During the week I had the honour of attending a World Vision Australia (http://goo.gl/mdPRq4) Conference, themed Beyond our Walls. It was a gathering of Church leaders, not that I consider myself a church leader, although according to Parker Palmer and his book on vocation, Let Your Life Speak, we are all leaders from where we sit. The gathering essentially a collection of World Vision partners was in part a thank you for the support and also an encouragement to move beyond the traditional walls that the church has erected for itself, which is the space that World Vision often occupies as it seeks to resource development around the world.
To aid in this exploration World Vision commissioned the McCrindle Group (http://www.mccrindle.com.au/) to do some research on the Church’s perception of the community, as well as the community’s perception of the church. The findings have been compiled into the Church Communities Australia Report.
The good news is that respondents are saying that the church is doing good things. However it goes down hill from there. These good things don’t seem to have relevance for them as individuals or their family, particularly when it comes to 7 key areas including their; spiritual, mental, social, relational, vocational, financial and physical wellbeing. This despite 61.1% of the population identifying as Christian. The research showed that over a month only 15% of the population will attend church at least once. 85% won’t enter a church, so as a culture bearer, the church’s voice and influence is diminishing.
The research went onto explore the blockers to engagement on both sides of the wall. From the community’s side there is a poor perception of church. Tod Samson, a leading Australian Marketer and presenter with the Gruen Transfer (http://goo.gl/CzcVd ) was stated as saying in effect, that Australians love the product but not the retail outlet. The church is seen as exclusive and that it just does its own thing. It’s also seen as hypocritical. Other factors for non-engagement include a lack of relevance and people’s general busyness.
From the church’s side, reasons stated for non-engagement include busyness, fear and a lack of confidence. Perhaps feeding into the lack of confidence there are deeper issues at play that church leaders would be perhaps unaware of or at least reluctant to explore in such a survey. One of these is discipleship, which is the teaching, training and mentoring of someone to emulate a master. In the church’s case that master is Jesus. He models world engagement in his approach to the poor and marginalized of his day. In subtle and not so subtle ways he challenged the systemic evil that prevented people from moving out of poverty. He was a proponent of an alternate politic, an upside down worldview if you like that saw the marginalized empowered to participate in society.
I see one of the key things missing for the church is a robust understanding or theology of these things and God’s broader concerns (including but not only personal salvation) and the lack of a spirituality that allows these things to be shown as inherently relevant to the world around us.
The research snapshot finished with a look from the church perspective on how responsive church ministries, services, communication and outreach were to church attendees (93%), local community (74%), 21st Century context (64%) and global events (57%). Again the sliding scale could indicate a number of things from busyness to a poor understanding or even lack of desire to engage with ideas and programs outside of the immediate needs of the congregation.
The news for the church isn’t all doom and gloom. Long time ABC journalist John Cleary pointed out that journalists as a group are not biased against the church, but they look to maintain a critical distance as part of a search for truth. They are not there to tell anyone’s story as such but to portray that truth. Unfortunately the caveat to this is that journalists working in a commercial framework are prisoners of the guidelines they are given. Also by nature they are suspicious of anyone that appears to be trying to sell them something. Cleary exhorted the leaders in the room to remember that we are 2-3 generations on from the church and the world being able to communicate effectively and that the church’s message will not be conceptually understood and in fact it might even be the wrong message.
Where once the community was happy with right belief being expressed, people now more than ever are looking for right action. The conference was very grateful for the presence of Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, who had asked for special leave from parliament to attend. Carrying personal integrity, sincere genuineness and a willingness to listen, Tanya provided a light to what has become a very dark political landscape. She encouraged the church to pick up on issues that show this right action, such as entrenched poverty, equitable access to schooling and for the church to join with community leaders that speak up for those who don’t have a voice. Interviewed by Tim Costello, Tanya expressed her dismay at the lack of response from the Australian community to the $11.2 Billion cut from the foreign aid budget. She commented that whilst Labor was committed to getting back to the target 0.5% of GDP it would take sometime, should they come to power at the next election.
Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision, well known in the media as preacher and activist wrapped the conference up well. His summary included the comment that preaching only makes sense in context, effectively in the context of action. If the church adopts this, then it and the community may be able to move to a point of meeting, perhaps just outside the wall or even on the boundary.