Archive for July, 2014

Mark Zukerberg, founder of facebook

(Rectors and senior ministers, this post may not be what you need today.)

These five realities of church life after the collapse have big implications for our leaders. So big, that if we ignore them, leadership in our churches could become quite ineffective.

Horton the Elephant

In past generations when Aussie culture and worldview was closer to the church’s own culture, church leaders did not need cross-cultural smarts.  They didn’t need to think so much about contextualisation. They didn’t need sophisticated people skills. They didn’t even need to think much about mission and outreach: stacks of people were turning up in their building every week.

This situation favoured a leader who knew how to do a good church service, and was loving and encouraging towards the church-folk. A pastor/preacher. With hopefully some admin skills. If they could do a good job of that, then not many changes were needed. Innovations and new initiatives were optional extras: things were already working. A ‘steady-as-she-goes’ type of man was right for the job. He could keep doing the same things throughout his ministry life, without needing to think much about the big picture. Perseverance and faithfulness were key.

But ten years ago Peter Jensen started talking about our Anglican rectors as ‘local mission directors’. This was a radical departure from the way the rector’s job had been described before. Naturally enough it came as something of a shock to the rectors themselves, who now found their work was to be judged by a completely new standard.

But Peter Jensen’s innovation recognised the new reality of church life post-collapse. Conditions have changed dramatically in 50 years. Pastor/preacher is no longer all we need from our leaders. We are now in a missionary situation in an unchurched society.

The requirements of leadership have changed also. Now, we do indeed need ‘local mission directors’. And that implies a whole new skill set – and probably a different personality type also. Now things are not working, and we have to figure out new ways forward. Now our neighbours’ culture is different from our church culture, and we need to learn to contextualise.

This suggests we need leaders who are creative, socially aware and switched on, savvy about cross-cultural issues, entrepreneurial and willing to innovate and take risks, visionary types who can sense opportunities and develop them. More Mark Zukerberg and less Horton the Elephant. Or if you prefer military analogies, we need Rommels not Montgomerys.

One way to understand this is to acknowledge that the job of church leadership has got harder. Leadership today is more challenging and demanding. Higher order skills are involved. It is going to call for our best people to take up the job, not our middle-rankers. Thinkers and reflective practitioners, not just hard workers.

Another way to see it is that we will need to encourage a different sort of person forward into leadership. Less of the engineer, more of the artist or small-business owner. There will be a cost to this shift. Realistically, no one has all the skills and strengths. These creative types will be weaker in areas where leaders were traditionally strong: they will be less ‘solid’ and steady and patient and tolerant. They will have to learn these things of course but it will never be their strong suit. These leaders will be more restless, ideas people who are not satisfied with how things are now and have a vision for how things could be. They will have less of the ‘comfort factor’ we are used to in our ministers. They may be harder to like. This will be the trade-off for gaining the new qualities that are so badly needed.

Andrew Nixon spent a lot of time working with Rectors for the Connect09 mission in Sydney, and afterwards he summed up his experience. He said,

Our senior ministers are first class people who we have failed to prepare properly for the mission situation we place them in.

He was commenting on the new ‘local mission director’ label that Peter Jensen had given to rectors. The blokes were great and godly blokes. They just weren’t prepared for the job of leading mission. They hadn’t the skills or training or experience.

To develop this, I would suggest that as well as lacking training, probably many weren’t suited temperamentally either, for the new job. They were good men for the old conditions before the collapse. But not for the new conditions after.

And yet Peter Jensen fundamentally had this right: it’s the rectors we need, to do this job.

However, Nixon’s experience shows that it’s not enough just to change the title or job description we give to our rectors. That’s not realistically going to change much in the real world. We need a new sort of leader.

How do we get them?

There is no easy way. People don’t usually change much. Rectors are people! To be painfully realistic, the main avenue for change is with the next crop of leaders who get raised up. But how do we stop ourselves from turning out another crop of the old sort of leader?

Here’s a suggested simple program to produce the sort of leaders who can lead us forward out of the collapse.

1. Develop a clear picture of the job leaders need to do (a job description) and of the skills and personal qualities that will be called for in the new ‘post-collapse’ setting. I have never seen such a description from any ‘official’ source. Great clarity is needed at this point if the message is to cut through and get noticed.

