Themes /

Standing at the Crossroads (Part 1)

Facing up to the crisis of the church

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters September 2012

truck through church

The consumer economy has crashed straight through the middle of the church. Photo: Chapel on the Lake, Nagambie, 2003.


In the previous edition of Manna Matters (May 2012) I discussed the incredible idea that is behind the New Testament conception of the church – that it is the very body of Christ; the continuing incarnation of Jesus in the world; the necessary outcome of the Word that becomes flesh. For the Biblical writers, for whom there is no division between the spiritual and material, or between soul and body, such a conception of the church must therefore have profound implications for the economic arrangements and behaviour of this community of people. The New Testament writers understood the church as a continuation of the calling of Israel to be an alternative economic community whose everyday mode of conduct is a witness to the character of God (Manna Matters Nov 2009). It is a community whose life is to be characterised by stubborn non-conformity to the ways of the world, and determined by a distinctive, lively and active vision of goodness, health and wholeness that embraces all of humanity and creation – in short, it is to be a holy people.

But we also recognised that in making such a statement we must also, almost in the same breath, acknowledge that we are a long, long way from this vision. There is not enough that is distinctive about the economic lives and habits of Christians and Christian communities today. There is not much recognition that the sorts of choices we make in all our major economic decisions – choices about work, perceptions of needs and especially income needs, consumption patterns and investment choices – form an important part of the very substance of our following Christ in the world; that they are an opportunity to embody the ethic of the kingdom of God, an opportunity for the Word to become flesh. At best, there is perhaps a vague recognition that Christian ethics dictate that there may be some things we shouldn’t do in these fields, however, the main field of decision-making is left open to the all-encompassing influence of modern consumer culture. And while at times many Christians may have a nagging sense of discomfort about certain life-choices, people tend to feel that they have little choice, that there is no alternative. And in many ways, this holds true not only for our behaviour as individuals, but also, and perhaps even more so, for the economic behaviour of Christian communities, and the institutional structures of Christian denominations.

If we take seriously the great distance between the above two paragraphs – what we are called to be, and where we actually are – then it should not really be surprising that the church in the West is in crisis. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the church in Australia has yet fully grasped this fact. Is it really in crisis? We live in a culture preoccupied with numbers and counting things, so let’s see if the numbers tell us anything of use.

There are a number of sources of information about the level of affiliation to Christian faith and the health of Christian communities: census data, National Church Life Surveys, and other academic studies. These all look at slightly different things and employ different methods, however, they all confirm what anyone who is 60 or over could tell you – that identification with Christianity, and especially attendance at church, collapsed dramatically in the 1960s and has been in steady and continual decline ever since. But how bad is this decline? A study of religious affiliation in the UK, where the trend has been virtually the same, put it like this:

… in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay. The generation now in middle age has produced children who are half as likely to attend church.

More precisely, the study found that children in families where both parents could be described as ‘committed Christians’ had only a 50% chance of sharing such a faith in their adult years, while children in families where only one parent was a ‘committed Christian’ roughly had only a 25% chance of sharing that faith. I once asked an Australian academic who studies the same trends here whether he thought faith in families here had a similar ‘half-life’; he replied that he thought the rate of decline here is probably quicker than in the UK.

If these trends continue as they have for the past four decades, then a number of mainline denominations in Australia will struggle to remain viable by the middle of this century (perhaps sooner) and they will certainly no longer be able to economically support the structures that we have come to associate with the institutional church. Even in the religious culture of the US the decline of the church is biting hard; more than a decade ago Tom Sine wrote: ‘If the present trends continue uninterrupted these denominations will be totally out of business by the year 2032′.

But what about Pentecostalism and the mega-churches? Aren’t they growing? There is no doubt that the most significant phenomenon in the Australian church in the past two decades has been the growth of what are generally referred to as Pentecostal mega-churches (although the term ‘Pentecostal’ is becoming increasingly problematic when applied to many of these churches). Although these churches have individually grown very rapidly, they have brought little growth to the church as a whole. For the most part, their growth has come out of ‘recycling’ – picking up Christians who have fled smaller churches in the mainline denominations. But even here their growth is somewhat illusory – the mega-churches have very high flow-through rates (new attendees are largely matched by high rates of exit) and some observers close to this movement believe that the phenomenon has now passed its peak. Even with the enormous resources and effort poured into attractional-style services (more like concerts really), even these churches are struggling to win any new adherents to Christianity. As one sociologist of religion in Australia put it to me: ‘Statistically speaking, conversion is a myth – it simply doesn’t happen.’

