Obadiah Slope: On aging church, great reads and promised prayers


Facebook rule: When you come across a prayer request on Facebook, and Obadiah does and hopes you do too, the best answer is “prayed” or “I just prayed.” Now, provided it is a sincere response, it’s a lot better than promising to pray because if you are like Obadiah, you will forget.

I learned this from the inner-city Anglican pastor, Dominic Steele. Please pass it on.

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Obadiah is getting older, to the point where he has started regularly reading about famous people younger than himself dying. There are good things about getting old. Not having to edit Eternity, for one, as he steps down gracefully or disgracefully to be a writer-at-large, depending on your point of view. With a licence to do things like writing this column.

But one thing that he wishes would not get old is the church. This concern became top of mind as he reported on the stats compiled by British mathematician John Hayward. Churches that age write their own date of probable extinction. He calculated it for the UK churches. Is your church aging? Perhaps that is the most challenging question your gathering/congregation should face.

I am reminded of what happened at my childhood church decades after I moved interstate. (South Australia, like Ireland, had a great export trade in graduates.) It was aging out. Fast. A bunch of 65-year-olds reignited a youth ministry. They gave it a red-hot go. The church is still there with more of a Pentecostal flavour after a merger.

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Hayward’s thesis is that enthusiasm determines a church’s “R” number, which measures its reproductive ability, like the Covid virus. Any number greater than one indicates growth.

It happens that Hayward’s figures show Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, relatively young, are doing the best.

To some Eternity readers, that is a statement of the obvious. But it has not always been that way. One hundred years ago, evangelicalism in Britain was at a low ebb. Anglo-Catholicism was the dominant force in Anglicanism worldwide. Liberal theology was captivating the minds of young ministers in traditional Protestant churches.

A famous sermon was preached in New York’s First Presbyterian Church 100 years ago this month. “Shall the fundamentalists win?” was preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was part of a liberal minority in the US. His sermon heralded a coming wave of liberal theology.

Over the next couple of decades, liberal Christianity became the dominant force in American Protestantism. But since the 1960s, while the US has become more liberal, the “mainline” liberal churches have declined by half or more.

But there are signs Evangelicals might be in trouble. The largest Evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptists, is in slow decline and this month’s revelation of hundreds of pastors’ involvement in sexual abuse cases and the denomination refusing to act will not help.

The lesson? No one, no church, can assume their brand of Christianity will grow.

Having something people are enthused about is the key.

Although Evangelicals and Pentecostals will have been very encouraged by Hayward’s figures showing that churches that generate enthusiasm are the ones that grow, they need to beware of triumphalism, Obadiah reckons.

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Obadiah would never claim to be the best writer in Eternity. The missionary diary is a great read each Saturday, with the best ones making you feel you might have been there.

You can’t go past Naomi Reed’s impactful and inspiring Faith Stories. Here’s a good one. But they are all good.

Stuff the mainstream might see as small stories are big in Eternity. Local church stories work here – you need to meet a local change agent called Phil.

But some are big.

Enough cross-promotion.

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Obadiah enjoys friendly jousting “across the aisle”. Spotting that gay activist Anthony Venn-Brown describe a trio to the US as a “fully-fledged card carrying-homosexual”, Slope could not resist asking, “So you carry cards?”

To which AVB responded with this:

It must be true. I saw it on the internet.

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Speaking of which: The satirical site Babylon Bee has compiled a list of its headlines that came true. It is quite a long list, including gems like:

  • “Biden Calls A Lid Until Election Day”, which came true two days later “Joe Biden says he won’t do any more in-person campaigning for the remaining 9 days.”
  • “New, Less Problematic History Books Will Only Include What Happened In The Current Year”, and a few weeks later, “Illinois community leaders want to abolish history lessons in schools.”
  • Trump: “I Have Done More For Christianity Than Jesus”. It took a full year, but Donald Trump told a Christian TV network that nobody had done more for “Christianity or for Evangelicals or for religion itself” than him.

Obadiah has sent a strong warning to our local Damascus Dropbear site alerting them to be careful.