2. Educate our churches and college so that they are working towards that sort of leadership. Both parties are vital here. The churches’ part is to identify and encourage the right sort of people forward. Not the sort they used to promote. The college’s part is to train and educate them in the right sort of skills and understanding. In particular to train and educate them to think and question and to think mission. At the moment we are still training our students to be preacher/pastors.

3. Ordain people who have shown these qualities: not just any student who has passed the exams and has nothing bad on his record. Don’t ordain for leadership: ordain leaders.

Simple: but not easy! It would need a fair bit of will from those at the helm, to take responsibility for promoting a shift of this magnitude.

Trouble is, if no one does this, or something of the sort, our leadership crisis will only intensify.

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Here’s the last of our five realities the church must face in post-collapse Sydney (and elsewhere):

5. Rampant individualism means even some Christian believers prefer to stay away. The idea that you can do God stuff on your own without the church, is deeply ingrained in our culture – thanks (probably) to Protestant theology and its secular twin, the cult of the individual. It’s a fairly common thing to find people with a Christian faith who have no church connection, and don’t want one. They can do faith on their own.

There are lots of people out there who have a high view of Jesus. Lots. There are lots of people who pray. Stacks. They read Christian books. Some even read the bible. Or listen to Christian radio. Or watch Christian TV. Or podcasts. Or whatever. But they don’t belong to a church.

Church used to be the main way people could access Christian teaching. That is no longer the case. Online education is widespread and normal nowadays.

And that feels OK to people. Protestantism has long told us that what really matters is your personal relationship to God. Church is much less important. OK, then I can stay at home, keep to myself, and still have what really matters. I can pray under a tree. Make sense? People are just living out what we have taught them.

Also the church’s reputation has to be at an all-time low ebb. And churches can be difficult, people can annoy or offend us. It’s easy to feel alienated. So joining a church is not a very attractive option for many – and we all know that it’s not essential anyhow. So why bother with it?

In fact, our whole society has been shaped by this sort of individualist thinking, so even people from other traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, etc) find themselves thinking similar thoughts. “God is everywhere so I can know him anywhere. I don’t need church”. I’ve heard this said by people from all sorts of different Christian denomination. This seems to be the ‘default position’ for many religious people today.

So there’s a whole stack of ‘Christian’ type people out there who are not very connected to a church. Over the past fifty years they’ve drifted off – and haven’t come back.

Of course this is a temporary situation. The kids of these people are not likely to identify as Christian. If they’re not brought up in a church family, they are unlikely to embrace the Christian faith of their parents. It’s often too weak to make a deep impression.

How should we respond to this?  Can we turn this situation around? Can we regather these people?

I think we can. My church is largely populated by regathered Christians who had spent many years off in the wilderness. Now their faith is reigniting.

What’s the way forward then?

One thing we can say is we’re going to need to offer more than just bible education, to be attractive for these people. Church-as-bible-teaching-platform is not going to be very compelling anymore. Churches no longer have a monopoly on the education market.

If we go back to the NT as our resource, what help does it offer in this situation? It gives us a vision of church as a living community of people, rather than church as just a teaching event on Sunday. That’s full of potential for us. Authentic community can be tremendously attractive to people. Church in the NT is a richer experience than the fairly slender one we have made it in our tradition. Relationally richer. It was more like a family – complete with squabbles! In fact we’ve found in our church that relationships and community have been the main way Christian people have been drawn back to the church community.

So why don’t we develop our churches so that they offer people that richer experience of community life?

It’s not going to happen easily is it? Who is going to devote themselves to building that sort of community? Most evangelicals know that a personal relationship with God is much more important than the church community: so they may be hard to get on board.

We may need to go further  back and take a look at the faith we are teaching in our churches. Take another look at Jesus the Gatherer, who taught his disciples to cast their nets for people not fish. Fundamental to his mission was drawing together a people, a new people for God’s praise, whose lives together were regulated by the rule of love. Jesus seems to have had no idea of achieving anything much else, besides creating this people. It was that central to God’s purposes. The rest of the NT follows suit. It’s all written to and for the new people gathered around the risen Jesus – or else to their leaders. The tensions we feel between personal faith and church-belonging – as if these two themes were rivals – that tension doesn’t seem to exist for the apostles. The two seem to function as two sides of the one coin: the coin of salvation.

