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One of the common questions I get asked is “who are ‘Churches of Christ?’” It’s an important question that requires careful attention. For this reason, I have decided to write several articles that address this question from a different perspective, namely – who are we becoming? While our history and heritage are essential for grounding us together, our future and who we intend to be in that future space requires theological rigour and informed conversation.
It is my hope that these pieces become important conversation starters for leadership communities across our movement. The fresh hope family of churches is facing what I believe to be unprecedented changes going forward, and I hope to flag some of those challenges with the view of encouraging you to engage proactively in these themes.
Theme II – A Church that Spiritually Transforms Communities and Lives
The arrival of the 2016 Australian Census data has precipitated some important conversations for those of us in church leadership. We can’t ignore the facts that indicate Christianity is in decline within our nation. Some might be alarmed by this outcome but I see it as a strategic opportunity to sharpen our witness and presence in communities across the length and breadth of this great land.
Similar recent research by McCrindle highlights that about 80% of society thinks that the church can ‘not at all assist’ people with respect to their personal lives. The summary covers seven key life areas including spiritual and relational health. The National Church Life Survey through their 2016 Australian Community Survey confirms this perception, suggesting only 40% of Australian’s believe religion is good for society. The tide has come in and gone out with remarkable consequence.
I am reminded that some fifty years ago the last Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson published ‘Honest to God’; a book which then fuelled the ‘God is Dead’ movement from 1963 onwards. Significant turmoil and debate ensued with alarmist controversy centred on the relevance of the church and its institutional structures. Writing in the 1990’s, Don Smith wrote: ‘It is at this point that we need a clear harvest vision. A harvest vision will have implications for both evangelistic and outreach work in churches and Conference structures.’ I agree.
Writing on the History of Churches of Christ in Australia, Graeme Chapman sums up an orientation which I call ‘agile engagement’. He states: ‘The absence of a written creed allows them to be open to new movements of God’s Spirit, and, with growing theological maturity, to test them against basic Christian teaching. Balance and proportion have been keynotes over recent years.’ The ‘them’ referred to in this quote is ‘us’. How we mature in real time is directly proportional to what we believe and what we value.
I believe that one of the urgent movements of God’s Spirit is to reposition the church (in all its expressions) to learn the art of personal and community transformation. I would like to suggest we need a new language and to understand the societal shifts present and the implications for witnessing going forward.
It’s not easy to admit that the Western church has almost programmed itself to death. In our constituencies, we have had at least four decades of programmed church activity, all the while impervious to the prevailing attitudes within communities we seek to serve. Please understand, I am not negative towards church programs, but it feels like we are pushing hard strategically with methods that no longer work.
So what exactly do I mean when I suggest that our methods are no longer working? Put simply, Australians are not as enamoured by our forms of church and are voting with their feet. Some point to the growth of mega churches as a sign we are arresting that trend but I suspect significant growth is attributable to Christians switching from one tribe to another. I fear we are promulgating a Christian consumer culture that stands in stark contrast to the life of an everyday disciple who lives the Kingdom way in deep and profound relationships.
Firstly, we must re-learn the practice of witness, whereby through our own example and lifestyle, we introduce people to God through faith in Jesus, and as a consequence they are deeply transformed. Transforming lives is a key component of the new language and it is less about church activity and more about genuine relationships. It is also not instant success, but prolonged intentional fruitfulness.
The church is like a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end. But most of the wisdom is to be found in the deep end, among those who have taken the time and cultivated the habits and disciplines to learn to swim in deeper waters. If we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, then we need the kind of sustained learning that leads us into the deep end of the pool.”
– Anglican Theologian W.H. Vanstone
The journey of personal transformation includes spirituality, emotional well-being, intellectual growth, physical care and relational community. It must be said that as disciples, we are each primarily responsible to proactively nurture our souls and model the life of a transformed person. We then help one another in that quest, to ensure we grow up into maturity in Christ, thus being salt and light in our spheres of life.
I suspect that when Jesus shares the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13), that we are the ‘good seed’ and (as disciples) we are His primary strategy for the redemption and restoration of our world here on earth. This is both a privilege and responsibility given to every follower of Jesus. Understandably this doesn’t happen through once off events – it is consistent and helpful relationships that cause others to see God in and through us. The practice of transformation requires both courage and vulnerability.
Secondly, the church as a faith community is called to transform those around with the love and life of God. We prefer to suggest that when this happens, those around experience fresh hope.
The new language is essentially defined by ‘how the church becomes a transformational community which is able to influence culture and society in kind, caring, gracious and tenacious ways’. The true litmus test is whether your external community needs you. Internally we like to ask you what your ‘redemptive gift’ looks like; put simply – why has God called and shaped your faith community for such a time as this?
The witness of the early church is helpful in re-orientating our methods and form. I am inspired and motivated by the language of The Message in Acts 14:21-28. There are several helpful descriptors around Paul and Barnabas’ ministry including:
The biblical script here typifies the new language. It is both hopeful and grounded in reality. In one God inspired season, the early church is birthed to transform those around them.
I so hope this is the church we are becoming…
Dr. Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director
 McCrindle Research Ó 2015 Church in Australian Community
 NCLS Ó 2106 Australian Community Survey
 Smith D. Harvest – The Idea for our Time Ó 1993 Vital Publications. p. 14
 Chapman G. One Lord One Faith One Baptism: A History of Churches of Christ in Australia. Ó1989 Vital Publications. Sec Ed. p. 181