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 (5) The erosion of influence in oecumenical organisations like the ACC and WCC has been replaced by significant cross denominational initiatives among conservatives.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

The Drop Outs

THE DROP OUTS By Peter Corney  (This article was first published in “Equip” magazene, Feb 2013 .)

Why is it that an increasing number of Baby Boomer (1) Christians who, not having lost their faith, have nevertheless dropped out of church or become so disengaged they still attend but seem to be just going through the motions?

There are a range of reasons and some of them are not unique to this cohort. Some of us have simply been seduced by our affluent Australian life style. There are more options when you have more disposable income, like the holiday house you need to visit regularly on weekends. When the kids leave home you are now free and have the resources to take weekends off to interesting places. The cost of this affluence is hard work and demanding jobs that require more and more of the time of both husbands and wives and so we feel we need the weekends away to recover and relax. We don’t want to be tied down with other commitments like church rosters and teaching Sunday school.

Some have begun to sit more loosely to church attendance because they have never really worked through satisfactorily some of the intellectual and faith questions they had in their twenties. They put them on hold and attended to the needs of their young families for some years, going to church regularly was part of that. Now they are revisiting the questions and doing so in a much more aggressively secular environment which further unsettles them. They probably find that normal church doesn’t really address their questions deeply enough. While their professional work development continued their faith development went on hold.  Unfortunately they generally don’t take the time to read seriously or seek out the help they need and so they do not resolve their problems, or they tend to drift to the reductionist solution – they just keep reducing the challenging bits of Christian faith and morality to fit the prevailing cultures plausibility structure and so they gradually drift away from orthodoxy.

There is also the general sense of discomfort and disappointment many people feel who have been Christians for a long time. They now find the general culture and values of the society they live in so disturbing and unattractive that it can have a dispiriting effect. Like Israel in exile in Babylon they feel like strangers and aliens in the culture. Their hearts echo the cry “How can we sing the Lords song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137.) It is not just the aggressive secularism but the sense that there is no cultural memory left of the Christian heritage, perhaps two generations now with cultural amnesia.

Then there is the constant background noise of the popular media; films, T.V. programs, video games and radio, with their coarseness, violence, cruelty, exploitive and distorted sexuality, confused morality and superficiality. Add to this the internet where every possible form of pornography and human degradation is available to anyone on line at the touch of a keypad or IPhone. This is a reflection of the majority culture now and its values. We are the minority. They see their children and grandchildren soaked by this wave of pop culture and drifting away from the Christian faith and are very disturbed.

This produces a variety of reactions. Some take a very proactive stance and join groups like The Australian Christian Lobby or ‘Saltshakers’ or create or join on line forums like EA’s Public Theology discussion to try and put alternative Christian ideas and values into the public forums in an attempt  to retake some of the lost ground in the public square. Others retreat into their Christian world of church, Christian school and the social life of their Christian friends and try to have minimal engagement with the culture, although their daily work makes this difficult for most to do completely. Then there are those, who are in some ways a bit like the group just mentioned above, who drift indecisively to the place where it’s just too hard in this culture to be distinctively Christian any more in a public way and so just go with the flow of the culture, their Christian faith retained as a private truncated experience and the whole ‘church thing’ is just let go.

Another group are those who just stopped serving, leading small groups, caring, and discipling others and became passive consumers. They probably got over busy in their jobs or got over committed and felt they needed a rest and never got started again! They forgot the spiritual maxim that if you don’t keep serving you will stop growing in your faith.

When you have been going to church for a long time and hear sermons on themes you have heard many times before and passages you have read many times the familiarity can breed superficial listening or a critical attitude and then boredom. Someone said ‘routine is the enemy of wonder.’ Of course the quality of some preaching does not help!  The challenge is to discipline oneself to listen to the Word of God afresh and to ask ‘what is God saying to me today?’ There will always have to be teaching that is pitched at the level of new Christians in the congregation and inexperienced people will need to be given experience in preaching to develop their gifts, the mature Christian should be happy about that and not a complainer. Mature Christians must take some responsibility for their own growth. There has never been more excellent Christian books and study materials available than there is today and at a reasonable price. The fact is that so many mature Christians do not make it a priority in their reading and time. As a result their Christian minds shrink and atrophy just like our relationship with God does when we stop praying and being attentive to His presence with us every day.

There are of course those who have hung in there for a long time in boring, uncreative, intellectually unchallenging, inward looking churches, where the teaching and preaching was either so bland, or so liberal, that they finally gave up the unequal struggle.

Then there are those who were switched on in their youth in the early 1970’s and 80’s through the excitement of the changes sweeping through society and the church with the counter culture, the Jesus movement and the charismatic movement. They got a taste of how powerful and radical the Gospel and the Kingdom of God could be. They experienced emotional and powerful worship, music that tapped into their culture and souls. They caught a glimpse of the implications of the Gospel for personal conversion and social justice. They tasted the fellowship and the energy that real Christian community could generate. They had their idealism switched right on! Many of them went on to leadership in their churches; others became the backbone of many congregations exploring change and new ways of doing Church. They played in contemporary church music bands; they got involved in aid and development groups like Tear; they provided the manpower for creative para – church missional initiatives. It was rewarding and exciting stuff.

