Twelve Things Christians Should Know about AA
- Written by: Chris Appleby
You may have met people involved with Alcoholics Anonymous: they are often in our churches. Here a Christian AA member gives us a personal perspective on AA.
This article is not intended as a dispassionate defence or exposition of Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”). As a member who believes he would not have most of the good things in his life without AA, this is hardly possible. My assertions are based solely on empirical evidence, along with my contention that AA works. There are things I know to be true—I see the evidence in my life and the lives of those around me, but the ability to convey this often falls short.
One: AA started as a Christian fellowship
Most people regard AA's genesis as the seemingly unplanned meeting of 10 June 1935 in Akron, Ohio, between two certifiably 'hopeless case' alcoholics: Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker, and Dr Robert Smith ('Dr Bob'), a local physician. Their discussion that night is part of AA folklore and generally regarded as the first AA meeting. Wilson had been a member of the Oxford Group, a fellowship founded by an American Lutheran minister who'd had a life changing conversion experience. The Oxford Group's principles infuse AA's Twelve Steps. After falling out with the group Bill cried out to God and experienced what he later described as 'the great reality…the God of the preachers.'1
Rural Ministry and the Future of Mission
- Written by: Mark Short
At the Anglican Future Conference Mark Short sought to turn assumptions about life in the bush on their head. Here’s how he went about it.
Mark Short is the National Director of Bush Church Aid Australia (BCA).
Earlier this year Monica and I were in the audience for the ‘When the Bush Comes to Town’ edition of Q and A. The makeshift studio was decorated with hay bales, there were a couple of bemused-looking alpacas greeting us as we walked into the venue and before the broadcast we were warmed up by a bloke with a guitar singing 80’s rock covers with a generic country twang. Clearly the producers had their own assumptions about what life in the bush looks and sounds like!
In mission our unspoken and untested assumptions are generally the most misleading. When the AFC organisers kindly invited me to share at the conference I was given the title ‘The Future of Rural Ministry’. I asked if I could change it ‘Rural Ministry and the Future of Mission.’ The change is subtle but significant. We often assume that the bush is sheltered, at least for a time, from the cultural and technological changes sweeping through the rest of western culture. It can even be comforting to imagine that somewhere over the ranges there is a rustic backwater where life is simpler. If we want to understand the challenges facing the church in the west we are told to look to our big cities, because as goes the city, so goes the culture.
I’m going to turn that assumption on its head, for two reasons. Firstly, in an era of rapid globalisation there really are no backwaters. The modern farmer who follows the weather on the Bureau of Meteorology website, who makes decisions based on movements in the Chicago futures market and who downloads GPS data before sowing is under no illusion that the reach of capitalism and technology stops at the farm gate. Secondly, there is what you might call the ‘localised diversity’ of the bush. The Australian bush is every bit as diverse as our cities but the different aspects of that diversity are often concentrated in particular geographical locations. Let me unpack that final point by describing five different types of rural communities we encounter at BCA and how each one highlights a pressing missional challenge for all of us.
Mining communities and the challenge of fluidity
If I were to ask what are the main features of our big cities I reckon you’d come up with a list that included mobility, cultural diversity, a young age profile and a blurring of the boundaries between home and work. I’ve chosen the label fluidity to sum up those trends — everything and everyone seems to be on the move. Then let me tell you about places in Australia that are even more fluid than our big cities. It’s not unusual for a BCA minister in one of our mining towns to farewell half of their congregation each year. And that congregation will be young and culturally diverse — when I visited the church at Newman there were something like 20 nationalities in a congregation of 60. Members of that congregation will be engaged in a variety of working arrangements — not only FIFO, where the mine worker leaves home in the city to relocate to a mining camp for up to two weeks at a time, but the emerging pattern of reverse FIFO where a worker sets up home in the mining town and flies to the city every couple of weeks to catch up with his wife and family.
Our Anglican parish structures originally developed in a settled world, where people were born, lived, work and died within a few square kilometres around which we placed discrete parish boundaries. But that is not our world and it is certainly not the world of our brothers and sisters in mining communities. We have much to learn with them and from them as they adopt a generous kingdom perspective that equips Christians for ministry wherever life and work might take them.