But numbers only tell a superficial story; they tell us that the church is going through profound change, but they don’t tell us what is really happening. The above discussion of mega-churches and the brand of Christianity that they represent, poses a much deeper question: what is the gospel anyway? It is in asking this question that we come to the heart of the crisis of the church. It is evident that the formulations of the gospel that have been the currency of the church for so many generations are seeming increasingly thin and two-dimensional. For some, this is compensated for by latching onto the passion and purpose of the social justice elements of the gospel that have so much to say in our current times; but,  if you dig a little deeper it is not uncommon to find that this passion is still accompanied by a deep ambivalence about the rest of ‘the package’, and that social justice Christianity often looks little different from its secular counterparts. The growing recovery of the social justice purposes of the gospel (as they are ordinarily understood) is undoubtedly a positive development in the Australian church, but it is not proving to be a force for the renewal of faith. Those who buy this brand of Christianity are just as likely to drift out of the faith as not to.

Essentially, there is a crisis of confidence in the goodness of the good news. While many Christians are holding on (with varying levels of success) to a conviction that there is something deeply ‘right’ about the gospel, there is a great struggle to define, articulate, and therefore, to live by, a clear understanding of either what is distinctive about the biblical story or why it is good for us. And that is because the biblical story is not the only story we are listening to. There is a much louder story that has, for a long time, been filling our ears, and we have barely recognised that it exists.

How did we get here?

To properly understand the current state of the church in the West we need to go back into its history to look at the things that have shaped it, and to ask where other stories began to be mixed up with the biblical story. To do this we need to re-visit the earliest centuries of the church, and there are perhaps many things that we could point to; but here I want to highlight four great turnings in the history of the church, which together go a long way to explaining our current predicament. I should quickly stress that these turnings all played out over generations and centuries and were never quite so clear as such at the time (lest we be arrogant about our superiority to our forbears). Also, in dealing with almost two millennia of history in such brevity, it is inevitable that this account will be too simplistic, and that every step of the way deserves some qualification.  But it is critical, as in all human affairs, that we try to understand the grand story that has brought us to where we are. This is an inadequate first step, but as GK Chesterton said, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

The first turning that I want to consider is the profound and incredibly unlikely revolution that gripped the ancient Mediterranean world when in 306 AD Constantine became Emperor of Rome and then proceeded to transform the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire. Depending on your theological view of history, this moment has tended to be seen as either Christianity’s greatest triumph (perhaps the dominant view), or its greatest calamity. I do not believe that such simplistic categories can accurately represent what happened, and why should they? The entire biblical story confirms that God is continually engaging in the messiness and mixed nature of human history. While I tend to a more negative reading of what has been referred to as the Constantinian Legacy, I am also convinced that we have generally failed to see just how much good was achieved by what is now disparagingly referred to as ‘Christendom’.

Nevertheless, when the whole Roman Empire became Christian, something profound happened to Christian faith. As John Howard Yoder points out, before Constantine it took deep courage and conviction to be a Christian; after Constantine, it took deep courage and conviction not to be a Christian. When the church took up the sword there was little room left for the faith of the cross, the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. This was the first great turning. From this time on and until very recently, the whole history of Europe and Western civilisation has proceeded on the assumption that it was a Christian civilisation.

The next great event I want to consider here is one of the unforseen consequences of the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century. In many ways the Reformation was a counter-reaction to the Constantinian Legacy that made everyone by default a Christian, and which made the institutional church the monopolistic arbiter and mediator of faith for everyone. The Reformers demanded that faith be a matter of conviction and integrity, and insisted that every individual human being could have access to God without the mediation of the church. This was the brilliant light of truth at the heart of the Reformation, however, as RH Tawney said, it was a light almost too blinding for the Reformers. As future generations of Calvinists and Puritans worked through these ideas the ultimate result (which neither Luther or Calvin would have been happy about) was an intense focus on salvation of the soul after death, and the obliteration of the older, deeper understanding of humanity as a creature of the earth, made for communion within the fellowship of creation and the Creator. Reflecting on later generations of English Puritanism, Tawney concludes that ‘it enthroned religion in the privacy of the individual soul, not without some sighs of sober satisfaction at its abdication from society’. This was the second turning.