If you were part of what I have just described and your present church experience is a long way from that, as well as being bored, you may now be tired from trying to sustain or create that liveliness in your congregation. In your tiredness and disillusionment you drop out. Maybe you just do your social justice thing but have given formal church a miss.

Two things happened in the late 80’s and 90’s that contributed to this scenario. First the charismatic renewal in main stream churches began to run out of steam and second the large regional church development took place. The energy at the local church level began to drift to the large churches and the already growing decline of small suburban churches accelerated. If you were left in a small suburban church that had experienced some renewal but has now declined you can feel that the struggle is too hard, of course you may also have forgotten that you are now 20 years older and your energy level isn’t the same! The average age of most of the members of these churches will now be 6o+. The next generation, X and Y, seems to have disappeared.

If you are in a large regional church then there will be more action, the music will be better, (although still not as rocky as it used to be), the initiatives for outreach will be greater, the youth and children’s ministry will be better, there will be active social justice programs, small groups, etc.  But there is a danger that you can become a passive consumer, just a passenger in the bus that’s rolling along. In the end this can lead to personal inaction in ministry and create a sense of disengagement. Some large churches are trying to counter this with ‘second half’ and special volunteer programs for able and skilled retirees but the temptation exists to coast and enjoy the freedom of retirement and your accumulated superannuation.

The last reason that comes to mind that affects us all is the tough challenges of life. No one gets to their 50’s and 60’s without having experienced some pain, sadness and disappointment in their life. Sickness, losing your job in a ‘downsizing’, children who haven’t followed in the faith, the death of friends, broken marriages, bad church experiences, the list goes on. Maintaining trust in Christ, being an active member of a community of believers and staying the course – the “long obedience in the same direction” – is hard.  It is even harder in our contemporary culture that encourages individualism over community that emphasises the autonomous self over the obligated self, which places my rights over my duties, my self-discovery and fulfilment over service to others. The Boomers had their expectations raised very high by the late 60’s and 70’s culture in which they were nurtured, perhaps too high for the realities of life. That can lead to cynicism or disillusionment which in turn can lead to disengagement. (2)


The Boomers have contributed significantly to the changes in modern society and to the reshaping of the contemporary Protestant church in Australia. The question is as the leaders of change with high expectations will they cope with their dreams not being completely fulfilled? Will they cope with the changes the next generation will initiate? How will they cope with the changes and limitations of their own ageing? I have a vision of them being bussed from their retirement villages to concerts to listen to Mick Jagger and The Stones, still on stage but now in wheel chairs, singing “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

Peter Corney


(1) The term ‘Baby Boomers’ generally refers to the generation born after WW2 from 1946 – 1964. They are now between the ages of 49 and 67 years. The author of this article is a pre Baby Boomer, born before WW2, who spent a large part of his ministry working with the Boomers.

(2) Within the Roman Catholic Church the dropout rate from regular Mass attendance has been escalating now for years. The hopes of a whole generation of Catholics were raised by the reforms of Vatican 2 and the continuing possibility of even greater change but these have been dashed by the Vatican’s swing back to conservatism. The possibility of married clergy and the ordination of woman have been killed off by the last two reactionary Popes.  Added to this, the uncovering of the extent of the abuse of children by catholic clergy and the hierarchies cover up, has left many lay Catholics in despair. We are already seeing them join Protestant churches and I suspect this trend will increase. However most will simply drop out and stop going to church anywhere.

The decline in the Australian Protestant Church – How we got to where we are.

By Peter Corney

The main stream Protestant churches in Australia are in serious decline and have been for some time. To give but one example: attendance at worship on an average Sunday in the Anglican Church in Melbourne has dropped from an estimated 50,000 in 1981 to 21,000 in 2006. How did we get to this point so quickly?

As accelerating secularism began to hit Australian society in the 1960’s the churches were not only unprepared they were also weakened by several trends that had been developing for some time.

One of the most significant was the trend in clergy training to become overly focused on pastoral maintenance rather than pastoral leadership, ministry skills and growth. The times called for new initiatives, new models of ministry, the ability to initiate change, new styles of worship that related to the rapidly changing culture. The training of clergy has properly always had a strong pastoral care element but three influences exaggerated this: the psychological counseling movement that developed momentum post war; the Christian Education movement; and the undermining of preaching and teaching by Liberal theology. As secularism and rapid social change hit these influences coalesced to fatally weaken pastoral leadership.

There is always the danger in ministry of becoming over reactive to the individual demands and needs of the flock and loosing the ability to look outward, be proactive and to take initiative, to give time to evangelism, training, discipling, teaching and new creative initiatives. This leads to a pastoral maintenance syndrome. In times of social buoyancy for the Church this is not so damaging but when the social context is becoming unsupportive it is fatal.

These three influences worked in the following way.

The influence of the pastoral counseling movement encouraged many clergy into an even more passive and reactive role. CPE or Clinical and Pastoral Education became a standard part of post ordination training in the 60’s and has continued on. While there were and are useful insights in all this for dealing with particularly troubled people it was overly influenced by the fashionable psychological models current at the time and played down more traditional methods of spiritual counsel.  Not only was pastoral counseling significantly secularized by this but more importantly the energy and attention of clergy was being refocused. At the very point when leadership, practical ministry skills and a focus on evangelism were needed many clergy got side tracked by this influence in their  training.