Ultimately life follows theology. We are now reaping the harvest we sowed in the past when we downgraded the church to second-rank importance, and elevated individual faith to unique core status. That Protestant logic has seen not only unbelievers but also Christians leave the church. Turning that around will probably also have to start with theology. A new vision for the place of God’s people in his purposes. A new vision for what the Christian community is and must be. Something cogent.

Step 1, then, is probably to get ourselves convinced about church. Those who’ve stayed need to be persuaded. Then we might have some chance of convincing those who’ve left.

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Well, those are my top five post-collapse realities we need to face as the church in c.21st Australia. There are others of course. What would you have listed? What do you think we should do about these ones? Please leave us a comment! We need to get talking together about these things.

Here’s the third and fourth of the five realities of church life and mission after the collapse (see previous posts):

3. Many people in our churches are at least second generation Christians. I.e. their parents (and maybe their grandparents) had a church connection. We are not used to seeing conversions, especially not adult conversions.

Conversions are in the ones and twos, not the one and two hundreds, aren’t they. We don’t have many adult baptisms going on. In terms of Jesus’ call to his disciples to be ‘fishers of men’, it seems we’re using rods, not nets.

Since this is the reality, it’s time we owned up to it. We often talk about the importance of doing mission. We desperately need to change the discourse, and start talking about learning to do missionIt’s been a long time since our mission was effective. Let’s say so, and talk openly about finding ways forward.

The great danger is that we might just do more of the same, and that things might go on as they are. Because the way things are is collapsed.

4. Our church people mainly know church people. This flows naturally from reality no.3, above. We’ve been in the church all our lives. Our friends are other church people. Our doctor and perhaps our accountant are church people. Our kids are likely at a church school. We have few real connections with non-Christian people. We’re talking definite sub-culture. Our churches have developed ways of thinking and talking and relating and viewing the world, which feel weird to outsiders. In other words there’s a cultural barrier making church involvement seem unattractive to ordinary Aussies. To put it bluntly, to our neighbours we seem odd.

And ordinary Aussies are unattractive to us! We feel a defensiveness toward the world around us. It just doesn’t feel safe out there. Much safer in here, with the home boys we know and can trust. Lets hope our kids grow up with youth group friends.

This is not surprising. We’ve suffered a collapse. Our society has turned its back on us. We feel hurt. We feel ignored and rejected. We resent their indifference. We turn inward for comfort. We become insular and protective.

No.4 also causes  no.3, as our lack of relationships with ordinary people limits the extent of our witness. We can’t reach people for Jesus if we don’t know them!

I don’t have a silver bullet for this, and in fact it’s really hard to bust out of being a subculture once you are one. It’s hard to even want to change. But I can say that our modern approach of running networked  churches, based on affinity and peer groups, has entrenched the problem. If your church is a deliberately a collection of people who have a lot in common, who are similar to each other – well, who are the people you have most in common with? Other Christians. If your church encourages you to hang out with the people who you feel most comfortable with, well, who do you feel most comfortable with? Other Christians! If your network and your peer group and your church are all roughly the same people, that’s always going to drift towards a situation where everyone you know is a church person. The stronger your church does community, the worse the problem will get. All your time gets absorbed in the church network.

The only way forward that I think has much of a chance is to go back – back to doing local church. Teach our people to reach out to their actual neighbours, regardless of similarity or difference. To show friendship across cultural barriers. To expose ourselves to the ‘ordinary’ people who live next door. To make connections with whoever is living there. Develop a church vision to take responsibility for mission in your neighbourhood.

In short, we need the discipline of the parish system to force us to reach out beyond our comfort zone.

It won’t be quick, it won’t be glamorous or easy. But gradually we’ll make friends and connections. We will have the chance to influence people for Jesus. And gradually the culture gap will narrow, so that we evangelicals stop being such a weird sect.

Not just local church, but local mission-vision, has got to be a key to addressing our post-collapse insular Christian subculture.

Confused-Look
Here’s the second of the five realities of church life and mission after the collapse (see previous posts):

2. Much of our traditional message seems to have become meaningless to ordinary Aussies.

Blank looks on faces of Scripture-class kids. Blank looks on faces of unchurched visitors at Easter and Christmas. Blank looks on faces of people door to door. And we know what those blank faces mean. They mean “What the heck are you guys talking about??”

