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The picture that stopped me in my tracks

by on May 17, 2010

You are about to see something disturbing.

I don’t like to post this, I’ve been sitting on it for a while. But if we’re going to reach the people of the Canterbury area with the gospel of Jesus,  I’m convinced we need to face up to what’s happened there, and try to understand it.

In a previous post, we showed a graph of decline in the number of Christians living in Canterbury. But what affect has that had on the churches? The graph below tells the story far more powerfully than I could.

These are the attendance figures for a real church in the area, between 1962 and 2000.

There are a few things you need to know to hear the full story this picture is telling.

1. This is a fairly typical set of figures for the area, St Georges River was not an especially unsuccessful church.

2. Notice that the decline is already underway in 1962 when the chart begins. Must have been going on since the fifties at least.

3. In 2000, with ten members attending, St Georges River closed down. The horrible thing about this story is, the church died.

4. The church had around seven rectors during this period – it wasn’t a case of one bad leader grinding the church into the ground.

5. The decline coincides with the beginning of immigration into the area, and the corresponding ‘white flight’ of the anglo population: it’s largely driven by demographic change.

This graph tells the story of the region: a church that could not come to grips with the massive new challenge facing it. As multi-cultural Sydney began arriving on its doorstep, the congregation and service-style stayed firmly anglo. The gap widened year by year, until eventually the church had largely lost touch with the community. In the early years, if the church had risen to the challenge, it could have reached out in love to its new-Australian neighbours. That didn’t happen. By the final years, the congregation was old, and felt threatened by the unfamiliar world which now surrounded them. The opportunity for mission was long gone.

This scenario has played out again and again throughout the area. This is the untold story of the Georges River Region (for more on this, see our Vision Statement, point 1).

I’m not meaning to blame anybody. But however you look at it, a disaster has happened in the Canterbury area. It has taken two generations to unfold, and in that time, no one has managed to turn it around. The disaster is still going on today – it’s in its final stages now.

There are two ways you could respond to this sad story. You could conclude that a church-plant in Canterbury is a kind of suicide mission. Or you could think, something radically different needs to happen if the gospel is to have an impact in the region. What do you think? What can we learn from this story, to help us as we plan for mission in Canterbury?

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

From → General

  1. Charlie Ellis permalink

    Dear Jono,
    The graph and your insightful points are all very clear: the model of churches in the area over the past 50 years have been inadequate at engaging the new arrivals to the areas. Engaging people from different cultural/religious/ethnic/linguistic backgrounds into community groups is always immensely difficult. This is partly because people look to these groups for a sense of identity and belonging. We seek similarity in others to share/fellowship with, with a view to gain personal security, satisfaction with self, justification of one’s beliefs, and ease of social interaction (having many assumed common values). Churches in which tea-time/mingling is spent more talking about interests common to that socio-economic demographic, rather than the joy/freedom/challenges/beauty/fear of following Jesus, need to ask seriously whether they are functioning more like a social club for people of similar cultural/religios backgrounds, or whether they are succeeding in infusing the infectious joy of Christian faith into the congregation.

    The difficulties of cross-cultural engagement can be more than over come through the sacrifical love of Christ, because this is a truth/message which is understood in every culture through the lives of Jesus’ followers, when they practically commit to His lead.

    Maybe the Lord was removing the old churches because of the reasons that you mentioned: firmly held ‘anglo’ interests/values/focus, rather than firmly held Christ interests/values/focus. Maybe He wanted to wipe the slate clean so as to start with a new remnant of believers that weren’t so ‘Anglo’. There is definitely a great opportunity for witness now in the area!

    The graph and your comments bring to mind the words of Peter in his first letter, 2:11 when he speaks about being ‘aliens and strangers in the world’. Such believers would appear foreign even to local ‘Anglos’ throughout the period of decline from 1950s onwards.

    I have no clever answers for you, brother. Perhaps it would be important to think about how to promote a culture of love and service amongst believers (directly in opposition to the common dominant cultural interests {eg. politics, sport, media, education, etc), by practically continuing to carry this out from the top down (as you and Elise do so well!). Practical, sacrificial loving, with a focussed interest on my personal life is what brought me to know Christ more than any tremendous sermon, and is what is the reality of Christ’s ‘living water’ in action. This will cross cultural/language barriers, and make the Canterburians thirsty.

    Love Charlie

  2. Thanks for your comments,Charlie. I agree with what you say about ‘interests common to that socio-economic demographic, ‘ dominating our church relationships too much. That is how a club works , isn’t it. But surely we should be different in the church.

    I like what you say about the difficulties of cross-cultural relating being overcome by the love of Christ. That’s the point for us – multi-ethnic church gives us a great chance to express the power of God’s grace in action, bridging divides, turning suspicion into trust. I can’t wait to get into it!

    I can understand your point about God removing ‘Anglo’ churches. He’s certainly done that. However, I don’t want to in any way criticise the believers in the remaining churches – they are the guys who stayed. I know some of them, and I think God is still at work amongst them. I think many of them are good Christians with a heart for the lost, and with some good leadership, who knows what they might do? I’m quite hopeful about this. But I do think the current need is to establish strongly missional communities alongside the existing congregations. I think that’s the best way to give these dear brothers and sisters the vision for what can be done. After a few decades it must be hard to keep on hoping for change. Some outside perspective is definitely needed.

    ‘Practical, sacrificial loving, with a focussed interest’ on people rather than programs, ‘will cross cultural/language barriers, and make the Canterburians thirsty.’ Thanks for that, Charlie – what a beautiful vision. You’ve inspired me all over again!

  3. What’s going on with the spike in the 1970s? (I’m guessing it’s the 70s) There seems to be an increase in attendance that takes several years before it goes down again. Be curious to know what caused this growth and if it is a repeatable thing.

  4. Good question! The main thing seems to be that a new minister arrived at the start of the 70’s, just where the thing turns around. He achieved two years of impressive growth, then it plateaued for him for three years, then he left, a new minsiter came, and the plunge got going again straight away.


    Not sure what to learn from this. My guess is he was good at gathering in lots of the fringy people loosely connected to the church, and getting them to come regularly. All anglos, I reckon. And once he’d achieved that, he didn’t have any further strategy. Just a guess, but as I’ve stared at this graph, that’s the sort of story I think I’ve heard it whispering to me.

    Sorry I haven’t got anything more hopeful to say.

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