In Australia, if the churches maintain the ideals and patterns of the past 50 years with fervour, swerving neither to the left or to the right, but zealously holding the current trajectory, then in 50 years time we will live in a country of more than 46 million where 600,000 people go to church more than twice a month, and roughly 40% of that figure will be Catholic.1 This means, in my local town of 20,000 people there will be about 260 believers going to church more than once a month and just over 150 of those will be meeting in protestant churches.2 This calculation is using elementary straight line projection on historical data and does not include any exponential factors within our culture which many cite as accelerating the decline in recent decades. Recent surveys by a reputable social and Christian research company’s3 show that today, the elderly in our churches far outweigh the young (about 67% over 50yo). Within Australia’s population the opposite is true (about 67% under 50yo). The unavoidable conclusion is that, right here right now, we are continuing that diabolical historical trajectory. A peek at the global stage will show that this dynamic is not confined to Australia. Europe is perhaps further down the slope. The US is fast catching up. Unfortunately the pathway of decline is well trodden and most of us take each step on the downward journey making every effort to be as upbeat as possible, all the while a sense of the inevitable looms large over us.
But is this really all that necessary? Is there no other more effective evangelical way of living out the faith than what we have?
Evangelicalism is normally defined by its evangelical purpose – evangelisation – which I think, considering the figures, a questionable proposition at best. I would rather define it by what I consider to be a more widespread perspective both to those inside and outside the churches - the weekly routine. Although not articulated as such, these routines outline the systematic responsibilities of discipleship for believers not only in Australia, but throughout the globe. The responsibilities within the routine include; attending the large, custom build, single room building that we meet in on Sundays, being greeted at the door and receiving a bulletin, mingling amongst the believers for fellowship, taking our seat on the pew (or row of seats) from which we can clearly see the pulpit, singing the 4-6 worship songs, standing and sitting a few times, opening and closing our eyes a few times, learning from the 20-40 minute sermon delivered by the professionally trained pastor, taking note of the events that will be held in the coming week and who we should be praying for, participating in the prayers within the service, giving generously to the offering, then perhaps mingling for coffee or perhaps a meal with the believers afterward. In addition, it is normally encouraged that each believer would also attend a ‘midweek’ prayer/ bible-study /youth group meeting, and that each home would pray before each meal, perhaps traditionally having a bible reading individually and as a family, but in the last century or so our emphasis has been more about each individual member to having ‘a daily quiet time’. Along with these routines, a disciple should seek to speak the gospel to those they meet ‘in their every day lives’, and to bring the new believers into these routines to ensure sustained faith. I think there would be few that would disagree when I say that this routine outlines the practicalities of discipleship. Church growth, in evangelical terms, usually is measured by the number of believers participating in this routine. Spiritual growth in a believer is measured by their enthusiastic adherence to these routines. These western routines are mostly unchanged from before the reformation, and even though they are western, without fail they are also found in Asia, Africa, Sth America –everywhere the church is. They are western, and they are global.
Many today have decided that the routine has limited value in 21st century culture and create ‘another’ routine which will deliver a richer experience to the believers. Some of the more common elements to be adjusted are (1) Professional Pastors are often replaced by Experienced Practitioners – citing academic theology as ineffective for mission (2) The Purpose Built Building is exchanged for a School or Public Building or a Home (3) The traditional Sunday morning timeslot is changed for a Sunday evening or another night of the week, along with a good number of other nips and alterations. In almost all cases these changes are really just a tweak to the overall routine, which implement nuanced practicality such as you might find between denominations. Inevitably the routine strongly remains intact. It seems to me that perhaps the only elimination through which these routines are largely changed is when ‘Church’ itself is dispensed with – which in evangelical terms is essentially a name for the weekly routine. NCLS data suggests that believers who stop going to church only take a few short years to lose a distinctive Christian lifestyle and within 10 years most are undistinguishable from non-believers.
The routine itself, although universalised in a very specific format has come about through the innovation of historical Christian ‘spiritual entrepreneurs’ who were seeking to implement the biblical functions of discipleship within the cultural trends of their time. Leaders within the 3rd and 4th centuries (Greek Orthodox churches) introduced the large single room building to cope with the myriads of converts coming to faith. The Catholics in the 7- 10th centuries tightened up the elements within our Sunday service tailored to their non-literate and therefore passive audience and then universalised the routine; the reformers in the 16th century added the sermon to aid full comprehension of the new found gospel. And what we have today is the culmination of innovations and alterations to these. Interestingly, even though we must still fulfil all the functions of discipleship, none of the practical elements which form our routine are biblically mandated in such a specific format. But the myriad of evangelical missionaries in the 18-19th centuries continued to maintain that specific format, taking it to the farthest corners of the globe, and now, through such intense popularisation is defined by it. The routine was shaped by evangelical leaders. It now shapes our way of life, our style of biblical reasoning or theology, our way of thinking about everything that we call ‘Church’ or ‘The Faith’.
Innovation today, I would suggest, will not come through deciding which elements of the routines to dispense with, nor will it come through deciding to dispense with all the routines. Innovation will come, as it always does, through a lateral re-examination [new eyes] of the foundations we are to build on, for in the Scriptures we find a spontaneous expansion dynamic, enthusiastically infecting all disciples and churches in the administration given to them by the Apostle Paul – a faith pandemic. This is a far cry from the result of our Evangelical administration – ‘passive faith’ which we are forever trying to turn into ‘active faith’. Clearly, considering our current trajectory, Christ’s solutions are not illuminated amongst us. Paul makes a clear claim that Christ gave him the task of illuminating the administration of the gospel4 for ‘everyone’ – even angels. And it is without a doubt that it is the Spirit’s work through this one Apostle that took the gospel all the way around the Mediterranean to Rome. What was Paul doing differently? How did he exalt Christ so clearly as to turn the world upside down with the gospel? What incomprehensible power was at work in the principles undergirding his mission? Why was his work always focussed on the goal of starting and establishing churches rather than individuals? I am convinced [and I’m certainly not alone in this call5] that sustainable, biblical and effective innovation will come through a re-examination of the paradigm of the Apostle Paul – the Paradigm Paul claimed would illuminate the administration of the gospel even to those living 21 centuries later in the struggling system called evangelicalism.