Five critical challenges for church leaders

The 2007 Annual Arrow Lecture
By the Rev. Peter Corney OAM


1. Five observations about what’s happening in the general culture
2. The five challenges for contemporary Christian leaders.

What’s happening in the general culture?

There are so many things happening that have implications for the church that its hard to know what to select. e.g. Should we be taking more creative initiatives in the future of indigenous Australian’s? – How can we communicate publicly a fresh theology of creation that puts us on the front foot in the climate change debate?

I have chosen just five things to comment on that I think have major implications for how we communicate the Gospel to and how we interface with the wider culture.

I have chosen these because I think they go to the heart of the interior changes taking place in people – their mental and emotional landscape – the instinctive way they now view reality, particularly Generation ‘Y’. (13-28 year olds). But I think the changes affect everyone to some degree.


1. My first observation is what I have called:
The Paris Hilton factor or hyper reality. Hyper reality is a construction of the media juggernaut through advertising by the creation of desirable but artificial images. ‘You can be this if you buy this, wear this, drive this,’ etc. A Hyper reality is constructed and then marketed to consumers. Hyper reality is the product of consumerism.

The message is – there is a perfect life and it’s attainable by all. For young adults this myth is reinforced by ‘Reality’ T.V. shows like Big Brother and Australian Idol where the ‘stars’ are deliberately chosen from very ordinary people. Anyone can be a star, a celebrity, and of course everyone can have their five minutes of fame on MySpace and YouTube! Generation ‘Y’ is a big consumer of Hyper Reality.

Media is in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers, advertisers are in the business of turning audiences into consumers. The tool is – hyper reality. The search for the meaning of life begins in a David Jones’s catalogue!

The problem of course is that Hyper Reality is mostly fantasy and lies and eventually you get mugged by reality. In the mean time you have been led down the path of discontent, for that is the technique of consumerism – ‘This mobile phone plan is better than the one you’ve got.’

Eventually this consumer path leads you to the valley of discontent because we know that the acquisition of things on its own does not lead to happiness.

Disillusionment in turn leads to depression and self-medication to mask the emotional pain. This is one of the reasons we have an epidemic of substance abuse and addiction.

But the results are not only personal and individual they are social and global. Rampant consumerism leads us deeper and deeper into the environmental crisis and accelerated climate change – it is simply unsustainable. Modernity’s ‘progress’ has reached a critical point where it is now eating itself, destroying its own achievements, it has turned into social regress. (eg. While we are one of the most wealthy countries and have one of the most sophisticated health systems juvenile dental health is declining and diabetes is sky rocketing, one in four young people have mental health problems and according to ‘Beyond Blue’ one in five Australians suffers depression).

What’s required is an alternative Christian community that models a different lifestyle that says NO to hyper reality and lives differently. A community that lives simply but joyfully, that is temperate (restrained) but generous, disciplined but gracious.

2. My Second observation I have titled Screenagers and Virtual Reality.

Recently I spoke to a class of year ten students at one of Australia’s largest private girls schools. This was the first school to introduce laptops for every student. When you enter a class at this school the students are sitting there all looking at you over their laptops screens.

This scene is symbolic of many things. I recently listened to the head of the RE Department at one of our most prestigious independent schools describe the situation like this:

These kids can download onto that screen a virtual experience of almost anything you can imagine and things you don’t even want to imagine! But they have few tools for assessing these virtual experiences.

The screen is the immediate foreground of their lives but most have no background or horizon by which to evaluate or asses what they see and experience. The teacher made this telling comment “They are not just having experiences via their screens – they are being had by them!” Without an external map outside their screens they cannot make sense of their virtual experiences or place them in the context of ‘real reality’. She went on to describe how she attempted to deconstruct their virtual reality and to develop in them not only a deeper critical faculty but a bigger view of reality that includes God and ethical horizons – backgrounds that will enable them to evaluate the incessant and constant foreground of their screens and its virtual reality.

Remember technology is never neutral in its social impact – it not only changes the way we do things – it changes us. Hyper Reality and Virtual Reality is almost certainly affecting the way people’s identity is being constructed today.

3. My third observation I’ve called Without a compass or hyper perspectivism.

Mike Figgis, best known for Leaving Las Vegas and The Sopranos, also created a quirky film called Time Code. Instead of watching just one screen as you do in a normal film he divides the screen into four. Every scene is shot from four different angles or perspectives. All four are shown on the screen together – four perspectives on the one story. Figgis comments, “the audience can make it’s own editing choice”. The viewer creates their own interpretation by consciously or unconsciously selecting or editing the perspectives in their own mind.

As you might expect the film wasn’t a great box office hit. But what Figgis was expressing about contemporary thought was very perceptive. Contemporary people are deeply effected by the idea that the creation of meaning is primarily not with the author, the film director, the teacher but with the viewer, the hearer. There is no absolute of objective truth or meaning, there is no one overarching story and everything that claims to be is just a construct by a particular group or an individual.