This is perhaps the issue, out of the five, that’s hardest for us to talk about. Because the content of our message is a matter so core to our own identity and sense of who we are and of what really matters. It’s a touchy one for us to address. We might not be able to avoid offending or scandalising some. Shrug. It’s time we faced the problem, so we’ll just have to all cope.

Here goes. The message that is so dear to us, that we offer the world, tends to be a message about justification. This answers this question, “how can I find a gracious God and have my sins forgiven?” Or to put it more crudely, ‘How can I get to heaven?’ At this point in our society’s history, people in general are not asking these questions.Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 7.58.45 PM

But it’s more than just they’re not asking. They’re not really able to ask these questions. Think about it like this: our message of justification is about something that happens ‘up there’ in the heavenly realm. It’s up there that we are in trouble before God, and its up there that God sorts it out – declares us righteous and forgiven. The whole thing seems to take place in another world, abstracted far from our world. And then the results are largely experienced after death, also in another world. Heaven and hell.

Here’s the problem: our society is materialist. We Aussies have only a very dim sense of the reality of any world other than the one we can see. And we don’t really believe in souls going to heaven and hell any more. It all sounds like fairy tales, stories told to frighten children into being good.

What we’re talking about is a world view disjunct. The message we’re selling only makes sense, only means something, from within a particular world view. Our society has moved on, and has a fairly different world view. The one we’re working in sounds, to ordinary Aussies, pretty medieval. And from the materialist worldview, justification simply isn’t very meaningful.

So our message fails to get traction. It just can’t jump the world-view gap.

So we are potentially faced with the challenge of trying to sell not just the good news of justification by faith, but actually the entire world view within which that message is meaningful. That’s quite a sales target! I don’t know how many people’s world views you’ve managed to transform lately, but it’s normally considered a big ask.

Meanwhile, any lesser effort to just talk ‘getting right with God’ or ‘assurance of going to heaven’ is like water off a duck’s back. We are offering a remedy for an illness they are not aware of, and can hardly understand. We find ourselves trying to sell both the malady and the cure, but we get little traction with that either. Aussies have many concerns that trouble their minds – but it is hard for ‘justification’ to rise up into their top ten.

Well, that’s all a bit discouraging! What can we do about it?

Actually I don’t think it need be discouraging for long. This is a problem that missionaries have wrestled with forever – how to convey the gospel message in a way that means something to the ‘target culture’. They call it contextualising. Once we accept that our culture has moved away from Christian faith and we are operating in a new and foreign culture, we can just get on with the job of mission – i.e. with contextualising the gospel.

Contextualising sounds a bit scary, but every good missio does this. They take the story of the bible, and in particular of Jesus, on the one hand. They take the ‘story’ of the target culture on the other hand. What are the hopes and dreams and challenges and hurts and troubles of that people group? What makes them tick. What issues are hot potatoes? Then the missio tries to bring these two stories together. She asks, ‘How does the story of Jesus speak into this story? How does it address their concerns? Confront their assumptions? Answer their deepest questions? How does Jesus get under their skin?’

Once we face the fact that we are operating post-collapse in a non-Christian culture with a changed world-view, we will be able to start asking these questions too.

The great thing about contextualising is it forces missios to get back to Jesus – rather than relying on any abstract set of ideas or principles they thought was the message. They have to start right back at the source – the person of Jesus – and work outwards from there. Ultimately the thing that gets traction with any culture is Jesus.

What missios – good missios – don’t do is try to import their whole world-view, challenge or undermine all the cultural reference points of their audience. The point of contextualising is you don’t try to bust up the target culture – you work with it.

In other words, instead of expecting your neighbours to cross the worldview gap before they can learn about Jesus, you cross it for them, take Jesus to them right where they are, and start there.

bridge-the-culture-gapIt’s no good us trying to sell the whole medieval worldview back to our culture. That’s a lost cause right there, that is. Once we accept that harsh reality, we will be able to start on the real mission task: contextualising. We can start thinking how to speak Jesus into our Western materialist culture.

And that will hopefully enable us to speak with a new voice, a voice that gets traction.

What would that look like? Let’s do a little bit of contextualising right here and now. What is the ‘story’ of our own Aussie culture? What makes us tick? What things keep us awake at night? What do we long for? What puts a fire in our belly? Here’s some suggestions.

