Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Strategy for rising again

A sober point to begin with is a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who shares my concern about our Dio attendance stats: he made the observation that all organisations are struggling these days for commitment from their members. On the one hand this should encourage us: attendance may be declining in the church, but perhaps its doing better than other organisations in maintaining decent levels of commitment. On the other hand this alerts us to an aspect of the spirit of our times: thrashing around looking for ways and means to reverse decline may be relatively pointless. In the age of the individual, the internet, and the immense range of choice available as to how one spends a Sunday morning, the church needs as much to think about what it offers on a Sunday morning in church buildings as it needs to think about what it offers via the internet, in people's homes, and elsewhere (e.g. more picnics at the beach on sunny Sundays etc).

Nevertheless many people like to be with people when they engage with God, so strategic thinking about winning people into the fellowship of the church is worth doing. My simple contribution at this point arises from reading through the Acts of the Apostles. In an age of many religions, with Christianity barely known beyond a few thousand followers, how did the apostles go about winning the world to Christ? Their primary strategy was to work from the known to the unknown, from common ground to uncommon ground. Again and again Peter, Paul and co speak first to the Jews or to Jews and God-fearers. Their message begins with the known, common ground of the Jewish scriptures, leading from that to their exposition of Christ, his saving work, and his call to believe in him. In Acts 13, for example, after the great commissioning at Antioch, Paul and his companions head to synagogues in Salamis and Antioch in Pisidia. In a synagogue in the latter Paul begins his message, "Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen" (v. 16).

In one place where Luke tells us about a significant mission foray into non-Jewish, non-"God-fearer" territory, the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17), Paul noticeably has difficulty making much headway. Incidentally, even in Athens Paul went to the synagogues first (17:17), and when he speaks in the Areopagus, he does his best to work on common ground with Greek philosophy (17:28).

In Aotearoa NZ we have opportunities to re-evangelise through 'common ground' starting points. Despite decline in 'census Anglicans', for example, there remain many of them who do not attend church. Can we re-find them and reach out to them? Are we missing something by doing church in such a way that we attract a lot of Christians transferring out of other denominations but fail to draw in many Anglicans?

Yet, I recognise nothing is straightforward here. Recently I had a conversation with an inactive Anglican. She asked me whether we had 'modernised' our services. A further remark from her suggested that she was looking for Anglican services that were not mere repetition of words in prayer books. Another remark clarified that she was not looking for a charismatic approach with people's bodies swaying and hands lifted in the air. Since she also regularly sells things at a Sunday market I presume it would also help to have a modern-but-not-charismatic service at a time other than on a Sunday morning!!

Nevertheless the lesson from Acts remains in my mind: is a strategy of reaching out to inactive Anglicans a key to Anglican churches rising again in numbers?

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