At precisely the same time as the Protestant Reformation (and feeding directly into it), European civilisation was undergoing another monumental transformation, which is the subject of our third great turning. Between 1450 and 1650 a new economic system was coming into being, which we today refer to as capitalism (although this term was not coined for another 400 years). This is a word that gets bandied around a bit, and depending on who is using it, carries either negative or positive connotations; however, there is very little clarity about what capitalism actually is and how it differs from other forms of economic organisation. (For example, many people assume that capitalism is synonymous with ‘free enterprise’, which it is not; you can have capitalism without free enterprise and free enterprise without capitalism.) This will surely be a matter for discussion in a future edition of Manna Matters as we need to understand the nature of the system that now encompasses the whole globe. Let it suffice for the moment to stress that the form of economic organisation being birthed in Europe was something entirely new and something that radically reshaped the social landscape wherever it took root. The end result was that all of society, from milk-maid to monarch, was made to serve a new Law and a new Lord: the Law was that of never-ending accumulation and constant growth; and the Lord was Capital, once known as Mammon.

Capitalism went on to conquer the globe and become the only economic system going, and all the while there remained the assumption that it was the product of a Christian culture. The post-Reformation church, which in centuries-past had doggedly applied the gospel to the economic sphere, offered little resistance to this economic upheaval, and very soon the church had baptised the virtues of efficiency, productivity and accumulation as the new ‘godly discipline’. This was the third turning.

Hard on the heels of the Reformation and the birth of capitalism there came that other profound revolution in European society, this time intellectual, known as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. It is far beyond me to try to summarise the diverse works of philosophy and science emanating from thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume and Smith, but there is no doubt that it set in motion a profound shift in human thinking that is still being worked through to this day. Immanuel Kant summed up the spirit of his age as simply the freedom to use one’s own intelligence, but it was more than that. Emboldened by the Reformation’s relegation of the church to a secondary sphere in society and the banishment of God to a spiritual sphere (if he existed at all), the Enlightenment project set about trying to understand the universe and human existence without any recourse to what was widely becoming viewed as ‘superstition’ – that is, religion or the church.

The Enlightenment set about to establish the self-sufficiency of human kind, and that is what it did. The church was graciously granted its domain to chaplain the private recesses of the human heart, but it was made clear that it had no place in the realms of politics or the new science of economics – these were simply no longer of religious concern. The church basically accepted and agreed with this position – the fourth great turning. Through all of these storms and upheavals, the church, the government and even the new breed of non-Christians, continued to assume that they lived in an essentially Christian society, even though everyone had been transformed into practical atheists.

To sum up, we have considered four great turnings away from the gospel by the church:

  1. We consented to join with empire and domination, and ‘Christian faith’ became something other than a matter of deep conviction.
  2. We individualised and spiritualised the Christian gospel, effectively discarding all that it had to say about our material lives and the bonds of community.
  3. We became willing participants in the program of never-ending accumulation.
  4. Other than a narrowly defined spiritual sphere, we made God practically irrelevant in virtually every other sphere of life.

Of course, this is not the whole story. There are indeed other turnings in Church history that would be fruitful to consider if space  permitted. But, perhaps more importantly, there has always been a counter-story, a story of faithfulness, resistance and hope at the margins  – the desert fathers, the early monastics, the mendicant friars, the Anabaptists, the non-conformists, the list goes on – and their legacy continues to be renewed and live on.

But, as the inheritor of the four turnings discussed above, it is not really that surprising that the church now seems disoriented and irrelevant, like a house built on a foundation of sand. In the face of global environmental crises, unprecedented inequality, economic tumult, social fragmentation and the hollowing-out of self, we are discovering that it all looks very little like the good news that Jesus proclaimed, and that it has all been a profoundly destructive project. To put it bluntly: the crisis of the church is one and the same as the crisis of the world, because that is what we have become.

Next edition:


The economics of renewal