Once again The Australian newspaper’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan has hit the nail on the head, in an insightful article today, entitled Christian churches drifting too far from the marketplace of ideas.
His opening lines are a cracker:
Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.
The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.
I wish I’d said as much myself. Hey, I did say as much myself. It’s a year ago this week since I wrote my most read post ever, with dealt with this question exactly. And that post has raised a lot of good conservations in the past twelve months, taking it to a level of debate and push back that I had not envisaged.
Now, as an aside, there was a distinct possibility raised earlier this week that Greg Sheridan was going to ask my opinion on these issues, as he has been reading my articles recently, but I guess he had enough to go on. But if he had, I guess I would have a) succumbed to hubris and, b) told him what I am about to say now.
And it’s this:
Just as there has been a two-speed-economy here in my home city of Perth during the now, sadly, historical commodities boom, there has been a two-speed-religious-economy in Western Christianity, and only one speed will survive.
To put it bluntly, (and in line with Greg Sheridan), the slow-speed-religious-economy is headed for disaster. And this slow speed is made up of two groups; traditionalists and progressives.
The traditionalists have pretty much aligned with the state down the years, and include such behemoths as the Catholic Church. It is this group that Sheridan has in his sights when he memorably states:
The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.
They remind me of South Vietnam’s government in 1974. It over-estimated its strength and tried to hang on to all of its territory, including the long narrow neck of its north. It did not retreat to its formidable heartland in the south, which would have been vastly more defensible. Had it done so, it might have survived. Instead, the next year, the armoured divisions of North Vietnam invaded and Saigon lost everything.
These lumbering giants are dying the death of a thousand cuts as they fail to realise how much the culture has shifted against them. As Sheridan points out, less than 10 per cent of Australian Catholics attend Mass on a given week, down from 74 % in 1954.
But for every foolish South Vietnamese general who fails to see the writing on the wall, there is always a treacherous Hanoi Jane on your own side who will dig the knife in a little further, right?
Hollywood pin-up girl Jane Fonda earned the nomenclature “Hanoi Jane” for her support for the communist North Vietnamese as they steamrollered all in their path on the way to victory.
And so the slow-speed-economy church today has the Hanoi Jane of the progressive, post-evangelical churches, along with the pretty-much-moribund Uniting Church and Anglican Church (save for some noble exceptions).
These Hanoi Jane churches are unlike the “vegetable love” of the traditionalists, in that they are only minutely slower than the culture.
How much slower? About two seconds slower. The culture jumps in one direction, be that ethical or whatever, and these Hanoi Janes’ suddenly find voice, scampering around and shouting “Me too! Me too!” to whoever is bored enough to be listening to them.
And all this despite clear evidence that this reactive approach to the cultural zeitgeist has been an abject failure for almost a century! Hanoi Jane churches would rather die than stand for any gospel convictions. And die they will. History has borne that out.
Why do they do this? Simple: to worship at the chimeric ideal/idol of relevance. You can almost hear the nervy twinge: We can have a seat at the table when the secular framework wins. We can still have a voice. It won’t sound that different to the world’s voice, but at least we will still be able to parade around in increasingly formal ecclesiastical structures, with increasingly shallow theology, and increasingly empty buildings.
Such Christian groups call themselves “progressives”, never fully grasping, from what I can see, the obvious fact that they are getting progressively smaller, progressively older, and progressively ignored. Like the domesticated moggy sitting on the lap of the culture, all that is left to them is a scratching post, the occasional purr and a bowl of milk if they’re good little kitties.
They sound innocuous, right? Actually they are just as treacherous and dangerous as Hanoi Jane. *
So too, the progressives are keen to point out the sins of those churches who have failed to shift with the ethical times: failed to keep “relevant”. The progressives are shrill to point out the perceived flaws of their more conservative brothers and sisters, and slow to defend them in the face of increasing secular pressure.
So they do a lot of shouty stuff that shows themselves in a good light to the culture. Stuff like “Ooh-er Look over here! Look what these guys (replace “guys” with non-gender specific term of affection here) are up to! And Look how good we are compared to them!”
Yes lots of that, and very little of “Hey, we don’t agree on many things, but how about we support supposed brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing shut-downs or sordid Facebook memes.”
So that’s the slow speed part of the economy. No prizes for guessing that I am with Greg Sheridan on this one. But that’s not the only story, and this is the part he could do well to contemplate. For there is a second speed to the economy. One that I believe will not only cope, but thrive in the ensuing invasion.
Many of you reading this already recognise yourselves as being part of this second speed. You are the arm of the church that has decided that come hell or high water, you are not for turning. Even if you lose your tax exemptions. Even if the culture scorns you. Even if anti-discrimination legislation hits you hard in the hip pocket and forces your schools to shut. Even if the culture sneers that you are on the wrong side of history.
You are not, as many detractors refer to you, the “conservatives”. That word has lost its traction in our world and means something altogether different to what I am talking of.
No. You are not, at heart, conservative. You are eschatological. Eschatological Christians have a confidence not tied to a seat at the cultural table. Eschatological Christians don’t value the baubles and trinkets of social approval.
Eschatological Christians don’t fear being seen as losers as much as they rejoice at being crowned victors on the last day. Eschatological Christians value above all else the approval of the rejected Messiah, who though crucified on the wrong side of political and theological history, was raised in triumph as Lord of history.
The progressives are so-called because above all else they have fallen for the modern myth of cultural progression; the materialist perspective that historical progress is a case of tweaking the dials over time in order to improve our lives in this age. And that’s the problem. They are rooted in this age. They are focussed on this age.
Yet, ironically they will end up having no distinct voice in this age. Why? Because they end up just sounding like everyone else in this age. And who in this age would bother to get out of bed on a Sunday morning (or skip a beer on a Saturday night) to visit a poorly attended, poorly operated version of what you already have?
Progressives are trying to build a kingdom that will ultimately be the kingdom of Mammon. Eschatologicals will receive a kingdom (Hebrews 12:28) to be ruled by the Son of Man.
In short eschatological Christians are those who will be able to do what Sheridan suggests in the face of decline:
The churches are in crisis now on all fronts, with poor situational awareness. Genteel decline and increased legislative circumscription await them unless they reconfigure themselves as a bold, vigorous, self-confident minority, determined to secure their minority rights and to have their say on life and its purpose, come hell or high water.
The fact is the church was a bold, vigorous self-confident minority at its nascence, precisely because it realised it was eschatological. The early church was confident that a kingdom was coming that would sweep away all other kingdoms and pretenders to the throne.
That’s our calling. That’s our hope. That’s our future. We are not waiting for hell and high water. We are waiting for hell and heaven. Judgement and vindication. Punishment for faithlessness: Reward for faithfulness. Eternal relevance, when the cultural Caesars of this age finally bow the knee, and through gritted teeth, declare that Jesus is Lord.
*I removed the reference to Jane Fonda giving up the secret letters of US troops to the VC. This is incorrect, and as someone rightly pointed out my error would be used to discredit the whole article by those who disagreed with me, which it was. With it removed I assume that those who disagree with it will offer reasons why, rather than simply dismiss it because of my error.