Farming communities and the challenge of faithful innovation
For many of our farming communities the challenges are different. Their populations are older and less mobile. Declining terms of trade and increases in productivity mean that many of them are experiencing steady declines in population as young adults have to re-locate to larger centres for education and/or work. Here the great challenge is both to tend inherited structures of ministry and mission while also developing new expressions to engage those not yet Christian. You could call this the challenge of faithful innovation — recognising the good in the old so it becomes the inspiration for the best of the new. By God’s grace, we have seen this happen in some of our BCA locations both through the renewal of existing ministries and the establishment of new ones. Of course this is a challenge for many of us regardless of where we live and so once again we have much to learn with and from one another.
Regional communities and the challenge of networking for growth
Larger regional centres like Bendigo, Ballarat, Wagga Wagga, Tamworth, Toowoomba, Mt Gambier and Geraldton are often called sponge communities because they have a tendency to soak up resources and people from their surrounding districts. They become the places people must go to for health care and shopping and to deal with banks and government departments. The great challenge for ministry and mission in these regional centres is to squeeze the sponge so that some of the resources and maybe even some of the people begin to flow outwards again.
What might that look like? It might look like a church in a regional city becoming a hub for the training and support of Christians in outlying towns. It might look like a regional university campus becoming a centre where young people are discipled and given a vision for servant-hearted ministry in the bush beyond graduation — as we’re seeing in BCA-supported ministry at Launceston. It might look like Christians dispersed across a wide area engaging and learning through online technology. In a world where people wish to connect through networks rather than serve under hierarchies we have much to learn with and from the bush.
Lifestyle communities and the challenge of scepticism
We live in an age of increased scepticism and even hostility toward the Christian faith, but we often assume that the bush is somehow immune from those trends as if closeness to creation gives you a head start in knowing the creator. But the reality is that many rural communities, and particularly those with a high lifestyle component, are notable for their high level of scepticism towards what they see as organised religion. Locations like Maleny in Queensland, Nimbin and Byron Bay in New South Wales, Daylesford and Castlemaine in Victoria, Kangaroo Island in South Australia and Denmark in Western Australia have the same mixture of aggressive secularism and diffuse spirituality you might associate with inner city Sydney or Melbourne. At BCA we are learning to engage with these communities through friendship and courageous, clear and creative gospel proclamation — there is much we can learn from each other.
Indigenous communities and the challenge of partnership
I find it fascinating that people often imagine that issues of justice for our Indigenous brothers and sisters are uniquely relevant in the bush, as if the land on which the AFC was held isn’t also colonised/invaded/stolen. Having said that, ministry in Indigenous communities in the bush does (or should) force us to engage with the issue of genuine partnership. How can we create sustainable pathways into leadership for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians so they are not burdened with almost crippling obligation and expectations? How can we move beyond paternalism and into a genuine partnership where ministry with and from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians is the norm rather than ministry to them? How can we engage the mixed record of our church in this area in a way that both acknowledges the past and does justice in the present? Surely these are vital challenges for all of us. At BCA we are beginning to learn what God is asking of us in response as we seek to support booth the current and the new generation of Indigenous Christian leaders. We would love you to learn with us as we learn from them.
You may have noticed that I’ve asked many questions and given few answers. For now I want us to sit with the questions and the challenges because it’s from here that I believe that we have our best opportunity to strengthen our partnership in the gospel. I would love to see a network develop around each of these questions, or adaptive challenges that I’ve outlined: a set of networks that are solidly grounded in God’s word; that reach across diocesan and cultural boundaries; that are committed to mutual learning and courageous experimentation under God; through which the city and the bush discover they have more in common than they might ever have imagined. Of course, the real challenges facing the church in the West are not organisational and neither are faithful responses. The key issue is profoundly theological — will we drive our foundations deep into the bedrock of God’s gracious sovereignty revealed in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus? The goodness, the power and the wisdom of God are to be found where our world least expects to see them — in a man condemned to death on a cross. Now, as then, God turns our assumptions on their head.
Encouraging Missions in the Parish
- Written by: Chris Appleby
Peter Schendzielorz reviews:
by Bruce Dipple. Sydney Missionary & Bible College 2011. ISBN 9780646562278
Bruce's wide ranging experience of missions (as a pastor and in serving and leading with SIM) and mission education (lecturing at SMBC and missions conferences) is well captured in his book Becoming Global. Whilst there's a depth of insight that could fill many books, the gems captured in its 138 pages are a firm foundation. Its particular focus is for churches to understand their role in God's global mission and be equipped to fulfil it by putting mission back at the core of church ministry.
