Census: Church is dying. God: My kingdom is alive

Focus on discipleship, not evangelism

“If it’s not growing, it’s dying.” This phrase became popular through the church growth movement of the past 50 or so years. The implication is that if numbers aren’t rising, the prognosis is dire. The 2021 census has revealed the number of Australians aligning themselves with Christianity is at its lowest since records began. If church growth has not only stalled but significantly decreased to just 44 per cent, could it be that the church in Australia is dying?

There will be much hand-wringing and earnest worry about these numbers. Efforts towards evangelism will no doubt be re-doubled. Apologetic instruction will be advertised. Church communities will surreptitiously endeavour to further protect their ‘market share’. In doing so, we will conveniently forget that evangelism, apologetics and church growth have been our modus operandi for the last 50 years and it evidently hasn’t worked.

If we listen, we will find that much of the decrease in religious adherence is not the result of a lack of information or programs. The proportion of millennials who have experienced Special Religious Education or attended Christian schools, and who even have participated in church youth groups, is relatively high. As was pointed out last week by John Collier on Eternity, up to three-quarters of Christian tertiary students will lose their faith by the time they complete their studies.

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.” – James KA Smith

To be clear, there is an issue that needs to be faced. The issue, however, will not be remedied through more information, extra activity, increased programs or a well-constructed Christian worldview. Millennials are too intuitively smart and too committed to authenticity to be fooled by shallow renditions of the Christian life. James KA Smith says, “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”

… we have forgotten to sit at the feet of Jesus and be shaped by him to live well in the world.

The issue is not with our young people or those leaving the faith. The issue is with teachers and leaders who know so much but are not formed in the way of Jesus and who, therefore, are not profoundly shaped by Jesus’ love. For all of the bustling activity of teaching, seeker-sensitive serving, and compelling people to ‘bring a friend’, we have forgotten to sit at the feet of Jesus and be shaped by him to live well in the world.

Smith says elsewhere, “Discipleship and spiritual formation are less about erecting an edifice of knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively understands the world in light of the Gospel.”

What if instead of focusing on evangelism and hoping that discipleship happens, we instead focus on all-of-life discipleship to Jesus and let evangelism happen? In this approach, rather than having the right techniques and right answers, we instead have lives shaped by the whole story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. These will be lives that overflow – in the words of Dallas Willard – with routine, easy obedience to Jesus and, therefore, minister to his presence in each of our contexts.

Unless, Jesus said, a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single kernel. But if it falls to the ground and dies, it produces many seeds (John 12:24). This is what the Kingdom of God looks like – and it flies in the face of the church growth movement. The invitation in this text is to no longer strive to control the temporal, but instead to learn from Jesus the eternal kind of life.

Through it all, the truth is the Kingdom of God is not under threat. The invitation remains to encounter God, to experience Jesus’ new kind of life and to see this life overflow through the Holy Spirit, as we participate in God’s incredible plan for the reconciliation and renewal of all things.

All-of-life discipleship to Jesus … will provide hope for a desperately seeking world.

Instead of hand-wringing and earnest worry and scrambling to implement modern programs, may the church respond to the invitation to focus instead on something ancient and eternal: all-of-life discipleship to Jesus. This, and only this, will stand the test of time. This, and only this, will provide hope for a desperately seeking world.

Graeme Anderson is a Baptist pastor, a practical theologian and the author of Follow: Experiencing Life with Jesus.