Where to Now? – Does the Church in NZ have a Future?

This article is the transcript of a talk/sermon by Guss Rowe (ex YFC) at his church in Hamilton recently.

Delivered recently at the centenary of Hamilton Central Baptist Church – By Gus Row

READ – Genesis 12 & 13

If I had been Abraham, and I had known what was ahead on the journey, I would still be resting in a tent somewhere near Iraq, dried lamb strips safely in the pantry, vintage wine in goatskin containers hanging on a tent pole, the camels would have remained unsaddled, and tent pegs firmly pegged.

Thankfully Abraham, was made of more faithful stuff. This is one of the earliest biblical examples of the Life of Faith.

Anyway you read this story, it’s a story of movement. God made a promise so –

– Abraham left

– He passed through

– He built an altar

– He moved on

– God appeared to him

– He departed

For Abraham, faith in God’s promise meant moving on, to continue experiencing God. The real life example is clear.

The metaphor is just as obvious – faith doesn’t grow by staying still. It involves challenge, risk, adventure. It is not for the fainthearted. Or at least, for those of us who are faint hearted, it demands greater dependence on the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8)

Like Abraham, we may even find ourselves back at places we’ve already been, but in the journey, we’ll have been changed.

This weekend has been wonderful nostalgia – remembering great moments of the past. We have built our altars to God’s goodness, in photo boards, shared stories, and a glossy book. That’s been a worthwhile exercise.

My challenge is to complete the celebration by speaking on the future. The “where-to now”? I confess I find this rather awkward. I have been a church attender all my life. 44 of those years as a Baptist. 26 years here at Central Baptist. My dilemma is that when it comes to the future of the Church (at least the standard Kiwi version), I’m not sure it has one, I’m not sure it has one. I’ll let that sink in a bit and say there is an “unless”.

I’m aware I am just one fairly inadequate voice and I may well be wrong. And in saying what I do, I’m not trying to criticize people who are faithfully serving the church, nor to suggest all we do or have done is wrong or wasted. Furthermore, at 54 I’m not an angry young radical. I have no vested interest in revolutionary change. But I think I owe it to you to say what I feel most deeply. I’ll tell you why I’m not sure we have a future, in two parts:

Firstly because the world has changed. We live in a world that, at it’s philosophical core, is shaped very differently than the world in which most evangelical churches have operated for the past 100 years and more. At a deep level, core beliefs about God, the World, right and wrong, meaning, family, work, leisure …. have all changed. We don’t have time to go into how it happened? and why? We may not like it but that doesn’t alter the scale of the change.

Our NZ corner of the world is thoroughly secular, most everything is relative, and the two overriding values are individualism and a consumer rather than productive or servant mentality. The deep biblical foundations that many speakers have reflected on this weekend, do not exist for the majority of the population, including many believers. After 35 years in Youth work (the front line of contemporary culture), let me assure you that this current generation of young adults and those that follow them, believe an individuals views, (so long as they don’t deliberately harm someone else) should not be questioned. They are certain that spiritual beliefs are personal lifestyle choices that are best kept private. In that environment the christian church is often viewed as either irrelevant or antagonistic. As :

– a non event

– a narrow minded religious club trying to impose its ideas

– a corporate business with tax advantages

– just another example of mainstream hypocrisy, a chaplaincy for the status quo

The great tragedy is that, for a while their view of Jesus has been far more positive, leading to a significant distinction between Jesus and christianity in many peoples minds. But slowly, and sadly, this distinction will degenerate.

Jesus will be viewed not as someone who came to forgive our sins but as someone intent on shaming us for our sins. Not as good news for the poor but rather on the side of the well off. Representing the status quo not overturning it. Not as the man of peace but as another angry religious leader.

Because of this I would suggest that almost all the people who might want to come to our version of Church, are already here. They are not queuing up to join. Nor is there any likelihood they will. Largely because we haven’t attempted to answer the big questions these cultural changes are raising.

Rest assured, the answer is not in more upmarket music, zany services, better strategies, good marketing, powerful preaching, younger or more charismatic leadership. Fine tuning, tweaking the edges, may delay our demise but it won’t make any real difference.

And there’s no point in blaming anyone other than the Devil, and ourselves. There was no great liberal or political conspiracy. It just happened while we were busy.

In anticipation of one possible challenge, let me say I understand that Jesus won’t allow his Bride to die altogether. But we don’t really believe that he’ll just take care of everything. If we did we wouldn’t put so much effort into rehearsing songs, writing sermons, organizing programs, or building buildings.

No, the world we live in has simply left us behind. It is a hugely spiritual world, it just doesn’t believe that it will find God (whoever he is) in a Christian church. And if the research that most church attenders don’t experience God there in any significant way, is any indication, we don’t believe it either.