The influence of the Christian Education movement grew out of a real concern to see adults as well as children educated well in the faith by using the new educational insights that were being developed in the 50’s and 60’s in the wider educational field. There were many valuable insights gained and changes made to the way we taught people in this period. Most denominations developed large departments of Christian Education which lasted into the early 80’s before financial constraints reduced them dramatically. In many denominations they no longer exist. The Anglican Church had, as well as separate state bodies, a significant federal organisation the General Board of Religious Education (GBRE), now long gone. The Joint Board of Christian Education was formed to service what became the Uniting Church in this period.

But the dream that Christian Ed would save us has not been fulfilled. Some would say that is because it was never properly instituted at the local level but there were other factors. The movement became focused on process rather than content. The worst example was in the uncritical enthusiasm for the insights of Group Dynamics in adult learning. “Group Life laboratories” became the flavor of the month. The insights from the understanding of how groups work is fascinating and can be very helpful, it can also be used manipulatively, sideline solid information and create legitimacy for pooled ignorance. In an over reaction to the old jug to mug approach to teaching process overpowered content.

The influence on many clergy was two fold: they now saw themselves as group facilitators and enablers rather than leaders and teachers. Systematic teaching and Biblical preaching was downplayed. At a time when local churches needed to rethink and renew their mission and adapt their style and methods lay people were led into endless and frustrating non directive group consultations on “What is our Mission?” These consultations rarely got passed collections of butcher’s paper with ideas scribbled on them that were never acted on. The result was that lay people became disillusioned and many clergy became paralyzed, for some it even became a way of avoiding decisions and action.

As liberal theology contributed to emptying pastoral counseling of its classical content and psychologising it, so also it affected Christian Education and preaching. Uncertainty over theology and the Bible led Christian Ed away from content into process. While it was certainly true that much preaching was dull and uninspiring the emphasis in Christian education at the time on discussion and adult learning models further undermined respect for preaching. This leads us to the third and most influential trend.

The profound influence of liberal theology. The theological reaction of large parts of the Church to the impact of secularism in the 60’s was a form of extreme theological accommodation. This sought to reduce those ideas in the Christian faith that the current culture of modernity found implausible to something it could believe. The impact was not at the periphery but at the core. Classical orthodox beliefs about the resurrection, the atonement, the authority of the Bible, the nature of salvation, the need for the response of repentance and faith, even the divinity of Christ were reconstructed to fit the prevailing plausibility structure. But because the traditional terminology and symbols were preserved while their first order meaning was being emptied out or radically changed, lay people were largely unaware of what was happening – their faith was being eroded by stealth.

As mentioned before preaching was also deeply affected by this. Lack of theological clarity and certainty led to a general loss of confidence in preaching and produced  bland vague moralizing and shallow ‘reflections’ in the pulpit. Preaching fell out of fashion! Because adult education was never rigorously pursued in most local churches, slowly but surely congregations became uninformed, shallow and unclear about their faith, commitment levels dropped, evangelism lost its imperative.

It was the perfect storm! Just as secularism hit and the old social buoyancy around the local church was eroding and it needed to take new creative initiatives, reinvent its model of church, its methodology, its communications, its style of worship, music, and ministry, it was being led by people trained in pastoral maintenance rather than leadership and whose confidence in orthodoxy was deeply compromised. The style of ministry that could maintain congregations while community acceptance of their place and role was strong and a high proportion of people identified with the church, even if nominally, no longer worked in the emerging culture of the 60’s. People left in droves. In 1960 the church I served at while I was in training had 500 children in the Sunday school and 200 boys in a mid week club. By the end of the 60’s Sunday school attendance and confirmations had plummeted. This pattern was repeated every where.

Generally speaking those denominations and churches who have been less affected by the Pastoral Maintenance syndrome and Liberal theology have faired better. Overall Evangelicals and Pentecostals have actually grown while others have declined.

The lessons from all of this seem fairly clear. The knowledge and tools from the social sciences can be very helpful but they are also powerful and seductive and can easily overpower our theology. They also frequently promise more than they can deliver. When the Church’s grasp on its core beliefs is weak or compromised they quickly become a substitute for the gospel. The other lesson is that Godly proactive leadership is critical in difficult times.

Peter Corney  June 2010.

NB: Another factor that affected Anglicans in particular was the demise of the Anglo Catholic wing in the Anglican Church. (See the paper on the website: “The Future of the Anglican Church in Australia in the light of the decline of the Anglo Catholic Movement” find under the category: The Anglican Church in Australia)

Churches – large or small?

By Peter Corney

Not long ago I attended a service at which a senior Melbourne Anglican Church leader spoke. I was encouraged by his obvious enthusiasm for mission and his concern to contextualize our churches in the local culture. But the bit that made me nervous was his comments on congregational size. He put forward the idea that small congregations are better than large and that as Anglicans we have a particular talent for the small church. He listed the usual comments about them being intimate and having a strong sense of community. He did not define what he meant by “small” but he contrasted them to “mega churches.” What is usually meant by Mega is the very large – in Australia 1,000 plus in regular attendance. I suspect by small he means the average Anglican congregation with a regular attendance of between 60 -100. In Melbourne in 2006 we had 275 worshiping congregations, when you take out the ten largest congregations you get an average attendance of 62 for the other 265!  In fact it’s not as even as that and many have only 30 – 40 in regular attendance.

