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Census: Church dies. God: My kingdom lives

by ervte

“If it doesn’t grow, it dies.” This phrase was popularized by the church growth movement of the past 50 or so years. The implication is that the prognosis is poor if the numbers don’t rise. The 2021 census has revealed that the number of Australians joining Christianity is the lowest since registration began. If church growth has not only stalled but has shrunk significantly to just 44 percent, could it be that the church in Australia is on the brink of death?

There will be a lot of hand-wringing and serious concerns about these numbers. Efforts for evangelism will no doubt be doubled. Apologies will be advertised. Churches will covertly make efforts tto protect their market share further. In doing so, we will conveniently forget that evangelism, apologetics, and church growth have been our modus operandi for the past 50 years and that it has not worked.Census

If we listen, we will find that much of the decline in religious adherence is not due to a lack of information or programs. As noted last week by John Collier on Eternity, up to three-quarters of Christian tertiary students will lose their faith by the time they complete their studies. The proportion of millennials who have received special religious education attended Christian schools, and even participated in church youth groups is relatively high.

To be clear, there is an issue that needs to be addressed. However, the problem will not be solved by more information, additional activity, programs, or a well-constructed Christian worldview. Millennials are intuitively too smart and committed to authenticity to be fooled by superficial depictions of the Christian life. James KA Smith says, “Jesus is a teacher who informs our intellect and shapes our love. He is unsatisfied with pouring new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wishes, loves, and desires.”

… we have forgotten to sit at the feet of Jesus and be molded by him to live well in the world.

The problem is not with our youth or those who leave the faith. The problem is with teachers and leaders who know so much but are not molded in the way of Jesus and therefore are not deeply set by Jesus’ love. Despite all the bustling activities of teaching, seeker-sensitive serving, and forcing people to “bring a friend,” we have forgotten to sit at Jesus’ feet and be molded by him to live well in the world.

Smith says elsewhere, “Discipleship and spiritual formation are not so much about erecting a building of knowledge as about developing a Christian know-how that intuitively understands the world in the light of the gospel.”

What if instead of focusing on evangelism and hoping that discipleship happens, we focus on discipleship from all of life to Jesus and make evangelism happen? In this approach, instead of the right techniques and answers, we have lives shaped by the whole story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. In the words of Dallas Willard, these will be lives overflowing with routine and easy obedience to Jesus and therefore serve for his presence in each of our contexts.

Unless Jesus said a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But when it falls to the ground and dies, it produces many seeds (John 12:24). This is what the Kingdom of God looks like – and it goes against the church growth movement. The invitation in this text is to stop striving to master the temporal but instead learn eternal life from Jesus.

Despite all this, the truth is that the Kingdom of God is not under threat. The invitation remains to meet God, experience Jesus’ new kind of life, and see this life overflowing with the Holy Spirit as we participate in God’s great plan for the reconciliation and renewal of all things.

The whole life of Jesus’ discipleship…will bring hope to a desperately seeking world.

Rather than wringing hands and earnestly worrying and scrambling to run modern programs, may the church respond to the invitation to focus instead on something ancient and eternal: discipleship of the whole life to Jesus. This, and only this, will bring hope to a desperately seeking world. This, and only this, will stand the test of time.

Graeme Anderson is a Baptist minister, a practical theologian, and the author of Follow: Experiencing Life with Jesus.

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