One of the goals of the book is to help churches create a culture of mission, rather than just have it as an aspect alongside other ministries. In creating this culture, the church is then resourced to fulfil its mission to reach the whole world with the gospel, not just leaving it up to a select few. This change in culture also involves the church actively partnering with mission agencies, rather than relying on agencies to be the only ones on mission.
To ground its usefulness, three situations where this book would be especially useful are:
1. A church starting a missions committee;
2. A group that's planning a short term mission; and
3. A pastor seeking to equip and promote mission in their congregation.
At Curtin we've used Becoming Global to provide content for our theology of mission topic in student training. Of most use has been the extra practical resources provided by Bruce such that we didn't just explore ideas and theology, but also how to implement them.
The best part about this book is the practical resources that it provides. Rather than just raising ideas about mission education there are resources (books, outlines, websites, and talks) that can help - ranging from how to conduct a helpful missions interview in church; prepare a weekend church camp programme with a visiting missionary; to establishing a missions committee or training a short term mission group
Since it's a short book, and one that can be used widely across different churches or contexts, there's scope to extend the content as appropriate. In some cases to provide more supporting Biblical theology or exegesis, or to consult further with partner mission agencies to draw on the resources they have.
The final chapter closes with "a special note to pastors". In it Bruce emphasises the need to continue to preach and teach faithfully from the Bible, noting that if the Bible contains the story of God's missional work, then that needs to be reflected in how we expound, teach and apply the Bible to equip God's church. Well worth reading.
Peter Schendzielorz works with AFES at Curtin University in Perth, having previously worked with CMS WA and studied at SMBC. He is keen to see students equipped for life-long gospel ministry and mission.
Bishop Tony Nichols suggests ways in which parishes can better encourage and support Missions and Missionaries.
God has commanded that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus should be taken to all peoples (Luke 24:46-47; Romans 16:25-27). Whatever our particular calling or vocation, we are bound as Christians to recognize the priority of the Gospel, and to support its proclamation in our own neighborhood, and to the “gospel poor” in God’s world.
As a church we need to be challenged regularly to fulfill God’s command. We also need practical help from experienced practitioners and Christian leaders from other countries. Mission is now “from everywhere to everywhere”.
1. Look for ways to co-operate with other churches and not just do our own thing. There are many fine missionary organizations that enable us to do that.
2. As Anglicans, it is natural for us to support, in particular, the Church Missionary Society, which is Bible based and committed to training long term workers.
3. Make sure that the missionaries and organisations we support are known to the whole congregation and not just the leaders. Feature them regularly on notice boards and in the church intercessions.
4. Be disciplined and good stewards by supporting a few missionaries that we know well and are committed to – and prioritize them. It is helpful to distinguish our level of support by using terms such as “partners”, “friends” (or “affiliates”), and “short termers”.
5. Set aside money to help missionaries to visit us and to spend time with our congregation. This will benefit both them and us.
6. Consider sending out members on short term assignments with the goal of ultimately sending them out for the longer term. Such initiatives must have the support of national Christians and partners in the field, lest they are burdensome to their hosts or embarrassing “loose cannons”.
7. Encourage the congregation to grow the missions’ budget by teaching the Biblical principles of world mission partnership. A “Global Missions Month” with guest speakers from other cultures (including indigenous Australians) can be inspirational.
8. Give opportunity to non Anglo members of our congregation to tell their story and give us honest feedback.
9. Form a small Mission Committee to advise the Rector and Church Council and provide updates on mission partners. One member should liaise and co-ordinate dissemination of prayer material and monitor care of mission partners on furlough.
10. Fifty per cent of Perth’s population was born overseas. Many struggle in relating to the dominant Anglo culture or to the English language itself. Learn about the demography of your own suburb. See the ABS statistics. What groups are not represented in our church? Why? How can the church reach out to these people? What about overseas students?
11. ESL courses are an excellent form of outreach. But leaders need cross-cultural training and appropriate methodology and resources.
Bishop Tony Nichols has served as a University teacher in Indonesia, as Bishop of North-West Australia, Principal of Nungalinya College and of St Andrew' Hall.
Dale Appleby reviews a landmark book about mission giving:
To Give or not to Give? Rethinking dependency, Restoring generosity, & Redefining Sustainability by John Rowell, Biblica Publishing. 2006.