Of course the ultimate place of personal choice and multiple perspectives is the ‘wild, wild Web’ – the Internet. Another perspective is just a Google away!

Now the average punter doesn’t understand either the philosophical or the cultural forces that produce this worldview but they have absorbed it through popular culture.

Much has been said about the contemporary interest in spirituality. It may be better than sterile secularism – but my own view is that it is essentially Pagan subjectivism. C.S. Lewis pointed out many years ago that the default religious setting for fallen humanity is Paganism. For many contemporary people today their only authority is their interior world of feelings, impressions and intuitions. Now that is perfectly understandable because that is where extreme perspectivism drives you. When all objective or external moderating criteria have collapsed you are driven inside – within. Ethical decisions, questions of truth and meaning are all shrunk into this murky and often-dysfunctional space of subjective feelings.

Among the latest tribes in the youth culture are those who term themselves ‘Emo’s’ – emotionals. The theme of this year’s Venice Biennale, the international exhibition of cutting edge contemporary art, is ‘Think with the senses – feel with the mind.’ This reminds one of the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias’s important question for all Christians educators: “How do you communicate with a culture that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?”

This loss of any objective authority is partly why they place so much weight on relationships. When all objective meaning dissolves in the acid of relativism and extreme perspectivism all you are left with is relationships.

There is a song by Paul Simon called Cathy’s Song that expresses this sentiment very clearly. A young man is musing on his girlfriend’s departure. It’s a rainy day and he’s watching the rain run down the window pane. He says;

“I have come to doubt all that I once held as true.
I stand alone without beliefs,
They only truth I know is you.
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die,
I know that I am like the rain,
There but for the grace of you go I.”

The tragedy of course is that the human relationships that are not framed by a larger reality, a relationship with God, cannot bear all the weight we place upon them. Those we love die, they leave us; they may also disappoint us, hurt us or betray us.

Extreme perspectivism leaves a generation without a compass apart from their own subjective feelings. The only thing that may save them from being completely manipulated by the media is their cynicism – but that will not resolve their moral and spiritual confusion.

4. My fourth observation I have called the shadow in the background.

This shadow is made up of the background anxiety about international terrorism, large-scale people movements that are producing a clash of cultures, global warming and climate change.

A recent British film called The children of men explored this theme of the loss of hope. The film is set in Britain in the near future. Britain is now one of the last of the worlds functioning communities. Thousands of illegal immigrants pour in for some form of safety. The government has herded them into vast holding camps, cities behind barbed wire and armed patrols. The towns of much of the country are in decay, armed police patrol the streets, and terrorist car bombs are regularly exploded. Pessimism and loss of hope fill the air. In the midst of this despair a strange thing has happened. The loss of hope seems to have flipped a biological switch and women are no longer able to become pregnant. There have been no children born in eighteen years. The schools are empty. As the camera pans across a bleak streetscape it picks up a piece of graffiti on a wall “THE FUTURE IS A THING OF THE PAST”.

Eventually the plot takes an interesting twist when a young girl is discovered who is pregnant. She of course becomes a symbol of hope but there are also dark forces at work to destroy of control her and the child. The child is finally born in one of the holding camps in a scene that is set up to be deliberately reminiscent of nativity … but I can’t tell you how it ends!

The theme of the impact of the loss of hope is powerfully presented in this film – “The future is a thing of the past!” That is the shadow lurking in the background of our contemporary culture. In such a climate he who offers the most hope will have the most influence.

5. My fifth observation I’ve called Defrag or Frag? – a culture caught between contradictory desires.

I’m not a computer buff but I understand that most of our personal computers have a defrag program in them that enables us to file things and bring order out of the chaos of all the information we input– think of it as a metaphor for our times!

Because God made us in his image we are made for unity, unity with God, with others and with ourselves. But because of our fallen natures we tend to disunity and to fragmentation.

Therefore we are constantly conflicted, caught between two contradictory desires – the God placed desire for unity and community and the other desire for independence, for personal autonomy and unfettered individual choice, which can lead to disunity and social fragmentation.

The contemporary western culture we have created tends to feed the second desire:

  • Consumerism produces multiple choices.
  • Extreme post-modern perspectivism offers us multiple moralities, multiple spiritualities, multiple truths. It offers no centre other than the self.
  • The wild wild web offers us multiple virtual experiences
  • On top of all this, globally we now live in a socially and politically fragmented world.

The old unities of national, ethnic and cultural identity are all under challenge by globalism and mass migration.

Yeats poem captures the feel of our times:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The world is decentred!

But the deep desire planted in us by God for unity and community persists. Consider one of the biggest challenges before every Western democracy today – sustaining a healthy MULTICULTURALISM.