These ideas about smallness may make some clergy and members out there in our many small churches feel better but it is neither correct nor very helpful and full of myths and misleading ideas. The great danger is that it can be used as a justification for complacency or at worst failure.

Here are the facts:

  1. The smallest average congregational size is now among Presbyterian and Uniting churches, around 60. Even among Pentecostal churches, who as a denomination have a significant number of mega churches and an overall positive growth rate, the majority of their churches are below 100 in regular attendance. So we don’t have smallness on our own nor do we have some unique genius for the small church. Small congregations are a general Protestant phenomena that we urgently need to redress.
  2. The comparison between small and mega is quite unhelpful. Mega churches make up about 3% – 4% of protestant congregations in Australia. If we drop down to what we might call large (350 – 450) or medium (250 -350) then we are in a much more realistic and useful comparison to small. Large or medium size churches have a much better chance of being healthy and sustainable. They are much more likely to have a good cross section of ages, a natural potential flow of new younger lay leaders and adequate financial giving. There is also the ability to provide a variety of ministry to young and old, to do outreach and even employ specialist staff. If the majority of our congregations were even medium in size we would be in quite a healthy state as a Church and making a much greater impact on the nation.
  3. In regard to friendliness, intimacy and a sense of community, in contrast to the mythology, all the objective research says that larger churches are in fact stronger in these areas than small churches! The reason is that their age spread, their variety of activities and programs provide more points of entry for newcomers and they usually have many home groups. They work hard at growing smaller as they grow larger. The larger church has multiple fellowship cells or circles. The small church has a narrower entry point, it is a single fellowship cell and if you don’t make it into the fellowship circle you don’t make it. Of course to those who are part of it the small church does feel intimate!
  4. Leaving aside rural and remote congregations, the small suburban church with 60 ageing attendees, a full time minister, a vicarage, a church building and usually a hall, are now under threat everywhere. Amalgamations and closures are common. In Melbourne Diocese in the period from 2001-2006 there had been around 13 amalgamations and 7 closures and the process is steadily continuing. The Registry estimates that it costs approximately $85,000 plus a year just to pay the minister, keep the doors open, the lights on and the insurances paid! This includes almost no serious missionary giving, very little money for creative outreach and no large scale maintenance. A study of “live giving” in the year book will reveal that many are beginning to fall below this figure. Op shops, rents and jam stalls make up the shortfall! It is a testimony to the commitment of the ageing faithful that they manage to scrape enough together to survive another year. But there is an end to this downward trajectory and it’s not far down the road for many congregations.
  5. Main-stream denominations are not planting many new churches. The alternative or so called new missional church movement is doing better but the jury is still out on the longevity of their low key deliberately small congregations. Most are gatherings of young adults and few have successfully negotiated the multigenerational challenge and provided adequate youth and children’s ministry. The most successful growth has come from large churches multiplying new targeted congregations that operate under the one umbrella but meet separately – the multi congregational model.
  6. Those congregations that are healthy and growing have one thing in common they have all challenged the complacency, comfort and mind set of the traditional small suburban parish model of church.

The truth is there is no one sacrosanct congregation size and model. We need a variety of sizes and models for our complex and varied modern society. There will be particular groups in our society that will require a small boutique approach; there will be places where the social and material poverty is so great that Christian ministry in such places will need long term external support in leadership and money. But our current standard traditional “small” suburban church is rapidly reaching a point where it will no longer be sustainable in its present form.

To have a healthy sustainable “full service ministry” to children youth and adults, that meets the needs of families, that will ensure a continuous flow of new leaders and volunteers, and an adequate financial base you need at least a medium size congregation, ie:250-350 in regular attendance.

If we were in a “vital movement” phase and were made up of lots of small vibrant, young and growing congregations then the small size of our churches would not be such a concern but we are not. Until we begin to turn around a significant number of our existing congregations so they grow to medium size we face accelerating decline.

One attitude that frequently appears when these issues are raised is the “faithfulness” argument. “We are not called to be effective just faithful!” At one level one can not disagree with the faithfulness argument. Of course we are all called to follow Jesus wherever he calls us, whatever the circumstances and whatever the response. There will be times and places where it’s tough and unresponsive. At this point in our history it’s tough out there trying to build or rebuild local congregations. Never the less there are still many healthy growing churches in this hostile environment. Christian leaders should be studying these to see why they are going against the trend! In other fields of endeavor this is called studying “best practice.”

Ministers who want to buck the trend and grow churches need to be or become transformational leaders. They need particular skills to renew and reinvent the local congregation, i.e.: how to cast vision, how to move a congregation into mission mode, how to initiate and manage change, how to build community, how to motivate, recruit and train volunteers, how to plan and organize and create new structures, how to think strategically. Without these and other transformational leadership skills they will be unable to do the large and difficult task we are asking of them.

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!

Rebuilding in the ruins of the Church

By Peter Corney

(The title for this address was inspired by Reno Elms book “In the Ruins of the Church” (1)

In the book of Nehemiah chapters 1 and 2, when Nehemiah, who is in exile, learns of the ruined state of Jerusalem he is deeply distressed and calls out: “Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh 2:17 & 1:3). He is moved to two responses: a profound prayer of repentance and a decision to return and rebuild the city and its walls.