At one level this book challenges the "three-self" paradigm of modern mission practice (self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating). But it does so in a global context in which the author describes rich western churches deciding not to give generously to new churches in poorer countries in case they become dependent. At another level it is about giving and generosity. The discussion is set in a mission context. The author has been working together with Bosnian Christians to see churches planted in that war-torn country.
Rowell traces the origins of the three-self paradigm back to the English Anglican Henry Venn, the leader of the Church Missionary Society from 1841. (His father was the pastor to William Wilberforce.) However Venn's concerns differed from today's discussions. He was concerned with the mission equivalent of colonialism, namely ecclesiastical imperialism. His concern was not dependency but domination. He wanted to bring an end to outside governance not outside giving.
One of the features of the book is the attempt to understand why western Christians have been so unwilling to give to the poorer churches. The author documents the development of ideas about giving to the poor in the history of the United States. He traces this development from what he calls Social Calvinism, a way of giving by persons to persons in their community but which distinguished between the "worthy poor" and the "wayward poor", through Social Darwinism (eliminating or allowing the unfit not to survive), through to Social Universalism which eliminated both personal giving (the government took over responsibility for welfare) and any distinctions about whether people actually needed welfare help. The result of the latter welfare programs was a cynicism that the public support programs didn't work. "Compassion fatigue" set in.
Rowell also documents the generally poor contributions of his home nation to the poorer nations. His claim is that both as a nation and as churches, 98% of all income is kept at home. He says that a mere 0.18 percent of church income goes to outreach ministries aimed at lost people living in already evangelised cultures, and only 0.02 percent goes annually to help reach truly un-reached peoples with the gospel.
His major plea is for western rich churches and Christians to work in covenant partnerships with churches in poorer nations as partners who contribute different things. He compares the Lend-Lease policy of the United States during World War II, and says that those with money can add it to those with human resources and expertise on the ground. Rather than fearing a welfare mentality he says we should be thinking of a warfare mentality in which we pool whatever resources we have for the good of the gospel.
He promotes the idea of compassionate conservatism, which is roughly a personal giving based on relationships, distinguishing between the worthy poor and the wayward poor, and setting a high value on the employment of heads of households. He outlines what he calls a Missionary Marshall Plan (modelled on the plan that helped re-establish the economies of some European nations after the second World War). This gives the primary responsibility for mission ministry to the local church not to outside donors. It also focuses efforts in areas where the Lord has opened doors to work.
One of the major themes running through the book is that Christians need to practice biblical generosity and not use the three-self paradigm as an excuse to withhold gifts to those in need. He has many strong things to say about the self-interest and greed of western churches and Christians, and also challenges the lifestyles of western missionaries who work among the poor. Rowell includes a helpful section on how Christians can help tackle poverty.
Overall the book is well thought out and practical. It comes from solid biblical study informed by personal experience and practice.
It should be read by church leaders, members of Church Councils, Boards of Deacons or Elders and those involved in mission outreach. It is an impassioned and challenging but practical book which has many important things to say to affluent western Christians.
Can Christianity survive in the Middle East?
- Written by: Kim Smith
The lead article in the November 2014 edition of Christianity Today posed the question whether Christianity in the Middle East is on the edge of extinction. Kimberly Smith looks at the decline of Christianity in the Middle East through the lens of the troubled nation of Iraq – a country which has rarely been out of the international news during 2014.
The Crisis in Iraq
For many centuries the Iraq of modern times has been referred to as the “cradle of civilisation” – a term describing the Tigris–Euphrates River Valley region of southern Iraq. Historians believe that the world’s first writing system emerged during the 4th millennium BC, during the time of the Kings of Sumer (i.e. southern Iraq). The Sumerians were the first to harness the wheel and create city states. Early writings of the time also record the first evidence of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, written law, medicine and organised religion.
A nation of continuous conflict
Conflict has been a characteristic of the Middle East ever since Sargon of Akkad conquered all the city states of southern and central Iraq and subjugated the numerous kings of Syria in 2200 BC.
During the 20th century BC the Canaanite speaking Amorites began to migrate into southern Mesopotamia and set up kingdoms in the south – one of which was the small administrative town of Babylon - which later became a major city in the region. Not long after Babylonia had been sacked by the Hittite Empire (around 1595 BC) another foreign invader from the Zagros Mountains of Iran invaded the region and ruled over Babylonia for almost 600 years.
