Mission post-collapse 5: Getting Christians to church

Posted: July 28, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Mission, Pastoral issues, Theology

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.

_____________________________

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.

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Comments
  1. Keith says:

    Really helpful and insightful series, J. I think you are right that individualistic theology (discernible in some forms of Protestantism) may well be a factor in declining church attendance.

    You asked about other factors. I would add that people are unwilling to sign up to a number of beliefs that are associated with church going people, such as the following:

    * those who aren’t Christian will all go to hell when they die
    * homosexuality and/or homosexual practices is sinful
    * women shouldn’t lead or have authority over men
    * the earth is only about 6,000 years old

    I think the church faces a major credibility crisis; exacerbated by sexual abuse scandals and the sense churches are seriously out of date, and by at least the perception that churches are generally silent about things that do matter to them. I like your suggestions of issues from your previous posting.

    Maybe an extended series – to look at some of these?

    Keep up the good work!

    • J says:

      Thanks for your comment Keith! I’m sure you are right that these and others of our teachings are a turn off for many people. Perhaps we find ourselves in a situation where more than ever before our teachings are unacceptable to much of our society. No doubt this is the main reason some people stay away.

      It’s always hard to respond fairly and honestly to this sort of situation. It could be we have something to learn from those outside the church who can see our prejudices better than we can. So we’d better listen. Or it could be that the message is true though unpopular, and we will be tempted to massage it to achieve a superficial popularity and avoid persecution and ridicule.

      Difficult times to navigate!

  2. Dennis Kuhns says:

    This series has been helpful for me in our American context. We are facing the same issues you outlined. One analogy I use is that of an athletic team. You can’t plan soccer, hockey, etc. alone. We cannot be Christian, be a follower of Jesus alone. We try of course. But without other team members or family members as you have said, how will I ever become a better player or family member? We only improve together. Thanks for your insight.

    • J says:

      Thanks for commenting Dennis. Yeah, I’m guessing you Americans know a thing or two about individualism! But we’re not far behind…

      Corporate images like the sports team are helpful, I reckon. The NT has plenty of them too: the building with many stones, the vine with many branches, the body with parts etc. We could get a lot of mileage out of this sort of imagery, in reshaping our minds in line with God’s people-building purposes.

  3. Very helpful and succinct way you have put the problem, brother. I have been thinking many of these things myself.

    Perhaps you are going to address this in future, but I am wondering how your Solution stands in light of what you said in Point 4. That is, if one of the problems that has led to our current crisis is that our church cultures are too insular, how is it that giving emphasis to church being “a living community of people” addresses the problem? On the surface it would seem to only make the problem worse.

    • J says:

      Great question Luke! Nice to have you back at The Grit!

      I’d like to know your thoughts on this question, Luke. Here is mine:

      I had included a paragraph on this issue, but I cut it to simplify. I was suggesting that the communities we build need to be inclusive so that they are not a subset of Christian believers (i.e. some christians won’t come) but rather the Christians are a subset of the church community. People are attracted and welcomed and connected in with no strings attached, before they have professed faith in Christ.

      So the church community would be a missional presence in its neighbourhood.

      This of course raises a whole bunch of questions… 🙂

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