The Future of Evangelicalism in Australia

(First published in “Ethos”. The magazene of the EA Center for Christianity and Society. Dec. issue 2014)
There is no question that the largest number of Protestant Christians in Australia now attends churches with a conservative theology. They would not all call themselves Evangelical as they comprise a wide range of traditions from Pentecostals to Evangelical Anglicans, but they nevertheless generally subscribe to an orthodox core of Biblical doctrine, are committed to Biblical authority, evangelism and traditional Christian morality. They run the largest churches and the most vigorous Para church organisations, youth and student ministries. So at least on the surface it looks like the future is healthy.
This has come about as a result of several trends since the mid 70’s: (1.) The rapid growth of independent Charismatic and Pentecostal churches through the 70’s and 80’s. (But now tapering off.) (2) The influence of Church Growth ideas emerging out of Fuller Seminary in the 80’s and 90’s on many main stream congregations. (3) The growth of the very large or ‘Mega’ evangelical suburban church among main stream denominations as well as independents. The concentration of resources and breadth of programmes in these churches makes them much more viable and attractive to attenders, especially families with children and teenagers. Almost all of these are conservative in theology. (4) The collapse of attendance among main stream churches promoting a liberal theology. Some of these people have transferred into theologically conservative churches, others have just given up attending. (Also a significant number of disenchanted Roman Catholics have transferred to Protestant churches.) (5) The erosion of influence in oecumenical organisations like the ACC and WCC has been replaced by significant cross denominational initiatives among conservatives. The Lausanne Movement, Leadership training programmes like Arrow Australia, Willow Creek, Praxis and Compass (both originally from N.Z.) and youth programmes like Surrender and various new church planting initiatives have emerged. (6) The growth of new ethno specific immigrant churches that are mostly conservative in theology.
A post denominational mood infuses many of these cross denominational initiatives as a new generation of young evangelical leaders became impatient with the arthritic and uncreative nature of their denominational H Q’s. They are not essentially anti-denominational so much as wanting to move past the frustrations of the institutions that they have grown up with. The jury is still out as to whether these new ventures will survive and prosper in the current Australian culture without reinvented and renewed institutions of some kind. Many of the experimental “missional congregations” have not survived the initial enthusiasm.
Nevertheless in spite of the growth of evangelical / conservative churches the overall trend is still a steady decline in church attendance in Australia. So is the future that healthy? It all depends on whether Evangelical churches, leaders, thinkers and pastors can successfully overcome the following challenges, many of which are not so much organisational as a deeply embedded mindset in the in contemporary Australians.
The Christian Church and Evangelicals in particular face great challenges in the context of contemporary Australian culture. In my view some of the general sociological challenges are as follows: (a) Our cultures prosperity and almost complete capture by consumerism and hedonism. (b) The indifference to organised religion. (c) The aggressive secularism of the media and the professional commentariate. (d) The pressure on people’s time and the frenetic business of family life with both partners committed to careers and hefty mortgages and long daily commuting. People guard their family time carefully now. Apart from kids sport there is also a definite withdrawal into the family castle and an over protectiveness of children. (e) The loss of credibility as a result of the Churches sexual abuse scandals. (f) A majority of the population now have no Christian memory or even rudimentary Christian knowledge. The last bastion of some meagre Christian instruction in the State education system is now under relentless attack. The Melbourne Ages campaign against ACCESS ministry in Victoria and the fight against the federal governments chaplaincy programme are two examples of this. (g) The general trend of most middle class people to avoid any form of serious evaluation of people’s beliefs and their uncritical acceptance of cultural relativism. This means that religious debate or discussion where it does occur in public is very bland and rarely touches on key issues and fundamental differences of faith and belief. The question of truth has been effectively sidelined by Post Modernity’s relentless relativism and cynicism. The popular attitude is that at root all religions are basically the same and exclusive truth claims should be avoided in the interests of social harmony, the fact that all cultures and many religions have negative and in some cases deeply oppressive practices is now a taboo subject. The only exception to open criticism is Christianity! It seems it’s always open season on Christians in a culture that has left behind its past faith. The endless sniping by ill-informed journalists and media panellists is like a petulant adolescent who thinks they have grown up and so can now reject their parent’s beliefs, even though their own values remain parasitic on their past heritage. (h) Generally our culture is shallow, afraid of conflict and will take peace at any price. We are all now the victims of a naïve “oppressive tolerance” and an uncritical inclusivism. The only thing that may shake this mind set is the growing awareness that fundamentalist Islam is a serious threat, not just “over there”, but here in democratic Australia.
In terms of the background atmosphere of influential ideas the following have deeply shaped the general mental landscape and present major challenges. (For the average person they are a bit like the background music in a film, we are only vaguely aware of it and couldn’t name the composer but it sets a tone, an atmosphere that affects the way we respond to the film.) They are as follows:
(1) The Post Enlightenment Narrative. It goes like this: we have now grown up and no longer need the Christian story; in any case the Churches history was one of superstition and ignorance, a child of the so called ‘dark ages’. This is coupled with the idea that modern science has explained all the mysteries that religion used to explain. There is nothing beyond the material – no meta-physic. All our ideas of God can be explained by modern psychology as merely wish fulfilments for a divine benevolent father figure. This mythical, caricatured and inaccurate narrative floats in the background of all modern minds and is played on by popular atheist apologists, reinforced by pop history, and shallow media commentators. This ubiquitous narrative diminishes Christianity’s plausibility for many people and represents a great challenge to Christian educators and those who can influence school and university curriculums. A small emerging Christian liberal Arts college scene as in the US is emerging, mainly out of the Roman Catholic Church, but is yet too small to be a major intellectual counter force. The establishment of the Catholic Universities is another constructive move in re-establishing a credible Christian intellectual influence.
