward doing the same things that didn’t work the past five years, without having that conversation, without doing that soul-searching?

It may turn out that there’s nothing we can change, and we’re just going to decline. But it may be that there are real solutions, and that we could learn to do better.

I’m putting my money on ‘we could learn to do better’. I think there’s hope for the future of the Sydney churches. And so I’m wishing more people were talking honestly about this problem.

What do you think? To soul search, or not to soul-search?

And how about it, Southern Cross? Am I right that this deserves a whole issue of the mag to kick off the wider discussion? Or do you have something else more important to report on? 🙂

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