Beyond The Walls

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.

Homophobia in Australia: Alive and Well?

Our attitudes as a nation to issues such as refugees, asylum seekers, kids in detention, the homeless and marginaslised, our Indigenous communities and people who identify as LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer) seems to be under constant scrutiny. The media as well as Face Book and Twitter are alive with views one way or another on these issues. Some articles and comments are openly accepting others bordering on or indulging in racism, fear mongering and homophobia.

Last week Triple J’s (ABC youth broadcaster) Current Affairs program, Hack (http://goo.gl/0MWEv Thurs 19 Feb) highlighted the plans of Manchester based LGBT North West (http://goo.gl/0hzYe9 ) to develop a LGBTI focused school. This has come about because of repeated reports from youth who identify as LGBTI being bullied to such an extent that they either want to drop out of mainstream school or worse are contemplating or attempting suicide.

In a longitudinal study Writing Themselves in 3 (http://goo.gl/viBcd2 ) Australian university, LaTrobe researched an increasing number of young people who identified as Same Sex Attracted and Gender Questioning (SSAGQ). This, the last of the reports done in 2010 recognised a significant and largely positive change in the environment for these young people. This is mainly around avenues of support and is largely because the young people themselves have advocated for what they need to feel supported and connected.

LGBT North West in Manchester has discovered that while this might true, disturbingly there has been an increase in homophobic attitude and behaviour. According to a 2005, The Australia Institute Paper (http://goo.gl/9FK6Ld ), the term homophobia was coined by George Weinberg a psychotherapist in 1967. Homophobia refers to the unreasoning fear or hatred of homosexuals and to anti-homosexual beliefs and prejudices. It refers to the belief that heterosexuality is normal and natural and that homosexuality is unnatural, sick or dangerous. This view of homophobia is supported by Christian gay ambassador and activist Anthony Venn Brown (http://goo.gl/3724uI ).

In the Writing Themselves in 3 study 61% of SSAGQ young people reported verbal abuse because of homophobia, 18% physical abuse and 26% some other form of homophobia. Young men and GQ young people reported more abuse than young women. The most common place of abuse (80%) was school.

With these things in mind the question to explore is what avenue is the best way to support our SSAGQ young people to experience purpose, meaning, belonging and connection, 4 pillars that we all need to mediate against suicidal contemplation and action. And whichever way we go, what will be the broader social implications? Is it better to at least in someways isolate SSAGQ young people to achieve the level of support they need? Or as many Hack listeners felt isolate the bullies, give them separate schools? Is there another way that will maintain young people in mainstream education, but help to create an environment of not just tolerance (lets face it, who wants to be tolerated), but acceptance and inclusivity?

Homophobia beliefs and actions have, some perhaps indirectly, attributed to the deaths of many young people and have left countless others permanently scarred as they head into adulthood. This was in part some of the reasons why Australian swimming champion, Ian Thorpe waited so long and chose the UK to come out publicly (http://goo.gl/n4jNZZ ).

What values do we need to embody as individuals and as a society to create a safer more open community so that everyone including SSAGQ young people can flourish?

Relational Thinking may well be a pointer to an effective approach to the inclusion and support of SSAGQ young people. Firstly as individuals and as a society we need to stop seeing people with these orientations as second class citizens. As Venn Brown points out heterosexist attitudes can lead to homophobic behaviour. We need to recognize that these young people have the same human rights as the rest of the community. From here we have a level playing field to introduce the 5 tenants of relational thinking.

How many of us from the heterosexual community have actually had the opportunity to deeply connect with a same sex attracted adult let alone a young person struggling with their sexuality. We tend to either have no sense of what life is like or perhaps worse have formed opinions based on media or religious stereotyping.

Relational thinking encourages us to have direct communication with someone who is SSAGQ, not relying on social media for a quasi relationship. Once we begin a connection, we can share in greater degrees who we are and encourage that openness in the other (multiplexity). As the relationship grows we may well find that we share a common direction and dreams for a society that welcomes the stranger and the outcast. And we may even together enter into the battle for parity not only in interpersonal relationships but over society generally. In case you are wondering the fifth tenant is continuity and refers to shared history overtime, which of course will be established as we travel a combined journey.

Overall, in terms of creating a more inclusive society for SSAGQ young people is the Manchester school idea a good one? It comes across as an emergency solution because of the extreme nature of bullying and the impact it is having on young people. Whilst necessary in the short term, it doesn’t appear to be the ultimate solution. Perhaps a more sustainable approach is to work through how meaningful relationships can be formed between SSAGQ and heterosexual young people as a way of breaking down the silo mentality we all seem to live with. Whilst inherently relational this approach recognizes that we need to work together towards the common good for our society. Again not a simple solution and it will involve careful planning, cross sector involvement, education, as well as careful mainstream and social media campaigns to change attitudes and address homophobia.