Various Babylonian and Mesopotamian kings who followed were unable to prevent new waves of West Semitic migrants entering southern Iraq during the 11th century BC. Conquering Assyrian rulers later built an empire stretching from Persia and Parthia in the east to Cyprus and Antioch in the West – and from the Caucasus in the north to Egypt, Nubia and Arabia in the south. During the 10th and 9th centuries Babylon fell to yet another foreign dynasty - that of the Chaldeans. Around 325 BC Alexander the Great arrived on the scene . Yet another round of conflicts engulfed the Iraq region during the Roman-Parthian wars, the conquerors actively supporting Brutus and Cassius in the Roman invasion of Syria.
The Christian population of Iraq in 2013 was believed to be in the vicinity of 500,000 - down significantly from 1.5 million before the 2003 war. Following a mass exodus during 2014, some think as few as 200,000 are left today. The majority of the remaining Christians live in the far north of the country.
According to Religious Freedom in the World – 2014, by July 2014 jihadists will have driven out all faith communities from Mosul, including non-Sunni Muslims. Christians have been forced to choose between converting to Islam or leaving the region. They were given a deadline, and the Islamic State declared that if they failed to comply, “there is nothing for them but the sword”. A city of up to 30,000 Christians, Mosul suddenly had none – and for the first time in 1600 years there is now no Sunday worship in that city.
From the time of Jesus Christ, there have been Christians in what is now Iraq. The Christian community took root there after the Apostle Thomas headed east in the year 35. But now, after nearly 2000 years, Iraqi Christians are being hunted, murdered and forced to flee. Many churches have been destroyed or abandoned.
Not that the various churches in Iraq were ever in agreement theologically over the centuries. Operation World observes that Christianity in Iraq has for years been characterized by fragmentation – denominationally, ethnically and politically, despite the great opposition all Christians face. The majority are in the Catholic-linked Chaldean Church, but others are part of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestant denominations or even a Muslim-background believers’ network. OW’s Prayer Guide states that some in the historic denominations are being impacted by revival; others resent and oppose what they perceive to be aggressive proselytism, and a money-spinning focus of the newer Protestant groups.
Outreach to the Muslim majority remains a terrifying prospect to most, although compassionate ministry by some Christians to all in need sees many Muslims profoundly touched. Understandably many good leaders have fled the country – many others are dead, specifically targeted by Islamists. Christian leaders in Iraq invite us to pray for their equipping and enabling. With a young population and many Muslims coming to faith, leaders who are gifted in discipleship and teaching are crucial.
Pray for peace. Pray for Christians remaining in Iraq, and for the return of leaders who have fled, for the development of new leaders and for protection of all who shepherd God’s people in Iraq.
Kimberly Smith is a retired Melbourne chartered accountant now helping to establish the evangelical integral mission agency Anglican Relief & Development Fund Australia.
- Written by: Ben Underwood
Ungodless: Being Christian in a Secular Australia
There are always cultural challenges facing Christian believers. One set of challenges for our discipleship comes from living in our secular age, where the gospel is felt to be yesterday's discredited news. How can we face this cultural situation and make progress as Christians?
A statistic: Norman Morris Roy Morgan Research, wrote in April of this year, “By Easter next year, it could well be the first time that the majority of Australians don't affiliate with Christianity.” Morgan polls from late 2011 to early 2014 had Christian affiliation in Australia dropping from 60.9% of the population to 52.6% and trending down towards 50% and under.
A story: the decidedly godless journalist Paul Toohey recounts talking to Muslim women from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan in Indonesia:
“Over tea served in glass cups the women were asking about Australia. […] They wanted to know about jobs, the cost of living and their level of acceptance as Muslims, should they make it. I told them that the greatest freedom Australia offered was the freedom not to believe in God. We'd more or less got rid of him; he was not required. One woman buried her face in her hands, appalled. They all looked slightly alarmed. But this was one bit of useful information I could provide. Their acceptance in Australia, if they made it and were not to disappear into strict cultural enclaves, would require them first to accept us. Then one of the women said something that started them all laughing. Maybe it didn't seem such a bad idea, living somewhere godless.”
Toohey casually and unapologetically presents godlessness as the foremost cultural conviction that Australians share, a source of the freedom we cherish together. If the downward trend in Christian affiliation continues, and if Toohey's view that being Australian means being godless increasingly shape our national psyche, how will we Christians approach being in a shrinking minority of ungodless Australians? Here are four kinds of response that I perceive amongst us.