If the glazed look in the eyes of many of the men especially, that sit near me at 11.00am on a Sunday tells a story, we’re not expecting to really connect with God either. For me, the last 25 years of attending church haven’t really required much in the way of faith. Loyalty yes. Faith, not really. God could have left the building years ago but it probably wouldn’t change a lot of what we do. We’d say so if we were honest. But honesty is not something that church is renowned for. Which is one reason why people don’t want to join.

To explain the second reason for my lack of optimism, I’d like to ask you a favour. Run your tongue over your teeth, top and bottom. Pause everytime you touch a tooth with a hint of tenderness or mild pain. That pain has a cause. And chances are, it’s gonna get worse, not better. Thank you, you can relax now. I’ve been blessed with strong teeth. Big carnivorous tearing machines which in my older years are now more suited to mashed veges. For years they served me well. Sadly, over a period of time, some decay set in – it was evident but tolerable so I ignored it. After all, if Colin Meads could play rugby with a broken arm, I could put up with a little toothache. Then one day one of my teeth fell apart. So I took out a 2nd mortgage and went to the dentist, who said you’ll need 6 visits, lots of drilling and a bigger mortgage. Oh, I’d always wanted good teeth. For years I’d had good teeth. I brushed a minimum of twice a day, I was a regular disciplined advert for Colgate. But, until the pain of the status quo became greater than the pain of dental surgery, I wasn’t prepared to do anything serious or radical.

Most of us want to be part of a vibrant group of Jesus followers. Most of us want to see more people enjoying what it means to be part of Jesus’ family. But until the pain of staying the way we are becomes greater than the fear of change, it won’t happen. That’s my big UNLESS.

I’m convinced the only future is to become a truly missional group. To accept that Jesus’ great prayer in John 17 is for us as well as those first 12 Disciples. Reading it, you sense that Jesus is passing on his mission to his followers.

So let me ask you a question: If we were all leaving next month to go to the back of China, or the Amazon Rainforest, how would we change? We surely wouldn’t just go as we are. We’d get serious. We’d prepare, pray, prune away all the non essentials. Work out our core beliefs and forget about the minor issues. We’d get our relationships in better shape. That’s exactly the mission mindset the Church needs here in N.Z. Our only future is to become missional in belief and practise.

But it will hurt. It will involve sacrifice and surrender – and that’s painful.

The Pain.
– of giving up what makes us comfortable, so that Church becomes a welcome place to those who don’t believe

– of being known as the friends of sinners

– of releasing people to do less in Church and more out there (e.g. if our worship team put their time in to helping kids in the community learn music. Of course that would mean we’d have to organise worship without them!)

– of abandoning our moral high ground and admitting we don’t have everything sorted. In fact for many of the major moral issues of the last few decades, like racism, gender equality, colonialism, environmentalism, the church has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the party

– of engaging with some of what we may consider the darkest places in our community (e.g. Visiting the Mosque to discover Jesus there – because he surely is already there.)

– of giving up some of our programs just to be silent and let God speak

– of giving up our desire to win the culture war to make NZ a Christian Nation. It’s a time wasting exercise.

– of accountability. Of being known for who we really are rather than maintaining a religious façade.

– of accepting that our claims to love Bible preaching are pretty shallow. What we really love is bible preaching that fits our prescribed ideas of what the Bible says.

– of accepting there are many of the big questions of life, we just can’t answer

– of serving people in ways we find distasteful (like the christian group that served iced water and did the cleanup for the Gay Fun Day.

– of surrendering our past successes in order to be free to explore new ways of faith.

– of admitting that this fine building may not have been worth the blood on the carpet

– of listening more than telling

– of realizing there is only one enemy and it’s not our neighbours, our workmates, or the Prime Minister

– of accepting that our systems of leadership will have to change

– accepting major disruption to our way of doing things

– of following Jesus, rather than admiring him

– of taking risky, scary steps of faith rather than doing Church

Personally I don’t think we believe the situation is that serious. I’m of the opinion we will talk about it, debate it, avoid offending anyone, stake our claim for what suits us, make some minor changes, and carry on, business as usual. Please God I hope I’m wrong.

Read – John 17

About Gus Row –
– Gus isn’t a pastor at Central Baptist – rather, until Nov last year he & his wife were members of the church, who served with YFC. For a period of 5 years he was also a volunteer preacher in the church. They resigned their 26 year church membership late last year, 6 weeks after the Centenary (where this sermon was preached)
– This sermon was in response to a request by the Centenary Committee to finish their weekend of nostalgia with a look at the future, but was limited to 15 minutes because it needed to be translated into Korean. For that reason it was quite short.
– Gus & his wife are still with YFC. It has always been their primary christian community. Gus served as National Director, Waikato Director and over the last 4 years has helped lead a change from a being a christian youth organisation, to a missional order focusing on youth. Gus now holds no title or position in the order but continues to serve in a wide range of missional projects.