There’s no doubt that the visible Christian Church has seen better days in terms of its public profile and influence. The number of people actively involved in the Church is at its lowest point in my lifetime. I can remember when Sunday was considered by many as ‘the Lord’s day’ and hundreds of thousands of people filled chapels across this nation every week. Being part of the Church was not some antiquated practice – it was the norm for many in our society. Those days are a distant memory.
We are not in ‘Kansas’ anymore! ‘Kansas’ in our case, being the 1950’s, when the Church was culturally acceptable, understood, influential and a part of the fabric of society. In fact, the Christian Church was the foundation of so much of what we have in this ‘lucky country.’ Today, however, the only time we see many chapels full are for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’ (baptisms, weddings and funerals) and maybe at Christmas and Easter.
In 2017 we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which began when a priest and scholar named Martin Luther approached the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed a piece of paper to the front door containing 95 revolutionary opinions that would trigger the explosion we now call the Protestant Reformation. Luther called the Church to return to its roots, abandon its lifeless rituals and practices and renounce the corruption which had overtaken the leadership, drowning out the clear gospel of Jesus Christ. Then from 1517 onwards, the Church was turned upside down and shaken to its core. The reforms came at great cost to some, but if that Reformation had not occurred, I doubt we would be talking about the Church in any context today, for it may well have imploded centuries ago.
Over half a millennia later, the Church which Jesus Christ died to establish is in serious need of another ‘Reformation’ and I believe the shaking has already begun. Like the majority of Christian ministries in this nation, so many mainline Church congregations are shrinking and ageing and unless this long-overdue Reformation occurs soon, thousands of congregations and ministries across Australia will simply not exist in 10-20 years.
Herein lies the tremendous challenge which faces all of us in leadership across the Christian spectrum. We need the courage to abandon lifeless structures, practices and ideologies; loosen our grip on ministries which have passed their use-by date and re-birth the Christ-centred, Spirit-led, relationship-driven, ‘incarnational’ model of the Church we know from the New Testament.
Jesus Christ did not establish the institution we now refer to as ‘The Church.’ Jesus established and secured our new relationship with God and then empowered God’s people to become a community of faith, a pilgrim people, who do not hide from the world around them in fortresses with steeples, but are active, integrated members of the community, bringing new life, hope and the empowering presence of God to everyone.
So how do we honour our senior members, who currently make up over 80% of the Church, maintaining something to which they can still relate personally, whilst at the same time establish an entirely new Church presence which operates very differently to what we see in most places today? How do we break free from what has been a building-focused, event-focused institution for centuries and allow God to re-establish a kingdom-focused movement which permeates every part of society? This is the challenge all of us in Church leadership face and we cannot keep pretending things are different.
What is the solution? I believe we need to hear from God Who has always been showing us ‘a new way’, we just haven’t been listening. We also need to listen to the younger members of our society who are not represented strongly in the Church anymore. Several decades ago, there was an entire generation who were choosing to not connect with the Church of their parents. Today I fear there are now two generations who are shunning the ways of their parents and grandparents. The age gap and culture gap between those actively involved in Christian ministry and those who are not, is the largest it has ever been.
This next Reformation will be painful, confronting and disorienting for many who have been committed to and involved in the Church all their lives. However, it will also be a liberating, life-changing, nation-transforming breath of fresh air to a sick, dysfunctional society which desperately needs the Church of Jesus Christ to return to its roots and become the change-agent God always intended. Are we ready? If we want to be part of the Church Jesus promised to build, then the answer must be YES.