This is a metaphor for the contemporary Australian Church. We find ourselves at this point in our history in a serious crisis. Unless this crisis is confronted and dealt with then the ruin of the church will continue and our crucial and unique contribution to the Nation will be so weakened that we will become almost completely ineffective.

The future and the relevance of the Australian Church lie in our response to the following crises:

  1. The erosion of our integrity and credibility by the toleration of sexual abuse and disordered sexuality – a crisis of holiness.
  2. The betrayal of historic Christianity. The faith of our people and the strength of our congregations have been ruined by a theology that has reduced and revised away the heritage of classical Christianity by a relentless accommodation to the contemporary culture – a crisis of truth and faith.
  3. A failure to focus on our core values and purposes. The failure to submit our denominational cultures and agendas to our primary evangelistic and mission directive– a crisis of purpose and mission.
  4. The need for a whole new generation of young leaders with ability, integrity, creativity, and a passion for the Gospel – a crisis of leadership.

If we are to rebuild the Australian Church so it is once again a credible and effective witness to Christ then, like Nehemiah, we need to begin with repentance and then commit ourselves to the decisions and actions that are necessary to rebuild.

Let me begin with the first crisis of integrity and credibility.

Much is currently being done around the Australian Church to put in place protocols and structures for reporting and dealing with sexual abuse.

In my own denomination in the Diocese of Melbourne, in addition to new protocols and structures, all licensed clergy have participated in a series of excellent seminars entitled, “Power and Trust”. Regular police checks are now mandatory and commitments are required to new professional codes of conduct, including regular assessment. All of this is commendable, necessary and long overdue.

But there are other matters that must also be faced. The toleration of abuse and the justification of immoral and disordered sexuality can only be deeply and radically challenged by the recovery of the Biblical vision of God’s holy love. The call to the distinctive Christian lifestyle originates in the vision of God’s holiness and that vision is found in God’s word. That is why I believe that the first crisis is a crisis of holiness.

With regard to relationships and sexuality between adults the following predictable pattern has emerged. When certain sections of the Church have arrived at a view that is inconsistent with God’s Word and the historic belief of the Church, they then pursue the following approach to justify their view. First they construct a creative hermeneutic that alters or circumvents the clear meaning of the text. They do this, I believe, not because they themselves feel overtly constrained by Scripture, but because they know the majority of the church still does. Then there are those who think that the texts are so ambiguous that the matter is not settled by the Bible. They of course conveniently exclude the discussion of the wider context of the Bibles teaching on sexuality such as the creation account in chapters 1and 2. of Genesis.

Second, they then create a false contrast between the orthodox view and the new view. The orthodox view is caricatured as excluding, intolerant, rejecting, and therefore unlike the Gospel of grace and loving acceptance. On the other hand, the new view is portrayed as inclusive, tolerant, accepting and loving. This is of course a deeply flawed and deceptive approach. Acceptance, tolerance and inclusion when applied appropriately are good and godly. But not everything should be tolerated and accepted, indeed when applied inappropriately these attitudes can be deeply destructive. It would take only a short time for any of us to compile a list of attitudes and actions that ought to be rejected, excluded and never tolerated.

We must not accept within God’s people relationships and behaviours that God has declared as unholy. The call of God to us in all our relationships is to holy love. Love and truth cannot be separated without the distortion of one or the other.

A great Syrian Christian, St Ephraim wrote: “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for truth cannot fly without love, nor can love soar aloft without truth, their yoke is one of friendship.”

The ancient baptismal questions and promises make it perfectly clear that while all are invited to the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven there are decisions to be made, things to be rejected and things to be embraced when we accept the invitation (1 Cor 6:9-20)

The parables of Jesus and the apostolic preaching make it very clear that inclusion in the people of God is not unqualified. (Acts 2: 37-39)

A community without boundaries is destined to disappear. As Thomas Oden has written of the circle of faith, “A centre without a circumference is just a dot, nothing more … to eliminate the boundary is to eliminate the circle itself.” (2)

In the Old Testament immorality is frequently the bi-product of idolatry. When the gaze of the people of God is distracted from the vision of God we become vulnerable to the temptation to turn our gaze toward unholy things. (1 Cor 10:1-12)

We need to re-establish in our hearts and minds the Biblical vision of God’s blazing purity.

“Lord … your eyes are too pure to look upon evil, you cannot tolerate wrong.” (Hab 1:13).

“Worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29)

We need to soak our imaginations again in visions from God’s Word, like:

  • Exodus 19: Where God’s awesome presence descends on Mt Sinai with the giving of the law.
  • We need to prostrate ourselves with Isaiah before the vision of the King of Kings “high and lifted up” in Isaiah 6.
  • We need to stand amazed with the Apostle John before the staggering vision of worship around the throne of God and the Lamb in Rev 4&5.

We need to relearn and memorise these exhortations from Scripture:

  • “Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.” (Ps 96:9)
  • “Oh Lord, who is like you? – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory … “ (Exodus 15:11)
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the holy one is understanding.” (Prov 9:10)
  • “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy; he is the one you are to fear and dread.” (Isaiah 8:13).
  • “Stand in awe of the God of Israel.” (Isaiah 29:23)

So many of us in the contemporary church are like the man in Plato’s story who was chained to the back of a cave. He was so manacled that he could only face the rear wall, condemned to live out his life seeing on that stone wall only dim reflections and shadows produced by the brilliant light outside that sometimes filtered through the entrance of his cave – his understanding of reality, his imagination, his knowledge of himself, hardly touched by the light, the beauty, the seasons and the vast landscape outside.

