Is the Church Worth Saving?

Posted on: November 19, 2022, by :

[A reflection by David Brooker for the HeartWell Pulse, 14th October 2022] 

That the emerging HeartWell church is engaged in the process of developing a Mission Strategy to guide the next three to five years of ministry and mission would suggest that we believe the church is worth ‘saving’. But is it? The stark reality is that, in Australia, the institutional Church is shrinking at a rather alarming rate: those identifying as Christian in the National Census dropped by 25% between 1971 (86%) and 2011 (61%) and by a further 17% between 2011 and 2021 (44%). At the same time, those identifying with ‘no religion’ rose from 7% (1971) to 39% (2021). At 44%, Christianity remains by far the largest faith group in Australian society (Islam is next at 3.2%), but it is clear that by the time of the next census there will be more people in Australia identifying as non-religious than religious. 

Perhaps this should not surprise us given the poor behaviour that the Church has displayed, and the poor press that the Church has received, over the years: from the earliest days of complicity with government in the penal settlements of colonial Australia, through the era of dispossession and Stolen Generations of Australia’s First Peoples, through the obscene accumulation of wealth and power often at the expense of the poor and powerless, to the too-prevalent evidence of abuse and corruption within church ranks and programs. Add to this the predilection for some Christian leaders to exude a supercilious, self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude (which often expresses itself as a rude dismissal of those who think differently), and it is no surprise that Australian people are turning their backs on the Church.

Which begs the question: does the Church have a future, or perhaps more aptly, does the future have a Church? Is the ‘Church’ worth saving?

Would it be heretical for me to suggest that Jesus would answer that question with a resounding ‘NO’? When I read the story of Jesus I notice his on-going struggle with the institutional ‘Church’ of his day, in particular with the religious leaders’ abuse of power, lack of compassion, and rigid legalism. Is it not likely that Jesus would be equally disillusioned with, and critical of, the institutional Church of today, in which the same or similar abuses are so entrenched? Would Jesus want to ‘save’ a Church such as that!

But all is not lost, for there is something to salvage! What is worth saving are the values and qualities that Jesus taught and demonstrated: life-giving values like care, compassion, generosity, grace, harmony, humility, reconciliation, the practice of love – these are values and qualities that Jesus championed and that are definitely worth ‘saving’ and cultivating. Ideally, these are the values for which the Church ought to be known and respected, but they are too often eclipsed by the narrow-minded, self-interested and legalistic attitudes of hierarchical Church structures.

I suggest that what is worth saving is not the institutional Church but the ‘small c’ church – those local communities of grace, compassion and hope who seek to follow the teaching of Jesus and live out the values of Jesus in their corporate and personal life. I make a significant distinction between Church as institution and church as a gathering of faithful people. The former may not be worth saving, the latter definitely is! And it is this latter understanding of church that is the focus of our emerging Mission Strategy – a plan that invites us to live out the values and qualities that Jesus taught and demonstrated. 

And more than that – a plan that invites us to partner with other people and communities who also espouse these values and qualities, because the affirmation and practice of love, grace, compassion, generosity, care, etc. is certainly not confined to Christian communities and ought to be celebrated and supported wherever it is evidenced.

In a few weeks you will be invited to reflect and comment on the HeartWell Mission Strategy. It is an exciting document, a dynamic action plan, that has the capacity to ‘save’ not just the church but the broader community that the church seeks to serve. And I trust you will affirm that that is indeed worth saving!

David Brooker (14th October 2022)

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