Book recommendation: “Disappearing Church”

disappearing churchDisappearing Church is the latest book by  pastor Mark Sayers. Mark heads up the team at RED church in Melbourne, Australia (considered the ‘most livable city in the world’). One of his strengths is his ability to analyse and critique broad cultural trends in the West, and what impact these have on the church.

In this book he speaks about where our culture is at, and what kind of response the church should make to the many changes that have taken place in recent decades.

Among his key points are:

  •  Western culture, while essentially post-Christian, has not moved into a kind of pre-Christian era, but instead into a highly individualised ‘hopeful secularism’ in which personal preferences and self-actualising choices are prized highly. People now preach “the gospel of self”, but our culture still retains many vestigial remnants of ‘Christendom’.
  • Most Westerners have a hunch that God is real, but form their own belief system, combining a mishmash of ideas that essentially serve the interests and preferences of the individual. He refers to this as “neo-gnosticism”.
  • While the church should seriously consider how it can engage culture with the Christian message, forms of Christianity which mess with doctrinal orthodoxy in order to be ‘relevant’ will ultimately fail. Instead churches need to accept their roles as creative minorities, working from the fringes to offer a counter-cultural narrative about God and life in which orthodox Christian teaching and practice speak coherently into real life.
  • It is possible that the church’s diminishing influence actually might be to our advantage. Being ‘the light’ works better when darkness falls across the land. As in sport, politics, and war, the advantage often lies with the underdog (ever heard of David and Goliath?).
  • In our world of images, entertainment, and the ‘good life’, many people in our culture are experiencing a profound poverty of the inner life. Referencing English philosopher Roger Scruton, Sayers notes that one of the great weaknesses of contemporary ‘atheistic’ Western culture is its inability to offer a genuine concept of personhood. The gospel message can speak powerfully to our deepest human needs in a way that secular ideologies simply can’t.

There are many other points I could add, but won’t.

When I read a book intently I usually mark it up with a pencil when I find a good quote or a profound insight. After reading Disappearing Church, I looked back – nearly every single page is marked, often in multiple places. I had more “ah ha” moments reading this book than any other book I’ve read in the last few years.

If you’re a Christian and want to think much more deeply about the state of our culture and how the church should respond, I suggest you buy yourself a copy. This book will amply reward a careful, prayerful reading.

You can buy it online here (Koorong Books, Australia), here (Book Depository, UK), or get the Kindle version here (the cheapest way to buy it).

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Reasons people don’t go to church (part 1)

The number of people regularly attending church in Australia is declining. On any given Sunday somewhere between 7-10% of the population attends church. Have you ever wondered why this figure is so low? Why don’t more people go to church?

As with most things in today’s world the answer is probably quite complex. There are a number of reasons, and combinations of reasons, why people don’t attend church. I thought it might be a helpful exercise to briefly sketch out a few of them.

I want to clarify that I’m not trying to judge those who don’t go to church. I want to understand their reasons for being part of the 90+% who don’t have much to do with church. I genuinely want to understand where they’re coming from. And I’m not trying to be negative about the church either. I love the church. Perhaps in future posts we can explore these issues and consider what the church can do to address them. Either way, it’s worth reflecting on.

Here are 7 reasons (in no particular order) why Aussies don’t go to church. I’ll give you 7 more reasons in a future post.

  1. IGNORANCE

The reality is that most people in Australia don’t know much about Christianity. They know a few things (gleaned from movies, books, and funerals), but really don’t know what the Bible’s all about. They don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity. They don’t understand where Jesus really fits in to things, and why he matters.  They don’t know how the Old and New Testaments are meant to relate to each other. They are largely ignorant of most of the basics of Christianity. So why go to church when you don’t know anything about it?

Furthermore, few people in our society are friends with a Bible-believing, church-attending, Jesus-loving Christian. So they have little convenient access to information about Christianity and the church.

  1. WORLD WAR 1

As the social commentator Roy Williams points out, a key reason why many people don’t go to church is grounded in the experience of the First World War.

In the lead up to World War 1 most church leaders strongly supported the war. They prayed for the destruction of the enemy. They encouraged that men sign up and nobly fight for freedom.

When our ‘diggers’ came back, many of them had changed their views about church and the God they thought they believed in. After the horrors they’d seen – and knowing the church had supported it- the church lost any real moral authority in the minds of a lot of the men. They were hurt, confused, and jaded. So were their sons, and their sons after them.

  1. SCIENTISM

Scientism is essentially the belief that only scientifically-proven knowledge is worth believing. If you can prove something through an experiment, or via direct observation, it’s worth believing. Nothing else.

In a way this seems very appealing. Many of the great advances in medicine and technology are due to scientific inquiry. Science ‘works’.

