Let’s name the brutal truth first: Australian churches have been in more or less unmitigated decline since 1963. As from that date, fewer and fewer people have been involved in our churches, fewer people have been connected to our ministries, and almost every major Christian denomination has had fewer people wanting to own them in the census, even if only to identity the church they no longer attend.
There have been bright patches. Theological education in Australia is strong. Student work is a bright spot. There have been revivals in Aboriginal communities in the 1980s and 1990s with substantial and long-lasting fruit. The flurry of interest in church planting ten years ago seems to have moved beyond the status of fad and into a serious, long-term effort.
But don’t let the encouragements distract you from the overwhelming discouragement.
If you follow Jesus and would love others to join you, the news is bad. Even if you’re in a thriving and growing church, the truth is that even those centres often reflect a wider and sadder story. It’s like there were once ten lifeboats. Seven of them sunk, most people drowned, and those who survived had to scramble onto the three lifeboats left. If you are on one of those three remaining lifeboats, you can look around and think, “Plenty of people here! Things must be going well.” But they’re really not.
If you follow Jesus and would love others to join you, the news is bad.
In the last few years in the West, things have moved from being apathetic and lacklustre to, well, just a bit tense. And not just for Christians. Russ Roberts, a US economist and observant Jew, speaks of how in just the last five years he has noticed a hostility to his religious commitments he’s never seen before in his lifetime. Our Muslim friends must battle regularly with what is said about them about them and what assumptions are made for them. We should never forget that Muslims are by far the biggest victim group of Islamic religious violence.
For Christians in Australia, the chances any of us will lose our lives to religious violence are vanishingly small. But they are not zero. The idea that a Christian will lose their life in Australia as a Christian in my lifetime is far from unthinkable.
Similarly, the chances that Christian churches will find themselves unable to find a place to meet, or that someone will face a prison term for teaching orthodox Christian doctrine are not great. But neither are they remote. Things are just a little bit tense. As a parent, in raising my children to follow Jesus, I am asking them to bear a greater cost for following him that I have had to do. That sobers me.
The nature and cause of this basic picture of decline is complex. Our society has gone through massive and (to use an overused word advisedly) unprecedented changes. The churches are far from the only groups reeling. New patterns of social life have caused massive drops in the same period of time for almost any volunteer group you can name—Scouts, Girl Guides, Boys Brigade, Volunteering at Op Shops. Essentially anything not run either by the State or Business has been doing it tough for a while now. (That fact alone should cause us to pause. Do we really want a society without what sociologists call ‘mediating institutions’? A world without community-based associations? The State uses coercive power, and Business works for profit. A society in which everything we participate in is ultimately either coercive or profit-seeking is to me vaguely terrifying.)
Considering Cinemas and Lacrosse
How do we respond as Christians? Here’s where the title comes in. I think, as Christians, we can learn something from the differences in lacrosse and the megaplex cinema. Here’s why:
Cinemas have faced a decline rate that make churches look like they’re in positive revival. They were once the only way you could see a film. But then VHS appeared. Then DVDs. Then huge home flat screens. Then Netflix. Tough times for the local cinema.
How is it cinemas have survived? We’ll, most haven’t—the lifeboat thing fits here too. The ones that have survived have mostly done so not just by offering you a film, but by offering you an experience.
When you go to a cinema today they do everything they can to demand as little as they can and give you as much as they can. They aim to please.
We went and saw BFG with the kids last week. To get the ticket you walk down a literal red carpet. Then through a candy store that is vast in its proportions and exhaustive in its offerings. And, if our largesse could have extended thus far, we could have gone to Gold Class, where food is brought to you at the time of your choosing by wait staff whose job it is to make sure your whole experience is as friction-free and pleasant as possible.
Cinemas have remained relevant by making it all about you.
How is it cinemas have survived? Cinemas have remained relevant by making it all about you.
Now, consider lacrosse.
Together with several other parents, I found myself googling the word ‘lacrosse’ a few weeks ago when my 9-year-old came home and announced his interest in the game.
It turns out it was big in Perth in the past, but has been declining in recent years. It’s very much a minority sport. And it’s kind of amazing.
First, if you show even the slightest interest in lacrosse you are going to feel loved and wanted. They’re hungry. They want you, and they need you, because they are fighting for their future.
But while they love you and want you, they do not pamper you. The experience of lacrosse couldn’t be less like a modern cinema in this regard. You have to be at training twice a week. It’s at 5pm, which is not a great time for families but, if you can’t be at training, well, you won’t be able to play.
“But it’s cold and dark!” Oh well.
“Do I really have to run around the oval again?” Yes.
“How many times do I need to practice this?” Until you are good at it.
The Saturday games are all over Perth, requiring huge travelling. And the games are early in the morning, so more popular sports can use the grounds later in the day. Rain is no excuse. Or distance. Or time of the day.
And they need volunteers. By week two you’re on the sausage sizzle. Week three you are scoring. I’ve never lifted a lacrosse stick in my life, but I think I’ve got a shot at Club President by the end of this year. You get involved very quickly.
You see, the cinema wants your money. That’s fine. But lacrosse doesn’t want your money. Lacrosse wants you. They know that if they are to have a future they don’t need consumers, they need players. And you don’t become a good player without discipline, training and commitment.
The cinema wants your money. Lacrosse wants you … they don’t need consumers, they need players.
So you run. You learn. You practice. You train. Rain, hail or shine. The community is warm and friendly and doesn’t take itself too seriously. But they are deadly serious about the game. Lacrosse is a formative community, and communities that are about formation know that formation doesn’t happen by, oh, you know, just hanging about.
The pitch of the modern cinema is, “You don’t worry about a thing. We’ve got it covered.”
The pitch of Lacrosse is, “Keep going! It’s really worth it. (Oh, and can you please cook these sausages?”)
And so there we are each Saturday morning. Lacrosse parents. It’s cold. There’s still sleep in our eyes. We are all huddled around our coffee cups as if they were personal pot-belly stoves. We band of brothers, we happy few.
More Like Lacrosse than the Megaplex
This, to use Steve McAlpine’s phrase, is what Stage 2 Exile will look like. We’ll look like a lacrosse team, not like a megaplex.
There is no future if we pull out of the business of formation and discipleship and learning Christ. We don’t need gospel relevance, we need gospel resilience, as Melbourne author Mark Sayers puts it. Our pitch as formative communities cannot be “Relax, we’ve got things covered.” It must be, “come on in! Following Jesus is tough, let’s help each other to do it well.”
Cinemas do not require us to be resilient. They remain vulnerable, because the second we can get what they offer in another, cheaper way, we’ll take it. The robots are coming, people.
But lacrosse requires resilience. It needs a generation of kids who both love the game and are willing to make sacrifices to be a part of it.
That’s what we need. We need to be a people who learn to do the minority thing well. Not to throw tantrums when privileges are removed. Not to give up on discipleship and instead offer Christianity Lite. We mustn’t take ourselves too seriously, but take Jesus seriously instead. A vanilla Christianity just won’t cut it. Joyful, serious communities who expect no entitlements and who are busy at forming people through word, prayer, liturgy, training, praise and intentional community. That’s what we need.