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A puzzling thing about Sydney churches

by on September 17, 2012

Had a most interesting chat with a visitor on the weekend. She’s a young Christian woman, highly committed to her church, a generous giver, prayerful, concerned for mission – a pretty impressive person, in fact.

Here’s what she said:

She said, “I think a lot of Anglican churches in Sydney are a bit like mine. A lot of people at our church are into outreach, they’re doing all they can in local mission. The church is fully committed to the mission, there’s a lot going on. Over the past 5 years we’ve got really mobilised, with Connect 09 and all that.  And giving is up too, over the past 5 years giving’s up 45% per member.

And yet, there are no new people…”

What a striking comment. You can sense the puzzlement, the disappointment and frustration, can’t you. What more can they do? They’re already, as she put it, flat chat in outreach efforts.

They’re reaching out. They’re committed. They care. And yet hardly anyone is coming in.

And this young woman is right about the diocese – at least about growth. The stats suggest that many Sydney churches are a bit like hers. Hard to get stats on outreach efforts. But results: new Christians, growth from unchurched people? Not much there.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we could say, ‘the churches are apathetic, they need to get off their backsides and do something about mission.’ But perhaps that would be an unfair thing to say. It’s a disturbing idea that the churches might be mobilised, and yet still hardly any growth – that suggests a deeper and more intractable problem.

What could the explanation be for this perplexing situation?

We didn’t get much time to talk about this, but our visitor did make one comment:

“Society has moved so far away from the church and Christianity, it’s hard to reach them and bring them back.”

Maybe she’s right – maybe the problem is with society at large. Or maybe it’s with us. Or maybe a bit of both.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we at Canterbury have our own opinions about this question. But this post is not about pushing those.

What it is about, is this: isn’t it time we talked openly about this issue? I was struck by the clear-sighted honesty of the woman who told me these things. I don’t often hear people in our churches talking in that way. It’s not easy to admit to failures. Our church tradition has been strong on projecting an image of confidence and success. Read Southern Cross magazine, it seems like things are going well across the board. Lots of happy stories.

It wouldn’t be easy for them to publish an edition titled, ‘Whatever happened to the mission?‘, in which the painful issue of mission-failure was openly examined. There would likely be more questions than answers, and it might have an unsettling effect on readers. It might turn out that we have few experts to guide us, and that a discussion across the whole diocese needs to go on before we can hope for ways forward to crystalise.

These things would be unsettling and upsetting.

But isn’t it time we did this anyhow? Is there really any future in going forward doing the same things that didn’t work the past five years, without having that conversation, without doing that soul-searching?

It may turn out that there’s nothing we can change, and we’re just going to decline. But it may be that there are real solutions, and that we could learn to do better.

I’m putting my money on ‘we could learn to do better’. I think there’s hope for the future of the Sydney churches. And so I’m wishing more people were talking honestly about this problem.

What do you think? To soul search, or not to soul-search?

And how about it, Southern Cross? Am I right that this deserves a whole issue of the mag to kick off the wider discussion? Or do you have something else more important to report on? 🙂

From → General

  1. kristanslack permalink

    Hi Jono, I hear your call for more open discussions about this, but I do vaguely recall that Southern Cross did exactly as you said some years ago. I think they actually focussed on some failed church plants. But perhaps they could report in more detail and, as you suggest, devote a whole issue to the issue.

    • I’m glad to hear they did that. I guess I’m also looking for engagement with the bigger picture. It’s good to be willing to talk about specific failures, but the reality is diocese-wide mission failure. It’s so big it’s quite daunting. A whole issue of Southern Cross would only be the opening of a conversation that I don’t imagine would end in a year or two.

      I’m aware that this is a big ask for our team. But I think we can do it.

  2. Tom Habib permalink

    I’m all for talking about “how to do mission” – i feel like its all we talk about at College sometimes. It’s important. But I found your comments unsettling – not because they were challenging, embarrassing or raising a taboo subject – but because I felt they were not true and not fair.

    Firstly – its not true. The suggestion that our churches are not reaching anyone, or not growing – is not true. There are lots of people who become Christians through very mundane and ordinary things like Youth Group, people inviting friends to church, a Christianity Explored course, people just walking in off the streets. It’s also not true to paint a picture that all congregations are incredibly committed but still missing the mark. A huge hindrance in mission in Sydney is that we simply don’t invite people to things, don’t ask people if they want to read the bible, don’t personally share the gospel with our neighbour or our friend. Instances where people do this often result in people becoming Christians – this is how I came to Christ.