One response is to agree with the critics of Christianity and seek to remake Christianity to be a new thing that lines up with the new spirit of the age. I suggest this happens in liberal Christianity. People find it implausible that Jesus is the only mediator between God and human beings? Well, they are right! We Christians have to drop this myth of Christ’s uniqueness and learn to see God at work in all the religions of the world. People find it implausible that there is a personal God who made the world and hears our prayers and will judge the living and the dead? Well they are right! We Christians have to drop the literal interpretations of our theology and learn to see our doctrines simply as stories which help us live lives of love, which is the real point of Christianity, not being saved from death and hell. People find it implausible that we should take the sexual ethic of the Bible seriously today? Well they are right! We Christians have to drop our backward and repressed view of sex and have the compassion to let people do what comes naturally. In this way Christians abandon Christianity and become assimilated to the secular age, preaching the convictions of a secular age in the churches, in a kind of reverse evangelism.
I suggest that you also see the same thing in churches which preach the health and prosperity gospel. People want power to step up to a new level of material wealth, or to remake themselves as leaner, more disciplined, more successful individuals and so to reap the rewards our society bestows on the successful. Well, we Christians can help! God wants to bless people after all, and he wants to change and transform people and bring them into a better future, and his Spirit empowers us to do great things and fulfil our potential. So just believe in him and start living your best life now. In this way, too, Christians abandon Christianity, and become assimilated to the secular age, preaching the convictions of a secular age in the churches, in a kind of reverse evangelism. The first kind of alignment with the spirit of the age – liberalism – empties churches, but the second one – the prosperity gospel – fills them. Christians must attend to the spirit of our age, to be sure, but in order to commend the one gospel intelligibly to our age, not to remake the gospel in the spirit of our age. Let’s not surrender.
Another response to de-Christianisation is to fight tooth and nail to defend and preserve Christian truths and values against any erosion or marginalisation. This fight might involve political organisation aimed to keep a distinctively Christian voice articulating Christian concerns in the halls of power, and working political leverage to get legislation that reflects Christian convictions. So, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby introduce themselves on their website saying, “The vision of the Australian Christian Lobby is to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate to each other as a community.” They and others use the tools of political and social activism – mobilising a base of supporters, keeping them informed, running public meetings, organising rallies, briefing politicians, writing social and political commentary, raising funds, presenting petitions, encouraging people to write to their local members. They do this to contest any legislation which might reflect values not compatible with Christian faith, and commend legislation that reflects Christian aspirations. Many Christians wish to encourage others to be active as Christian citizens and to be engaged and active politically, so that a Christian witness is preserved and we don’t lose a precious Christian social heritage without a fight.
Unlike the response of surrender there is something to be said for fighting, or, put less pugilistically, for Christians being engaged as citizens, expressing our preferences to our elected representatives in the various channels that operate in our society. It seems to me that there is an art to getting this right. Although we believe that Christ is Lord of everything including Australia, others do not share this conviction, and will not feel the Christian outlook has any inherently privileged place in shaping the laws and policies of our nation. We will be expected to make our contribution to the national discourse as citizens among our fellow citizens, rather than as natural chaplains to the nation assuming we have a special right to speak arising from cultural precedent or divine appointment. Commending Christ to all in that situation is where the art (and the need for good character) comes in.
Some do not think fight is the way ahead, perhaps because it will never be anything more than a doomed rearguard action. Instead of fight there is flight – a bunkering down into Christian enclaves of various kinds, leaving the mainstream culture and living apart, building a whole parallel structure of social institutions, where our counter culture can survive. In "Thoughts after Lambeth" T. S. Eliot wrote, "The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide." This gets expressed in many ways. Take education for example. The state schools are lost, we say. If our children are to escape the black hole of secularism we need to take their education back and do it ourselves. Maybe taking our kids’ education means home schooling, maybe it means Christian schooling, but we need to preserve the faith while we await the collapse of the non-Christian experiment in education. Here’s another example: popular music is the tool of the devil. We must delete all our secular mp3s and listen to Christian bands only. Others would say that even that’s not enough. The very form of popular music is corrupt, and a properly Christian music sounds like Bach, or Handel. We need to hold onto the beauty and goodness and truth of God, and flee the culture of death surrounding us.