We need to unshackle our minds from our contemporary accommodation to the Spirit of this age. Turn around and go the entrance of our cave and look out on the Biblical vision of the glorious and holy God.

When our minds and imaginations are gripped once again by this vision we will find ourselves rediscovering not only the foundation and the motivation for Godly sexual ethics but also, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the true motivation for social justice and a renewed passion for preaching the cross. Let me explain:

The essential motivation for Christians to work for social justice is not some political ideology but the Biblical vision of God in his absolute righteousness and justice. This vision may indeed influence a political agenda but it always stands above them.

There is an intimate link in Scripture between God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice, and the ethical demands he makes on his people, especially in their social relations.

The command “Be holy for I am holy” occurs in Lev 19:1-37, Isaiah 5:16, and 1 Peter 1:15-2:1. In each case it is followed by ethical and moral directions focussed on our social relations.

The moral source of social ethics lies in God’s holiness. It is located in the heart of God who hates injustice, who defends the poor and exploited who is repelled by immorality and deceit, and loves truthfulness and goodness. (Ps 146:7-9; Prov 6:16).

As we rehabilitate the vision of God’s holy love the other priority that will re-emerge is the preaching of the Cross. Once again we will see that the cross is the pre-eminent place of access to God’s grace.

The reasons are as follows:

First, when we reassert God’s holiness, in contrast we begin to feel and see the ‘heart of darkness’ with greater clarity. The pervasive monstrosity of evil and its immense destructiveness is pressed in upon us again.

Second, we see the absolute necessity for its judgement and defeat.

Third, we see the desperate need for redemption and grace by those caught up in its corrupting and destroying power.

Fourth, we realise afresh that the only point at which we can meet God in our unholiness is in judgement and grace, and the place where judgement and grace meet is in the cross. Here is the heart of holy love (1 John 4:10).

In Exodus 33:18 when Moses was personally trying to come to grips with the shattering apostasy of the people of God in their manufacture and worship of the Golden Calf, he cries out to God: “Show me your glory”. God’s gracious answer to Moses’ desperate prayer enables him to find the courage and confidence to go on and to lead the people out of their crisis of faith and disobedience. That must now be our prayer – “Lord, show me your glory.”

The second crisis is the betrayal of historic Christianity – a crisis of truth and faith.

The future of the Church lies in the recovery of a vital orthodoxy, the recovery of biblical and credal faith, the recovery of classical Christian belief.

Let me be very clear that I am not calling for a retreat into fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the only alternative to theological liberalism. There is a third alternative – ‘intelligent orthodoxy’.

The other side of the action to recover classical Christian belief is the rejection of much of what liberal-reductionist theology has constructed by its relentless accommodation to modernity and the Spirit of the age.

By ‘liberal-reductionist theology’ I mean an approach to Christian truth that critiques the Gospel with the prevailing worldview rather than other way around.

Liberal-reductionism allows the Spirit of the age to over influence its interpretation of the Gospel. It then seeks to reduce and revise the Gospel to fit what the surrounding culture finds plausible or implausible.

It claims to be broad and open but it is frequently intellectually narrow and provincial, trapped in the immediate landscape of current thought.

It is frequently reactive rather than proactive. Having lost its confidence in orthodoxy it then fails to offer, from the perspective of classical Christian belief, an intelligent critique of the prevailing intellectual fashion. It rolls over to the pressure of the Spirit of the age. This can have devastating results as in the accommodation of large parts of the German Church to Hitler and fascism in the late 1930’s. (3) Karl Bath sounded the warning, predicting the tragic direction in which liberal theology would take the German protestant Church. The stakes are high in this matter.

Thomas Oden, whom I quoted before, describes himself as a “recovered liberal theologian”. He is from the liberal American Methodist tradition. He explains his past captivity in this way, “We sought to be inclusive but managed to be so only within the strict limits of modern ideologies trapped in secular premises. In this captivity we systematically excluded most premodern wisdom.” (4)

Let me list some of the touchstones of classical Christianity that liberal-reductionists are most uncomfortable with and equivocal about. These are frequent targets for their relentless revisionism:

  • The Virgin birth and the incarnation – that Jesus was God incarnate.
  • The divinity of Christ and his supreme Lordship – the one to whom, as Phil 2:9-11 says, “Every knee will bow”.
  • That salvation is through Christ alone.
  • The atonement and Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for our sins – as clearly expressed, for example, in the letter to the Hebrews.
  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The return of Christ to judge the world and fully consummate the Kingdom of God.
  • The fallen nature of humanity.
  • The supreme authority of Scripture as God’s living word to us.
  • The unity of the Old and New Testaments and the centrality of Christ to both.
  • That the NT Gospels tell us clearly about Jesus – rather than the idea that the Gospels tell us a lot about their writers and the community of faith in which they emerged and relatively little about the real Jesus.
  • The Biblical description of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.
  • The Biblical norms and boundaries for sexual ethics.

The paradigm for orthodoxy is Moses and the burning bush. The revelation of God to Moses in that extraordinary and unexpected event creates the response of faith and obedience in Moses. It is not Moses’ faith that creates the burning bush!