Community. People feel overwhelmed by living in a sea of strangers. They belong to no tribe and they miss it. Their families are fragmenting and they don’t know how to stop it.

Justice. People feel concerned about the imbalance and abuse of power in the world. Especially how the poor and children and refugees are treated. There are 50 million displaced people in the world today, and hundreds of millions affected by violence. The gap between rich and poor keeps widening. People are confronted with this every day and it deeply troubles them.

Sex. Many many people feel unhappy about the role of sex in their lives. So many of the protective boundaries got smashed in the 1960s and sex has become more destructive than ever. Think one parent families. Think teen sex. Think porn. Sexualisation of children. Child abuse. It’s out of control, and we’re really worried.

Spirituality and beauty. People feel shallow and materialist. They want something deeper and richer. But how to find it?

The planet. Most people believe the planet is in trouble, and we are the cause. Our governments seem unable to come to grips with this. We feel like we’re all walking on thin ice, and not sure how long till it breaks through.

That’s not the whole cultural story, buts it’s probably enough to be getting on with. So there’s the challenge. What does the gospel of Jesus say about these issues? How does Jesus speak into this culture’s story? Where does the message of Christ offer insights? Hope? Rebuke? Release?

That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop talking about justification. It does mean we’re going to package it differently, as part of a whole bunch of things we want to say about Jesus. We’re probably not going to end up with justification standing alone in the limelight the way we used to. That’s a bit threatening for us isn’t it. Majoring on justification just feels so right.

But we’re going to need a richer Christology to speak into these various questions. We might have to go back and read about and look at Jesus in a new way. We might find our own appreciation of him in enriched as we do this. We may be surprised to find that the Jesus of the Bible does have things to say about these issues. And as we share what we’ve found with our neighbours, we might just get some traction!

Suggested example: Tom Wright’s book Simply Christian does a good job of contextualising the message of Jesus for a modern Western audience of the tertiary-educated type.

Of the Gospels, Luke probably offers the most clues for speaking Jesus into modern Aussie culture. The way Luke contextualises Jesus for his readers just happens to touch an unusually large number of the ‘pressure points’ of our culture too. Luke’s theology of Jesus is rich enough to speak into each and every one of these issues we’ve outlined above. Thank God!

In the last post I identified five key realities of our existence, living after the collapse of church involvement in Australia. It’s time we addressed each of them. First was:

1. Coming to church is not the default setting for many people any more. In fact it feels like a strange and foreign place. So they need some compelling reason to come along. But we Protestants have (clearly) not been successful, overall, at providing compelling reasons. So they stay comfortably away.

This is especially true of Aussie males. Most of them would rather run a mile than go to church.

This is difficult for us evangelicals because our whole approach to church is ‘service-centred’. It all revolves around those two hours on a Sunday. If you come there, you can make friends, join in the church family, learn etc. The service is the way in.

But our neighbours feel that it is a way they would rather not take. It’s a hurdle they don’t want to jump. They’ve kind of voted with their feet haven’t they. Since they don’t want to ‘come to church’, they miss out on all the things a church family could offer them. And, from our point of view, we stay on the other side of that hurdle, urging our neighbours to jump it, but actually failing to reach them.

What can we do to respond to this? A few talented leaders can make church services so good that people are attracted. The best of our churches can draw in great staff who will do this pretty well and build a growing congregation. But the rest of us – the large majority – cannot really manage to make our services that stunning and inspirational. That approach is only going to work for a few. And even those few, there are still plenty of people out there who just won’t come no matter what, and we’ll never reach them through church services. Better services are not the main way forward to see this generation reached for Christ.

Here’s an alternative suggestion. How about we stop trying to get people to come to our church services? I’m suggesting moving right away from the whole ‘church as event’ model, where church is something we do. And toward a ‘church as body’ model, where the church is a community of people sharing their lives and faith. That’s what our theology tells us church is, right? How about we start living that, a bit?

Let’s defocus the ‘church service’, and let’s stop talking about ‘going to church’. Seriously. That language says church is an event. It’s not: it’s a body of people. So let’s stop saying it. And let’s stop living it.