  • Strongly influenced by our Christian heritage we continue to work at multiculturalism in spite of the difficulties. Why? Because multiculturalism is a unity dream – unity in diversity.
  • But can the dream stay alive in a decentred and fragmenting world? Can the dream overpower the nightmares of racism, xenophobia, fundamentalism and extreme nationalism? Can the dream of unity and community stay alive without the revitalisation of its spiritual and moral source?
  • Let me remind you of the spiritual and moral source of this dream – it comes from the New Testament.

Colossians 1.15
15 He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Galatians 3.26-28
26 You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Can we recast the vision of Christ as the source of unity, the centre for a decentered culture, the way to coherence in an incoherent world? In a fragmented world those who offer a powerful source of unity may well carry the day.


The first three arise out of my cultural analysis:

1. The first challenge is to a fresh communication of the Gospel.
Let me state it in the form of three questions:

i. ‘How do we break into this generation’s virtual and hyper reality with the Gospel?’

  • Remember they are an extremely visually literate culture. Any communication must bear in mind the question posed by Ravi Zacharias – “How do you communicate with a culture that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?”
  • Remember also that the challenge of Jesus is completely counter-intuitive to their consumer culture and its hyper reality.
  • (Mark 8.34-36) “Those who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will loose them, but those who loose their lives for me and the gospel will find them.”
  • But we should not be too dismayed by this because this was also true in the 1st Century, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews but the power of salvation to those God is calling.
  • So as we find new ways to break into their virtual and hyper reality we must retain the radical challenge of Jesus.

ii. “How do we communicate in a fresh way the hope that is at the core of the Gospel and is the ultimate fulfilment of the Kingdom of God?”

  • Remember the shadow in the background will eventually cast itself over their hyper reality.

iii. In a culture caught between fragmentation and our innate desire for unity and community – “How can we communicate Christ as the centre of unity in a decentered world?”

So the first challenge is to think deeply and freshly about our explanation and application of the Gospel to where people really are today.

2. The second challenge is that we not only need to reframe Evangelism in a consumer culture but also to challenge the church itself which has become captive to consumerism. It has become captive at the individual member lifestyle level and in some places captive at the congregational level. The ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is but one example of this. The enemy is within the gate!

The primary contender against God in Australia today is not a political ideology like fascism or communism or a philosophy like scientific rationalism or atheism – its ‘shopping’! It has an army of high priests – the marketers! They are more powerful than Professor Dawkins. We have to call our people to live differently!

3. The third challenge is the dysfunctional society. Local congregations are now facing the challenge of ministering to an increasingly dysfunctional society – our excess’s are destroying us.

  • Drug and alcohol abuse is at scary levels
  • Depression
  • Family breakdown
  • Increasing health problems
  • Obesity, diabetes (1 in 6 obese)
  • Mental health (1 in 4 young people)
  • Very high family debt levels

This is both a challenge and an opportunity for local congregations to develop abuse intervention programs that bring together both spiritual and behavioural change.

People’s lives have so hollowed out that they have almost no spiritual resources or moral framework to moderate or guide their choices. We can be encouraged by our history here. Wesley and the Methodists built a whole movement, revived and grew the Church in the late 18th and early 19th Century in the United Kingdom among people in similar circumstances.

4. The fourth challenge is to revitalise the network of local congregations across this country.

Business or political parties would love to have the vast network of local branches we have.

But currently: we are amalgamating and closing our branches at an alarming rate. eg. In the Diocese of Melbourne in the last five years we have amalgamated 14, closed seven and opened just two.

  • We need imaginative plans to revitalise our branches as well as open new ones. The cost of acquiring new land and buildings is so high that we must not squander these assets.
  • Such a plan would involve a variety of different models of church. It will require replants and transplants from strong congregations as well as new plants.
  • And that will require recruiting ‘entrepreneurial leadership’.

5. The fifth challenge – the development of the next generation of leaders.

Our current leaders must have as one of their top priorities the discovery of the next generation of leaders.

That requires three commitments by them:

  1. Being a talent scout for the best and brightest
  2. Ensuring strong youth and student ministry in our churches, Para church and student movements – because this is where the next generation of leaders will be found.
  3. Being a mentor, encourager and patron of those they have identified.

In Conclusion:

This year is the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in British territories in 1807. The campaign was run by Evangelical Christians led by William Wilberforce. What is not so well known is that Wilberforce and his Christian friends in the Clapham circle created 69 other societies for the reformation of English society and culture. Their initiatives in turn affected American, Australian and European society. In addition to the Anti Slavery Society their other ‘Societies’ were concerned with :

  • Factory reform
  • Labour reform
  • Protection of children
  • Primary education
  • Protection of animals – they created The RSPCA.
  • Gambling reform
  • Prison reform
  • The BFBS
  • CMS and other overseas missionary agencies.

They managed to hold together both Evangelism and social justice.

They changed a whole society – indeed many of the things we take for granted in civil society in Australia today owe their origins to them.

We can do that again with inspirational and intelligent leadership!