So when people hear about ‘faith’ and ‘miracles’ and ‘divine revelation’, it all sounds a bit subjective and uncertain. You can cure polio with science. But what about ‘faith’? You can send a spacecraft to the edge of the Solar System with science. What about the church?

When your loved one has a broken arm, you don’t take them down to the local Anglican Church. You take them to hospital.

The present efficacy of the sciences seems to suggest that scientifically-derived knowledge is worth your time. And church? Scriptures? Sermons? Not so much.

  1. PROSPERITY

We have it so good here in Australia. This is one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Naturally, not all of us have it good – take aboriginal Australians for example. They experience disparate social and economic circumstances which are the consequence of past disadvantages forced upon them.

But overall Australia is generally a beautiful, free, safe, and prosperous place. It’s a place where you can put most of your deepest existential questions on permanent hiatus. It’s where you can enjoy most of the best things that life has to offer. It’s the land of “she’ll be right, mate”.

When you live in heaven right now, why worry about a heaven above the clouds?

You can keep your pews, hymns, and collection plates – we’re doing just fine thanks very much.

  1. BAD PRESS

Turn on the TV and what do you hear? Nearly every day you hear the words “scandal” “abuse” and “church” all put together. They’re not talking about the Presbyterian Church of Australia – the denomination of which our church is a part. But people hear those words: “scandal” “abuse” and “church”. And an automatic word association forms.

People will drive past a church and in the back of their minds they’ll be putting those three words together: “scandal” “abuse”, “church”. It all sounds a bit risky. Dodgy.

Futhermore, our largely anti-religious media will often showcase the latest ‘scholar’ or author who will assert – with all the scholarly confidence one has when you’re not accountable to the actual facts of the matter – that Christianity is all bogus. It will be on Prime Time TV . . .. we’ve just worked it out: the Bible’s garbage, Jesus never existed, Jesus was married, Jesus was gay, Jesus was…. anything BUT what he himself claimed to be (the whole ‘Lord and Saviour’ thing).

If the word “church” or “Christianity” was a brand name, the manufacturer would have rebranded this product years ago. Bad press is one of most powerful factors undermining the influence of the church, and in destroying any semblance of moral or intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of many.

  1. BOREDOM

This one needs little explanation. We all know that people (including many professing Christians) think church is boring.

For far too long church has seemed like a dry, dull, dutiful thing. A place of serious faces, guilt trips, weird songs, and long droning sermons.

Who wants to be bored? No thanks.

  1. IT’S COMPLICATED

In our day and age, simplicity and convenience are paramount. If a restaurant, for example, is hard to locate, people will more likely choose equivalent options that are easier to find. That’s why McDonald’s is so successful. They make it as easy as possible. Their restaurants are easy to find. What they offer is easy to understand. Easy to order. Easy to eat. That’s how we like it.

So along comes Christianity. And like most religions or philosophical systems of thought, it’s a little complicated. Firstly, there’s all the doctrine – the Trinity, justification, sanctification, inerrancy, inspiration, adoption, ecclesiology, anthropology, and more.

Not to mention that when you get to church, usually there are  rules, traditions, rituals, expectations, unstated dress codes, strange buildings, long meetings, and a fist full of religious jargon.

There’s that. Or, a burger and fries.

We want things to be simple. And on the face of it, Christianity (and it’s “churchy” expressions) seems complex and difficult to understand.

That’s one reason most people shy away from it. They’d rather something easier to understand.

Big Mac anyone?

 

The work of the PIM

pim

The Presbyterian Inland Mission is a ministry of the Presbyterian Church of Australia – the largest Presbyterian denomination in the land down under. The PIM is the successor to the work of the Australian Inland Mission, which was found by John Flynn – a Presbyterian minister who founded the famous Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was the world’s first ‘air ambulance’ service.

The PIM provides pastoral care to people in remote and rural areas of Australia. They assist in many ways, including helping people deal with drought, isolation, and medical emergencies.

The PIM operates nine ‘patrols’, where trained Christians travel between settlements and stations across large areas of the country. Below is a map of the key patrol areas:

map pim plain

You can find out more about this important ministry at their website.

More importantly, you can financially support them by clicking here.

The Work of APWM

apwm

The APWM is the official missionary arm of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. They seek to make the good news about Jesus known in a number of ways. They establish gospel partnerships with churches in other countries, such as Japan, Vanuatu, East Timor, Zambia and South Sudan. These partnerships help the PC of Australia to assist in strengthening and growing churches in these areas. The APWM partners with a number of Christian agencies around the world such as Interserve, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and The Leprosy Mission. They also help raise funding for Australian missionaries to serve both here in Australia (including among indigenous Australians) and around the world.

The APWM could really use your prayerful and financial support to continue the great work they are doing. To find out more about this great organisation, click here.

Blessings.