    Secondly, its not fair. Churches are in this for the long game. We can’t get panicky when we don’t think we are growing, throw everything out and start again. I have seen this sort of panic spread like wildfire across churches and groups within churches in Sydney. I’m really interested and thankful for what you guys are doing at Canterbury, but I’m not seeing people being saved by the hundreds – and I shouldn’t expect that. It’s not a fair question to ask, “Have any been converted yet” – for you guys especially it is a painfully long process of connecting with the community, gaining a presence and trust, and sharing the gospel.

    Yet in the past few years, all of a sudden we woke up to the fact that all of Sydney wasn’t Christian and started worrying what we were doing wrong. It has led to a cacophony of new ideas and a long trail of inconsistency, with churches churning through the next big program, big idea, silver bullet that raises its head -whether it is event-based evangelism, missional communities, cross-cultural engagement. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be thinking how to improve – But in my limited experience I feel we have about 10 great and different ways to get on with mission and we should just get on with it.

    • Tom, thanks for your comments. You say

      “how to do mission” – i feel like its all we talk about at College sometimes

      boy, I wish I’d gone to your college – sounds great! 🙂

      I asked in my post, ‘To soul search or not to soul search?’ I’m hearing a loud NOT from you, brother. Fair enough!

      Let me try to respond to your concerns one by one.

      Firstly – its not true. The suggestion that our churches are not reaching anyone, or not growing – is not true. There are lots of people who become Christians

      Tom, my comments were about the diocese-wide picture, so of course they’re not true of each individual church. There are effective missional churches around. But that stats are, after nearly 10 years’ mission, net growth has more or less kept pace with population growth. As a diocese, we’re not gaining. I didn’t mean to suggest the churches were all fully into mission – like I said it’s hard to get stats on that. But the results of mission – the numbers are hard to argue with.

      Secondly, its not fair. Churches are in this for the long game. We can’t get panicky when we don’t think we are growing,

      You’re right we need to be careful about creating panic. Point taken. I think you’re saying it’s premature to judge the effectiveness of the mission, unfair on churches to criticise results too soon when they’re mid-process. YOu’re right it is unfair to expect results too early. I guess the question is, when is the right time? You say

      It’s not a fair question to ask, “Have any been converted yet” –

      I’m guessing you don’t mean it’s always a bad question. When do you think we should start asking?

      If I can be a bit mechanical for a minute, in any process where you want to maximise outcomes, there needs to be an information feedback system so you can assess the process and improve it over time. You decide how often you want to take soundings, and use those ‘snapshots’ to give you insights into the whole process.

      If your cycle is too short, you end up changing everything before it’s had a decent try. Inconsistency, like you say Tom. A too-rapid turnover in approaches.

      For Canterbury we’ve said we wouldn’t burden ourselves with expectations of ‘results’ in the first couple of years. By the three year mark we’d hope to see something. If we don’t, we’ll seriously reassess our approach then.

      After nearly ten years’ Diocesan mission, I reckon it’s an appropriate time for a feedback cycle. This may not be the best time for every individual church. But Diocese-wide, I think it’s time. Time to say, we’ve given it a decent try, how’s it going, do we need to make changes?

      I reckon 20 years or even 15 is too long to leave it before we take stock like that. I’d argue for a five yearly Diocese-wide review of mission.

  3. Ian Cox permalink

    I like reading the good things and encouraging events that happen in the Diocese, I also like visiting churches and seeing how God’s gospel is making progress in this city. Yes there are churches that are struggling and they are attempting to connect with the community but for various reasons that are not meeting much success.
    I understand that we have to be faithful praying people and we leave the results to the Lord.
    Last Sunday night I was at a church in a hotel. It was a new church plant but there must have been 50 young people there.
    I have also started a church plant and seen it close after 5 years. That’s ok. At least we tried something. Does the world need to know that? NO Do we need to record this in Southern Cross? NO. We keep on looking for the people God has chosen and delight that we can share the message of the Lord Jesus risen from the dead with them

    • Thanks for your comments Ian.

      I’d be interested to hear what you would say to our young visitor whose story I told.

      I tend to agree that when a ministry fails, we don’t need to read all about it in Southern Cross.

      It is important to keep encouraging each other isn’t it. Morale is an important issue, and people do need to hear the good things God is doing among us. So I pretty much agree with what you’re saying.

      However, I stand by my comments to Tom, above: we need to assess what we’re doing periodically. Because as you say, there are ‘various reasons that [mission efforts] are not meeting much success.’ We need if possible to know what those reasons are, because we may have some chance to change and improve things. You’re right our calling is to be a ‘faithful praying people’, ad surely this review process is part of our faithfulness to our calling.

      The right place to assess a local mission is generally in the local church. The right place to assess the diocese’s mission as a whole is in public, at a diocese-wide level. That’s what I’m suggesting we do.

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