Orthodoxy begins with God’s revelation of himself to us. In this encounter, God is at the centre, God has the initiative, God is challenging and disturbing our fallen human categories and perspectives, God is calling for our submission and our obedience.

Our task as Christian teachers, preachers, apologists, and conversationalists is not to revise and reduce the Gospel to make it credible to the contemporary world but to challenge the most precious assumptions of the contemporary world with the Gospel.

Certainly we must find every possible point of contact, tap into every human longing expressed in literature, art, music and popular culture. We must learn the language of contemporary people so we can communicate the Gospel intelligibly and intelligently – but we fail the world if we revise and reduce the Gospel so it fits the landscape of contemporary belief.

Alister McGrath in his systematic theology, Christian Truth, defines heterodoxy as: “That which preserves the appearance of Christianity but contradicts its essence.” (5)

This tendency in the contemporary church has had a devastating impact. Because liberal theology retains the language and the symbols of faith but changes their original meaning the damage to the faith of ordinary church members is subtle and devastating. The heritage of classical meaning is stolen away by stealth. But worse – the power of the Gospel is also destroyed because the power lies in the original meaning. Once evacuated of their first order meaning the words and symbols are emptied of their spiritual power because they are emptied of truth. So the people are robbed and the church rendered powerless.

These first two crises are leading a number of people in the Australian Church to seriously consider the formation of a ‘confessing church’ within the mainstream denominations that would cross denominational boundaries. Recent events in the Uniting Church in Australia have sharpened this discussion as have events overseas in the Anglican Communion. In North America we now have a large new province created that has broken away from the Episcopal Church but is seeking to be in communion with continuing Anglican diocese in other parts of the Anglican Communion. (6)

The third crisis is our failure to focus on our core values and purposes – a crisis of purpose and mission.

Each denomination and tradition has in its own way allowed its own denominational culture and preoccupations to deflect it from our prime mission directive.

In Anglicanism, my own tradition, our emotional attachment to an anglophile and sentimental 19th Century ethos of the English village church and cathedral culture has trapped too many of our congregations in a quaint cul de sac of irrelevance to Australian culture.

The whole Vicar of Dibley Syndrome, through which the watching world can say “how eccentric, harmless and amusing” and by which the Gospel is trivialised, marginalised, and dismissed.

Our polite discomfort with enthusiasm and evangelism has left us powerless and ineffective in communicating the Gospel in our generation.

The unstated cultural snobbery frequently reflected in precious liturgy and music that appeals to an almost invisible percentage of Australians.

The failure of large numbers of Anglican clergy and their leaders to understand, learn or even be open to the wealth of insights and skills available today for leading and growing effective churches is a sad fact of ignorance and sometimes just plain arrogance.

As someone once observed, too many Anglican clergy fit the description of the ‘bland leading the bland’!

I will risk just one anecdote from another tradition. I have been privileged to be involved in a number of consultations and training events with the Salvation Army. I remember one corps where they were involved in a knock down drag out over the wearing of bonnets in the choir!

Here is a movement that in the 19th Century was a radical force for mission and evangelism. The Army metaphor, the uniforms, the brass bands were up to the minute culturally contextualised tools for mission in the 19th Century British Empire. Now, what was a radical methodology has become a tradition locked down in a time warp with all the force that a military organization can bring to bear. The Army is currently engaged in a battle to recover the radical passion for mission in which it was born. I deeply admire the Salvation Army and pray they will rediscover their heritage.

In a period when socially and culturally everything is in dynamic and rapid change, where we have to largely reinvent the way we do ministry, church and mission, we have to be clear about what is essential and non-negotiable and what can be left behind.

Much of the denominational baggage we have carried with us into the 21st Century is frankly non-essential, indeed much of it is a weight and a hindrance. The mission is primary. The mission is more important than the denominational culture. The mission has priority!

The irony is that the very “tradition” we should have preserved – the tradition of the faith – large sections of the church have been busily revising, reducing or jettisoning. On the other hand, the traditions we should be leaving behind we cling to desperately.

Perhaps this is what happens when you empty the signs and symbols of faith of their content. You are left clinging to the outward trappings of belief.

Our prime mission directive was given on a mountaintop.

Matthew 28:16-20

16Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Mountaintops are magical places; they give you perspectives and inspiration, they fill you with awe and a sense of majesty. They are also exciting, scary, dangerous, and unforgettable places.

We need leaders who have received and heard the prime mission directive on the mountaintop. Who have been to the mountaintop with Jesus? Who have experienced the spiritual awe and majesty of that place. Who have seen the vast panorama of need and opportunity. Who have seen a perspective that’s larger and bigger and more noble than the limited outlooks of their denominations and individual congregations.

On the mountain top the distance between heaven and earth seems thin. The possibility and the hope of drawing the nation to God seem possible.

There has never been a time in this nation when we needed Christian leaders more who have been to the mountaintop and heard the prime directive from Jesus, “go and make disciples … baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I said earlier that without boundaries the Christian community is destined to disappear. It is also true that a Christian community that is not focussed beyond its boundaries is equally destined to disappear. Our future lies in our obedience to both imperatives, to distinctiveness and mission. We must live and work in the creative tension between the two commandments – “Be holy for I am holy” and “go and make disciples.”