Let’s give people other ways of getting involved with the church community, without having to attend a ‘service’. Can the whole process of coming to know Jesus and take part in fellowship with his people, can that all kick off before a person has come to a Sunday service? I can’t see why not…

At our church, we hardly ever invite anyone to come along to our Sunday service. We invite them to heaps of other stuff, though, usually in people’s homes. By the time they decide to come along to the Sunday worship service, they already know most of the people there, they already feel like part of the community.

Church services have become an obstacle, a blockage which hinders us and our neighbours from connecting. I’m not suggesting we can them. Let’s just de-centre them. If our neighbours don’t feel able to come, let’s make some other pathways for them.

Maybe the needs of mission are going to push us to fix up our dodgy approach to church life!

Mission after the collapse

Posted: July 6, 2014 by J in Church

[The+Pianist+Warsaw+Polanski.png]When my parents were young, many of their neighbours went to church. And most kids in Sydney went to Sunday school. The Sunday schools were bursting at the seems across Sydney. In those days, the church had the ear of the people.

Since then, church attendance has collapsed. The Sunday Schools are largely gone, or else tiny. Many Christians prefer the secure feeling of belonging to something big, so they cluster together in large congregations. But this merely hides the reality that overall numbers have declined drastically. Consider this graph from the NCLS website.

 

Our society has largely abandoned Christian church involvement. The trend has been steady and still continues.  It didn’t come as a surprise, it didn’t happen over ten years: it happened over sixty years. Most people my age (forty-somethings) have lived their whole lives with minimal church connection. Their children know little or nothing about Christian faith. We now live in a pretty-much unchurched nation.

We may be hoping that society at large are missing us, but if so, they’re not showing many signs of regret. The regret seems to be largely on our side.

This puts us in a challenging new situation when we attempt mission in Sydney. We are doing mission in a ‘post-collapse’ environment. Consider some of the harsh realities:

1. Coming to church is not the default setting for many people any more. In fact it feels like a strange and foreign place. So they need some compelling reason to come along. But we Protestants have (clearly) not been successful, overall, at providing compelling reasons. So they stay comfortably away.

2. Much of our traditional message seems to have become meaningless to ordinary Aussies. We have on the whole offered a message of justification. This answers this question, “how can I find a gracious God and have my sins forgiven?” Or to put it more crudely, ‘How can I get to heaven?’ At this point in our society’s history, people in general are not asking these questions. We are offering a remedy for an illness they are not aware of. We find ourselves trying to sell both the malady and the cure, but we get little traction. Aussies have many concerns that trouble their minds – but it is hard for ‘getting right with God’ to rise up into their top ten.

3. Many people in our churches are at least second generation Christians. I.e. their parents (and maybe their grandparents) had a church connection. We are not used to seeing conversions, especially not adult conversions.

4. Our church people mainly know church people. They’ve been in the church all their lives. Their friends are other church people. Their doctor and perhaps their accountant are church people. Their kids are likely at a church school. Our people have few real connections with non-Christian people. We’re talking definite sub-culture. Our churches have developed ways of thinking and talking and relating and viewing the world, which feel weird to outsiders. In other words there’s a cultural barrier making church involvement seem unattractive to ordinary Aussies.

5. Rampant individualism means even some Christian believers prefer to stay away. The idea that you can do God stuff on your own without the church, is deeply ingrained in our culture – thanks (probably) to Protestant theology and its secular twin, the cult of the individual. It’s a fairly common thing to find people with a Christian faith who have no church connection, and don’t want one. They can do faith on their own.

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This is the reality of the post-collapse landscape. It’s time we faced it. Part of facing it is to talk about it, and to name it with its proper name. Collapse is not too strong a word for what has happened.

If we are to reach Sydney for Christ, it is this Sydney we are going to have to reach, not the Sydney our grandparents grew up in. Much has changed. We are going to have to figure out how to operate post-collapse.

And we will get little help from our American brothers. They didn’t have the collapse. Their churches are still overflowing. They haven’t got a clue about what to do in a post-collapse setting. We can bring in US gurus, it’s not going to make any difference. We’d better stop looking to them for solutions.

So here’s my question: what do we do about the five points of collapsism, cited above?

I’d welcome suggestions about even just one of them…    🙂

Or perhaps you might like to add something to the picture of post-collapse Sydney, some important aspect that I’ve missed.