Like fight, there is something to be said for flight, that is leaving cultural forms and institutions that stifle, undermine or even persecute Christian aspirations in favour of alternative forms and institutions that express Christian convictions and aspirations more faithfully. Perhaps the traps this response can fall into are fear and contempt. The fear is fear that the world will overcome Christ. But ‘he that is in you is greater than he that is in the world.’ We should not flee in fear. The contempt is contempt of the world: let them all go to hell. But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. We are still to love our neighbours, believers or not, and not to despise them or withdraw entirely from them. So our alternative forms and institutions should remain in touch with the wider society for the sake of that society.
Change the world (again)?
Another response is to say, well Christendom is dead, but that’s a mercy, because we are now back to purity of first century Christianity, and we can ditch the Constantinian baggage and start all over again to win the culture through authentic Christian living. The job is not a political fight nor a cultural flight, but grassroots movements with fresh expressions of church. No more denominations and parishes, it’s time to learn again how to plant churches and make disciples in a post-modern, post-Christian, secular, hedonistic and individualistic age. If we are on the margins now instead of in the centre, that’s ok, because Christianity works best from the margins. If the culture has turned away from God, that’s no reason for us to turn away from them, but rather to engage the culture again at every level – not in a defensive stance to preserve our ancient privilege, but as people who love our culture and want to reach it and renew it. Christian ministers need initiative, they need to be innovative and entrepreneurial and to empower the people of God, who in turn need to think through how their work and gifts and opportunities can bless and influence and beautify the world and see lives and whole societies transformed again. We need networks of culture-makers, supported by patrons in the great cities of the world, sparking new cultural movements in which Christians are leading figures and the Spirit is the animating genius.
This is also rousing stuff, and has much to commend it. Perhaps the dangers here lie in despising our inherited forms, and putting too much confidence in our projects of sociological re-engineering. It is a good moment to go back to the New Testament and scrutinise our traditions, practices, aims and expectations in light of a renewed careful study of the apostles’ teaching. But it would be passing strange if we decided to neglect or de-emphasise the most ancient and basic of Christian disciple-making structures and practices such as instruction in the scriptures, common prayer and praise, sacraments and designated leadership in local congregations which also maintain a fellowship of mutual recognition and help. It is also good to think carefully and creatively about how cultures are influenced and changed, but if we lay out a plan for how to change the world (based of course on the latest research and the most original and insightful analysis) we should do it with a good dash of humility. Maybe the world won’t change according to the theories of expert cultural analysts or the hunches of disillusioned mavericks.
Who will save us?
Who will save us and where does our power lie if we ungodless are become a dwindling minority? Will it be in the fighters, the flighters, the culture-makers, or someone else? As soon as you put it like that this answer suggests itself; God will save us and all his people, and the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes – Jew or Gentile. So our trust must be in God to preserve, transform and bless us who believe in Christ, and our confidence must be in the gospel as the power of God to bring salvation to the people around us and address the culture we live in.
If we do take seriously the idea that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, then we should take a moment to think through how the gospel goes to work amongst human beings. As the gospel is told, God brings human beings to a new birth by his Holy Spirit; he humbles sinners and lifts them up too as his forgiven children in Christ. They repent and confess their faith in him and he binds them together as members of one another in the fellowship of his church, and as his church gathers in local congregations he gives gifts to his people so that they can serve one another in love and grow up into Christ’s likeness together. In churches we brothers and sisters are taught and nourished with the word of God and in the world we walk in good deeds and speak the word of God. There is a new humanity in Christ; this new humanity has a counterculture, the word of God is its fountainhead and the church is its home. It is a counterculture that can also be carried everywhere we go, work, speak, write, play and rest, whether we go alone or with others. God’s basic programme – whether we are in the early church, or high Christendom or the ruins of Christendom – is laid out in the New Testament, and it does not change because the culture is not as receptive to it as it may once have been. Our hope is in the old, and long, and patient work of making disciples of Jesus, through the inculcation of the truths of the gospel of grace and the disciplines of faith and repentance in the fellowship of other Christians. Political activism, Christian counter-cultural institutions and culturally engaged new Christian endeavours must cluster around and flow out of what is central: gospel ministry, church, repentance and discipleship. Rising godlessness shapes our lives and churches and the deliberations of coming synods will be shaped by it too. Will our response to that godlessness, as we contribute to those deliberations, express confidence in God and his gospel, so that our activism, our institutions and our cultural engagement as Australian Anglican churches are shaped more and more by that confidence, and less and less by any surrender to the spirit of the age?
Ben Underwood oversees the 5pm congregation at St Matthew's Shenton Park in Perth.