In the sixties and seventies, the Church in Australia became increasingly isolated and less relevant to mainstream Australian society. It began to move from the centre of society to the fringe so that by the beginning of the twenty-first century it had become an insignificant sub-culture of the periphery of a pluralistic and multi-cultural society. The world we now live in has been changing at an alarming rate over the past thirty to forty years. Australian society, like the rest of the Western world, is moving through a transition period from modernity to post-modernity, involving an epochal change in the way people live, think, and act.
This new world is a world of post-Christendom, post-denominationalism and post-institutionalism. In this new pluralistic world, Christianity is no longer the main player on the block. The old denominational and organisational structures are crumbling because brand loyalty is a thing of the past in our consumer-orientated society. Institutions, particularly those like the church, are deemed to belong to a style vacuum since almost everyone is looking for freedom and autonomy in this increasingly anti-authoritarian world. Because of this, many fine Christian people are struggling to make the faith they profess meaningful to their everyday lives and applicable to those to whom they seek to witness.
The Church in Australia is facing a momentous crisis. It is as the Church has always been, just one generation from extinction. At this present time, the Pentecostal church is the fastest growing church in Australia. It is growing at a conversion rate of less than one person per year per congregation. The Anglicans, Uniting and Presbyterians are dying off at an alarming rate. Many Brethren Assemblies are seriously struggling. Larger churches are growing primarily at the expense of dying smaller churches. An escalating number of clergy are opting out of the ministry. And many Christians are either very discouraged or looking for the latest bandwagon to get their next fix of super-spirituality. So is there any hope for the Church in Australia in this post-Christendom and post-modern World?
The answer to that question is extremely complex. The answer could well be: Yes! J. K. Chesterton once said. “Five times in the history of the Church, Christianity has gone to the dogs and every time it was the dog that died!” Or the answer could be: No! For a number of times in the history of the Church, a church or a group of churches have died off in a particular part of the world. I would suggest that the Church in Australia can and will survive, but only if it becomes what it was always intended to be. That is missionary in nature. As Emil Brunner once said, “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.”
The Church in Australia, like the rest of the Western world, has operated for too long on the older Christendom model of mission, which is mission by attraction. Neither the user-friendly approach of Willowcreek or the hype of Hillsong will stop the decline of an ailing Church for such approaches are neither radical enough nor sufficiently world engaging to meet the need the Church in Australia at this present time.
If the Church is to be meaningful in the new and changing world of the twenty-first century, it must become outwardly missionary in its orientation. It must move-out into the world to befriend, engage, and confront the world on its own ground, not ours. It must become incarnational rather than program orientated. For too long our churches have substituted programs for relationships. This will involve becoming a community instead of merely being assemblies or congregations. We must keep in mind that which we have so easily forgotten, that the missionary is the message and not simply the messenger.
This new and changing world we now live in demands new wineskins, It will not be good enough simply to pour the new wine of the gospel into the old wineskins. What is required is not patched up wineskins, but the new wineskins of a radically contextualised gospel and church. We need to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in creating new church and mission structures that can carry the life-changing truth of the gospel into the new and changing world of twenty-first century Australia.
Reaching out will and must involve God’s people moving out of the safety and comfort of our Christian ghetto’s into the world in the same kind of way in which Jesus left the security of heaven and incarnated himself into the world of a fallen humanity. For Jesus, the incarnation meant incarnation into Jewish culture. Through the incarnation, Jesus Christ became a first century Galilean Jew – “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us” (Jn. 1:14). In Christ, God accepted the cultural limitations of a particular time and place. He adopted a Jewish lifestyle and Jewish customs within the context of a Jewish family. After the resurrection, he commissioned his disciples saying. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn.20:21; cf. 17:18). Jesus mission, as described in Luke 4:18-19, was to liberate the impoverished, the imprisoned, the sightless, and the oppressed. Consequently, the church as the body of Christ is called to incarnate fully into the life and culture of every segment of Australian society, proclaiming the gospel, and meeting human need in whatever form it may occur.
To do this effectively, we must form small missionary communities in the same way that Jesus established the missionary community of the twelve. Jesus never intended us to engage in mission alone and in isolation from other members of his body. Such communities must enter and engage the various cultures, subcultures and neighbourhoods within Australian society in a culturally sensitive and relevant fashion in much the same way as missionaries entered traditional cultures in Africa or New Papua Guinea. We must lay aside the sacred language of the church and learn the language of the people to whom we minister. We must adapt to the new culture and yet bring the transforming power of the gospel into contact with that culture. The aim must be to establish new believing communities that are culturally appropriate and not simply clones of the churches that we come from. Such communities may look and feel odd because they fit the new culture and not the old church culture with which we feel so comfortable, but that is to be expected.
In adventuring with God in this way, we must above all commit ourselves as the people of God to the God who is eternal, unchanging, and yet not taken by surprise at the emerging context in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Finally, we must trust God to lead and to guide us in the task of fashioning new wineskin suitable for the emerging post-Christendom, post-denominational and post-institutional society in which we now live.