January 14, 2020

This leftie is right about church: No bones about it.

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In a fascinating article in The Canberra Times, climate activist, Michael Bones, writes about how progressives need to take a leaf about how to change society from, of all places – the church – and conservative church at that.  You can read the full article here.

In the wake of the terrible Australian bushfires and the real threat that this is going to be the new normal, Bones makes no bones about the lack of relational and communal infrastructure among protest culture.  A lack that is leaving them coming up short in terms of real change.  Its a call for a grassroots community of protest that is vital and thick enough to do anything after the the protest signs have been placed in the recycling bin.

Lamenting at how progressives are good at short term activism, and taking to the streets to protest, but bad at long term change, Bones identifies key factors in the church that are deeply grassroots and deeply transformative.

He states:

What if we directed the big burst of energy from protests into smaller, more frequent gatherings? What if a life lived in protest involved taking time out every weekend to gather and serve your local community? To join together under a more unified story, young and old, to sing songs, read ancient wisdom literature, mediate, serve the poor, and develop dense networks with people beyond our immediate interest groups? Because that’s what conservative religious organisations – arguably some of the most powerful and protected groups in Australia – are doing.

I find this statement fascinating for a number of reasons.  First, from an internal church perspective, it’s fascinating because it completely upends the hand-wringing of those in the church bubble who claim that the church – especially the conservative church – is all about cold, sterile religion, and has completely lost its ability to create deep, thick and rich community.  We’ve been sold a thousand books on how we have to deconstruct it all and start again, and here we have a left-wing protester saying that the long term strategy that we’ve employed is our strength.

An outsider is in effect saying “Keep doing what you’re doing!” But hey, keep publishing those books and getting them sold in our Christian bookshop ghettoes that say otherwise.

Bones is not a Christian and is not – I presume – gushing in his stance towards the conservative church, indeed he claims that we are the most powerful and protected groups in Australia. That sits at odds perhaps with the average church or parish which is, as he says, about 121 people in size, and which stutters along week to week, and always feels remarkably fragile.  As a church planter I can tell you that it never feels anything but two weeks away from collapse.   This lack of internal experience probably explains this unintentionally humorous line:

They have incredible sound systems and talented rock bands that perform, every weekend.

I go, “Yeah right!  He hasn’t been to Providence Church Midland!”

But this does sound about right about Providence Church Midland when he says:

Churches offer belonging and meaning. They have teams whose job is to welcome and befriend new people, every weekend…They encourage you to explore your life’s purpose, every weekend. They’ll give you a break from your lovely but exhausting children, every weekend.

In spite of dogma, religious communities offer positive mental health benefits. According to social researcher Hugh Mackay, community service, faith in something larger than oneself, and creative expression are all calm balms to anxiety. So, in the wake of the bushfire crisis, while we progressives stoke our anger, vent on social media and get more stressed and depressed, they use ancient practices to care for souls. They make music, share food, read, pray and play, all the while reinforcing their core beliefs.

But if that were all there were to it, it would not be enough.  Because that still makes church about the people who are already there.  Conservative and progressive churches alike have a deep tendency to care for those who are not, and to care for those who would otherwise be their enemies.

For me this is the biggest issue of all – the level of self-sacrifice a church person is willing to give in the wake of the self-sacrifice of Jesus.  He is both our Saviour and our Example.

There is protest – painting a slogan and marching – and there is protest – changing your whole life and putting your dreams and goals on hold because someone has done exactly that for you. And Christians just seem to be able to do that in greater numbers in less seemingly showy ways than secular groups.  Not to say that secular people do not do that, but it’s the spread and reach of self-sacrifice that is most admirable among our Christian community.  The difference has to be Jesus.  And that goes for conservatives and progressives.

So the non-showy people in our church who quietly renovate their house – at a great cost to their mortgages – in order to do long term foster care, do so because their future security is not based on their superannuation, or even on a better climate, but on the resurrection hope of Jesus.

They are protesting against the injustice of children being treated badly.  Their protest began when one of our congregation, who works in child protection, raised the issue in a video we posted. They decided that making a change to their lives that was costly and longterm was worth the eternal investment it would bring.

The didn’t paint placards and walk down the street.  They simply put a huge amount of money where their mouths – and their hearts – were. And no one – except their friends – ever sees it.

Every week that we see those young children, or help out with looking after them, or rock them to sleep to give the foster parents a reprieve, it’s a form of protest that will never make a headline. Not in this age at least.

I would also argue with Bones on this point.  It’s not “despite dogma” that religious communities offer positive mental health benefits, it’s because of dogma.  My wife is a clinical psychologist.  Her observation is that in the western world, clinical practice are overrun by those who have no dogma at all about anything, and are, as a result, rootless, confused, and have no external locus of meaning.

As a result they are turning inward, vainly searching for identity and meaning within.  And coming up empty.   It’s not those with dogma who are in anguish about their lack of purpose, it’s those without dogma.  Indeed it seems that everyone is busy creating something to be dogmatic about, because with dogma comes meaning and purpose.

And despite, once again, our handwringing about how little we give at church, we need to place this into context.  Bones admires the generosity of churches in giving where it hurts the most_ the hip pocket:

121 people is the average size of a weekly church gathering in Australia. Even at this level, with an average wage of $55,000, a community committed to tithing generates $665,500 per year. This pays the salary of a few dedicated community servants (priests, pastors), pays a building’s rent or loan, and then provides seed capital for whatever new charitable ventures the local, independent community decides to pursue.

Once they get big enough, most churches choose to fund new churches through venture capital (“church planting”) funds. There is no secular equivalent to help fund new, densely networked secular or interfaith communities, despite the fact that 20 percent of Aussies now identify as “spiritual but not religious”.

Could we all give more? You bet.  We should give until it hurts.  We don’t.  But we do give, and where the gospel of Jesus comes in and transforms us, we tend to give more.  And that’s not simply because of “prosperity theology”.  Conservative churches that hold to orthodox teachings on matters of faith, and that scorn such prosperity teaching, give sacrifically at a level that would make the average non-churchgoer’s eyes water.

Bones ends this way:

Don’t blame right-wing religious people for being more organised, generous and active than us. We need to get smarter. Let’s learn from how they build spiritual community, and start doing it. Because it’s good for wellbeing, and it works.

To which I would add, plenty of non-right wing religious people are all those things too. Bones does conflate conservative theology with right wing politics, which is not always the case, and indeed most conservatives I know mix and match their policies, tending towards “conservative” on marriage and sexuality than the general population, and more “progressive” that the general population, on matters of immigration and refugees etc.

And I certainly think that in terms of climate change it’s a mixed bag.  I am convinced by human-made climate change, but less convinced by the anti-everything-in-the-West brigade that refuses to nuance anything about the solutions.

At the base of all of this, however, is the person of Jesus. Unless you can convince the average person that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving up what they want and following Jesus, church would be just as moribund at affecting the real change that Bones is calling for as the protest marches he espouses would.


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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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