(2) Contemporary Nihilism. In the late 19th C. Nietzsche prophesied “the death of God”. By that he meant that modern people would find it hard to believe in God as they did in the past. It seems his prediction has come true for many contemporary Australians. But he also said that “if you kill God you must leave the shelter of the temple”, by which he meant that you must also leave Christianity’s values and its provision of ultimate meaning and purpose. You must now make up your own meaning and values. You must now make your way alone in a brutal world where, as he also said, in human interactions “the only absolute is the will to power”. Having “left the shelter of the temple” we are now experiencing the full weight of Nietzsche’s prophetic words. Western culture continues to live off the diminishing capital of the values of our Christian past but no longer understands or believes their foundations and so have no way of answering the deepest questions of meaning and purpose, right and wrong, goodness and evil. When the pains of our existence are most acute we have no answers and no comforts and the void of meaningless stares back into our empty souls.
A significant stream of serious contemporary artistic expression reflects this bleak nihilism. A few examples: Wim Delvoyes “Cloaca” or excrement making machine at the MONA gallery in Hobart expresses this sense of modern life as an exercise in banal meaninglessness rubbish. The Cohen brother’s violent nihilistic films like ‘Fargo’ and ‘No country for Old Men’ and Tarantino’s classic ‘Pulp Fiction’ or David Finchers “Fight Club” reflect the same feeling. The writings of the much lauded David Foster Wallace like “Infinite Jest” carry a deep feeling of the sadness and lostness of contemporary culture. Wallace took his own life in 2008 at age 46 years. Tasmanian author Richard Flannigan’s outstanding book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, which has just won the 2014 Booker prize for English literature, also echo’s this theme. It has a central character Dorrigo Evans an Australian doctor in a WW2 Japanese POW camp who struggles with the horror of a world in which he feels he cannot escape the inevitability and eternal nature of violence: “For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which no one could escape the horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity.” The Burma railway POW camps of 1944 may seem a long way away from today but when Australians read that every week one woman is killed by her partner in an act of family violence they understand, at least emotionally, that Nietzsche was right when he said that once God is dead for a culture then “the only absolute is the will to power”, and as we know, power’s accomplice is usually violence.
There is an even more scary implication of all this. With the death of God the notion of any objective truth beyond us is gone and with it goes the point of any contest of ideas. It is now futile because there is no objective truth by which we may judge what is true. Now of course that doesn’t mean people will stop arguing and debating and putting forward their ideas but in the end it is a pointless exercise. Samuel Becket powerfully depicted this in his 1950’s play “Waiting for Godot” as just the chatter of clowns waiting for someone to arrive and explain it all, but the ‘someone’ never comes, because as Beckett rightly discerned, in a Godless world there is no one to come and there is no meaning to explain. It is significant that Beckets play is still regularly performed to appreciative but sombre audiences. What he felt and saw about Western culture at the end of WW2 was obscured for most by our preoccupation with the post war recovery and then the ‘cold war’, but it has now risen to the surface again as social and relational dysfunction has escalated in the midst of our prosperity. Our wealth and welfare has not provided the meaning and purpose we thought it would nor has it solved our social problems. The same is true about how people feel about the practice of contemporary politics and the health of our democratic institutions, and since the GFC, our financial institutions. There is a widespread feeling of disillusionment and cynicism and that it doesn’t seem to matter much who is in power, over and over again you hear the familiar comments: “it’s just the same old spin and broken promises by leaders without any commanding vision or real integrity”. But worse is the sense of paralysis that seems to have gripped the great Western political experiment that has promised and delivered so much in the past. Post Modern scepticism and cynicism may have killed off a lot of modernity’s Optimistic Humanism but it has been replaced by nothing substantial. The only alternative for most people to despair is distraction – consumerism, entertainment, food, drugs and alcohol, etc. These are some of the various faces of contemporary nihilism and unless Christian evangelists and apologists can speak effectively into them and interpret them for people there will be little response to the Gospel we proclaim. This is the greatest challenge for Gospel centered Evangelicals today.
There are some bright spots: Evangelical scholarship is flourishing and a stream of high quality books comes off the press with excellent Biblical, theological and cultural analysis. The problem is most of this does not filter down to the average Christian or even many of our pastors. It would seem serious reading is out of fashion with Christians! The concern to re connect faith and work or faith and the market place is encouraging. Nevertheless it is disturbing that in Melbourne two of our Evangelical theological colleges, Ridley and now Whitley have severed their connections with Melbourne University. This retreat from the academy at such a critical time in our culture is inexplicable and disturbing.
My last observation is that there is also a discernible discomfort among some evangelicals about continuing to carry the name. This may be because of the way the popular media in their ignorance frequently misuse the label as a short hand for fundamentalist, narrow and unthoughtful Christians. It may also be because of the association in peoples mind with US politics on the extreme right. But in my view neither of these are good reasons to abandon the title. Properly understood it is an accurate description of a set of convictions of those committed to the Evangel of Jesus. In any case any title we adopt will be mangled or misinterpreted by the media for reasons of lack of education, prejudice and bias. Evangelicalism in its historical and traditional sense has stood for the following things:
1. A commitment to the Gospel and its proclamation to the whole world as a priority.
2. An acceptance of the authority of God’s written Word in all matters of faith and conduct.
3. A commitment to the Churches creeds and historic orthodoxy.
4. An enthusiasm for a vital and relevant expression of faith and worship under the power of the Holy Spirit.
5. A desire to apply the principles of the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom of God to every area of life and society with particular attention to the poor and oppressed.
6. A commitment to the development of a disciplined life of personal prayer and Bible study.
I for one am very happy to be described by these convictions.
Peter Corney. Nov. 2014