Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the March 2001 edition of Essentials  
  What will we do next year?

Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn ministers at St John's Upper Beaconsfield in outer Melbourne.
  I find the older I get the harder it is to trust predictions of the future mainly because the older we get the more predictions we've seen come unstuck. But I also carry an additional hesitation when it comes to predictions. I grew up in a working class Melbourne where Frank Hardy and Karl Marx were our after dinner tutors, Gough Whitlam was the Messiah and the Church of England the Tory Party at prayer. The experience left me with two traits: one, an abiding interest in society, social trends and politics; and the second, a deep distrust of historicism - there are few cures for the disillusionment of an infant Marxist! The experience explains both why I've made the observation I am to present to you in this article and also why I am wary of it.  
  My observation is that the Church in Australia follows the trends and rhetoric of the business community with a time lag of around ten years. Here is my evidence.  


  Some of you will remember the rise of the 'alternative' business community of the 1970s. In the heady days of successful Vietnam protests and with a mineral boom to help pay for our philosophies, the business rhetoric was about freer forms of organisation with an emphasis upon community and social conscience. When I awoke to Christianity in 1980, I was welcomed into the Christianity of Explo '83 where we were asked to sign communal covenants with our home group members, when Sojourners, On Being and The Wittenberg Door were grist for the clever, when Christian Union published a magazine on social justice and promoted communal experience as the core of the gospel. Worship was held in the round.  
  But the business community had moved on.  


  In the 1980s, Australia was simultaneously bedazzled and unbalanced by the arrogance of spectacular risk takers. Our executives moved from the business page to the front page, becoming as much showmen as businessmen. Paul Keating floated the dollar and made us join the new economy as Australia was invaded by foreign capital followed by its banks. The boom lasted until the stock market crash of late 1987. As the church in Australia entered the 1990s we began to learn about the entrepreneur. The web site of the National Church Life Survey tells us that Church Growth ideas were a response to the negativity and helplessness that had arisen in the church due to the declines of the 1970s and 80s. With a growing theoretical and empirical base, the likes of Fuller Seminary, Willow Creek (Chicago) and Saddle back (Los Angeles) provided the international investment necessary for us to produce our own entrepreneurs, statistics and analysis. Technique, practicality, excellence and efficiency in the churches of the 1990's all sounded like a less passionate echo of Tom Peter's discredited business manual A Passion for Excellence from 1985.  
  But the business community had moved on.  


  Once the effect of the stock market crash was felt, business and government settled down to make the populace atone for the excesses of the 1980s. The rhetoric now was of privatisation, downsizing, core business, contractual agreements, outsourcing and economic rationalism. The 1990s was the decade that the State Labor Party of Victoria wanted to deliver from its sins but the people wanted to have their medicine from Jeff Kennett instead. If I am correct, then I expect that in the Australian Church over the next decade the rhetoric of the entrepreneur will be replaced by the rhetoric of the accountant. Church structures will be streamlined, parishes not viable for decades will now be finally closed, the role of clergy will be contractually defined with clauses to measure productivity and allow for easier dismissal. Non-core business, that is the parachurch organisations, will continue to decline and be rationalised. Mission and welfare agencies will combine needing the economies of size, youth agencies will run joint projects, share staff and streamline their marketing.  
  But the business community has already moved on.  


  The talk now is of globalization. The village world is here - which means an American village. Giant corporations are amalgamating to form the international monopolies my communist forebears feared. Developing countries are developing more quickly as their cheap labour picks up the industrial capacity that once belonged to the West but is now sent away for the sake of shareholder dividends. Yet already we are learning that the profits gained by productivity increases and corporate rationalisation during the 1990s are being consumed by competitive discounting; the bull is becoming a bear. Yet, at the same time, a more human face is returning to the business world, the personnel department wants the older experienced employees to return to the line and the talk is about rebuilding loyalty between employee and employer. The corporation now wants to be a place for all to belong, in a world that expands and shrinks at the same time.  
  If I am correct, after 2010 dioceses and parishes will unite by conviction rather than location. We'll have virtual dioceses with real bishops instead of virtual bishops in real dioceses. Our best theological thinking will be done in Africa and Asia because that is where evangelism is being done (our means of production - if you will!). Our rhetoric will be about survival on a global scale, and denominations will merge in various localities. Clergy will still be subject to productivity measures but wisdom and experience will count for more that the multifunction madness of the entrepreneur or the blinkered focus of the accountant.  
  Why ten years?  
  The reason for the lapse of time between what the business community does and what the church eventually does is simply that the business community is the leader not the church. Corporations, engineers and their theorist consultants try to shape much of what happens in our culture and, frankly, they are successful. We are simply responding to the environment in which our lives and mission find themselves. Thus it takes time for the latest business ideas to grow their theological equivalents, time for clergy who had some contact with the business world of the previous decade to emerge and time for churches to be able to financially justify the technology which business relies upon.  
  The time lapse is also influenced by our church tradition: the more Pentecostal move into change like a hungry hare to strange pasture, the more Catholic are dragged into change like a stubborn goat leaving a bare but familiar hill.  
  What shall we do?  
  You may not agree with my observation or predictions, but it would be unfair to you, gentle reader, to merely describe what I think is a problem for the Australian church without attempting to suggest a solution. My description implies a critique: we in the church have mistaken our method for the message. Yet this article it is not meant as a  
  denouncement. It has been good to recall the community emphasis of the gospel, the need for evangelistic risk taking, the gift of wise management strategies and it is good to see the current need to rationalise our organisations. My concern is that following the trends of business stems less from wisdom, missiological strategy or theological conviction than from the almost unconscious desire to be relevant - dare I say it, fashionable, acceptable.  
  So, what shall we do? With all the changes and chances we will face in the coming decades let's be careful to distinguish our message from our methods. Let's hold the cross of Christ high and when it runs counter to our prevailing culture (as it always will at some level), amplify the difference rather than minimise it. In this way, the gospel is made clear by contrast and not diminished by our quest for relevance or popularity (thus Paul's strategy in 1 Corinthians 1 & 2). Let's teach missiology in place of evangelism at our theological colleges so we can make use of at least two hundred years of experience in bringing an unchanging message to changing cultures. Then our first commitment will be to the gospel rather than to Christianity Explained or Evangelism Explosion or Alpha or Two Ways To Live or Seeker Services or Management Seminars or Cursillo or whatever. Let's learn theology again. I don't mean only the theology of the academics, but the better theology of the pastors and evangelists of church history, who are at their best when learning to apply the practical theology of the apostles and prophets to their own day.  
  We need to wrestle with truth again and not just method. We need to understand our faith well enough until we can see its shape and apply it to our world, either in contrast to our culture or even to affirm our culture when appropriate - but, we need to lead again rather than be led.  

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