The fourth and final crisis we face is the need for a whole new generation of young leaders with ability, integrity, creativity, and a passion for the Gospel – a crisis of leadership.

In 1913 and 1914 two Polar expeditions were launched, one to the North Pole and one to the South Pole.

The 1913 expedition to the North Pole was mounted by the Canadians and led by a man called Steffanson in a boat called the “Kaluk”.

But it was an unusually cold winter and their boat was trapped in the ice and crushed. The expedition ended in tragedy, the team disintegrated into a rabble, men turned on each other in the extreme conditions, stealing food and fighting, eleven of them died in the ice.

The next year, in 1914, a British expedition led by Ernest Shackleton with a team of 28, including one Australian, set out for the South Pole. Almost the identical circumstances befell them. Their boat “The Endurance” was also trapped by the ice and eventually crushed and sunk. Twenty-eight men found themselves camped on the ice in the most extreme survival conditions.

But from there on the two stories are completely different. In fact, the Shackleton Expedition is probably one of the most inspiring and amazing stories of survival ever recorded. Alfred Lansing tells the story in his gripping account entitled, Endurance. (7)

Shackleton led his party across the ice to Elephant Island on the edge of the arctic land mass. There they survived under upturned lifeboats. Shackleton then took five men and sailed a 20-foot open lifeboat 800 miles to the Island of South Georgia to a whaling station to organise a rescue party.

For the sailors among us – this is one of the most treacherous and storm lashed pieces of open sea in the world. They had to constantly knock the ice from the boat with a hammer to stop it weighing them down and sinking them. The temperature was below freezing and the conditions appalling.

The feat of navigation alone in those conditions was extraordinary. But they made it! It took two attempts to rescue the men left on Elephant Island but they finally succeeded – this whole process took over 18 months.

Every man was rescued and no one was badly injured or became critically sick.

And here is a significant fact – when sometime later Shackleton raised a new expedition almost every man volunteered again!

What was the difference between the two expeditions? LEADERSHIP!

In a situation of great danger and in extreme conditions Shackleton’s leadership was outstanding. It is no surprise that in today’s world this leadership example has become the focus of much attention by students of leadership.

The difference between the Australian Church having a creative and effective future or drifting further to the margins of Australian life is leadership – leadership that responds decisively to the crises I have described.

I want to suggest 6 principles that should guide our strategy for leadership development:

  1. We must recruit on the basis of demonstrated giftedness and leadership capacity.
  2. Local churches that are centres of ministry growth, excellence, passion and excitement should be the focus of our recruiting strategy. In spite of large areas of decline there are many outstanding, healthy, growing and creative churches around the country. When people are recruited from these places they carry with them into training two vital attitudes that cannot be “trained in” – an excellent model of ministry and a belief that the Church can grow and make an impact.
  3. These growing churches should be encouraged to develop ‘gap’ programs that enable young adults to experiment with ministry at the local level. These are programs where young people are encouraged to take a year off as a volunteer to work in ministry in their local church. The church provides some training and supervision. Many large churches already have these programs.
  4. Every person currently in full-time ministry should have as one of their top personal priorities the recruiting and mentoring of at least one person of above average potential every two years.
  5. In the mentoring of young leaders we must pay as much attention to character development as to theology, ministry and leadership skills. The cultural climate that has nurtured the attitudes of the next generation is deeply infected with the notion of personal fulfilment and individual rights rather than servant hood and holiness.
  6. When recruiting potential leaders we must look for a commitment to those things the contemporary church is desperately weak in:
    a. A commitment to holiness of life that arises from the Biblical vision of God’s holy love.
    b. A commitment to a vital theological orthodoxy.
    c. A commitment to our prime directive – evangelism and mission.

Let me conclude with this quotation from David Wells:

“What has most been lost needs most to be recovered – namely, the unsettling, disconcerting fact that God is holy and we place ourselves in great peril if we seek to render him a plaything of our piety, an ornamental decoration on the religious life, a product to answer our inward dissatisfactions. God offers himself on his own terms or not at all. The deity who now appears to lie so limply upon the church is, in fact, the living and glorious God. His hand may be stayed by patience and grace, but it is certain that he will eventually pass judgement on the world. It is this holy God, glorious in his being, doing wonders, who beckons his people to a deeper working knowledge of himself, and it is he who breaks the power of modernity.” (8)

A prayer:

Dear Lord, lead us to:
A holiness without legalism,
A discipline with celebration,
An unworldliness that is life affirming
A simplicity of life that is aesthetically aware,
A frugality that is not mean,
A distinctiveness that is hospitable,
A clarity of belief that is gracious,
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Peter Corney

November 2003. Revised May 2009


  1. Reno Elms, In the Ruins of the Church, Baker Books 2002.
  2. Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Harper Collins, 2003, P. 131
  3. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, Abingdon Press, 1989, p. 24-25. See also Theologians Under Hitler R.P. Ericson, Yale University Press 1985
  4. ibid., p.87
  5. Alister McGrath, Christian Truth, Blackwell. 1994,p.147
  6. The new North American Anglican Province (ACNA), made up of 693 congregations and approx. 81,000 worshippers. (Feb 09) See also GAFCON, The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.
  7. Alfred Lansing, Endurance, McGraw Hill, 1959
  8. David Wells, God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, p.145

All Biblical references from the NIV.