Posted by on Apr 23, 2023 in Blog | 14 comments

a mother and son having a conversation

If you are into medical thrillers you know about the dangers of misdiagnosis. You will have seen shows where the medication supposed to help the patient is quietly killing them, while the actual cause of the problem remains untreated.

Misdiagnosis is an issue, but it’s compounded when no one is willing to concede that they have got it wrong. Stubbornly sticking to the wrong treatment is hazardous – but what if it’s not in the realm of your health? What if you have misdiagnosed why a relationship is failing – and its actually more about you than the person you blame? Or it could be the opposite. What if you hold yourself responsible for your failure at work, but it’s actually a toxic workplace that has set you up to fail?

What if the church has misdiagnosed why she has lost her favoured position in society?

We have all been dismayed at the drop in church attendance. Australians have been sobered by the 2021 census results which showed that whereas in 1971 over 86% of Australians said they aligned with the Christian faith, the figure is now 43.9% – or as close to half of what it was before to make little difference. And it is not just an Australian story, as those in the UK, Canada, USA and most countries in Europe know.

So what has gone wrong? Here is the common diagnosis.

We live in a secular, postmodern age. There is growing distrust of institutions and the institutional version of Christianity is compromised due to abuses of power. While some of the accusations are valid, many are exaggerated and this has had a devastating impact on the public perception of the church. In addition, the church has many enemies who actively campaign against her and try to undermine the good she does in society. Oversimplified, we could say we can blame:

A secular age

A postmodern era

The institutional version of church


But what if the diagnosis is wrong? Let’s think about each “cause”.

A secular age:

I beg your pardon. What secular age? Holistic health and well being is now routinely promoted, and spirituality is almost always part of the mix. Have a look at this review of Tara Isabella Burton’s book, Strange Rites to sense how things have changed. As the review says: ‘Religion isn’t dead, but the source of authority has moved from the institution to the individual. “We do not live in a godless world,” writes Burton. “Rather, we live in a profoundly anti-institutional one…”‘ The argument isn’t with the concept of God, or even the Christian concept of God, it’s about how it is presented and experienced. The church has an image problem. Bluntly stated, in an age deeply interested in spirituality, the church is seen to have more to do with the status quo than with the spiritual quest. In most people’s minds there is no obvious link between the quest to find God and the church. However that does not mean the quest to find God is not real for large numbers of people, and to act as though we are a secular and spiritually disinterested age is to operate from a misdiagnosis.

A postmodern era:

I suspect this one has been overblown. We are told that in the postmodern era there is a distrust of meta-narratives (large overarching stories that claim to explain too much); truth is relativised (there are as many truths as there are people in the room) and historic power holders are seen to control which narratives get told for their own benefit, thus disempowering local voices and the voices of those on the margins. Yes, all this is true, but not sure why it’s a threat to the Christian faith. After all, while Christianity is often presented as a meta-narrative it is usually received as a local narrative, deeply relevant to the needs of a particular time and place. That has been the creative beauty of Christianity. It has never been a “one size fits all” faith. In the incarnation God is incarnated in a specific community at a particular point in history. And each time a people group says yes to Jesus, Christ is born again into the life of a specific community. It’s faith will have many (many) points in common with other Christian communities, but it will also be its own distinct community of faith. There is something unique about each time and place. So it has always been – and so it should be. This is no blind meta-narrative that obliterates all nuance and subtlety. This is a faith that has been found to be relevant in multiple cultural and historical settings. It is a faith that dances well with both the local and the universal.

And what about truth being relative? Well truth is complicated and is often relative. We are wise to differentiate between truth as correspondence (an accurate and precise description of what happened) and truth as perspective (the way the impact of something is experienced by different people and in different settings). Truth is not a blanket term, and rather than reject alternate ways of seeing things, we should approach them with some curiosity. We all have much to learn from the different insights of each other.

If we blame the woes of the church on the turn to the postmodern we are probably defending too small a version of the Christian faith. Postmodern readings of Scripture alert us to possibilities we might have overlooked. These enrich us. Let’s explore them with interest. Let’s remember the Ecclesia semper reformanda est principle – the church reformed is always reforming. We are certainly not done yet.

The Institutional version of Church:

There could well be something in this one. It is tricky because once things grow they tend to formalise and institutionalise. While a small group of 7 or 8 is at little risk of being an institution, wait until success strikes. Jesus reassured us that if just two or three are gathered in his name, his presence is assured, but most of us long for more. Indeed, isn’t much of this post a lament that we don’t have the numbers we once did – and you probably can’t have it both ways. Or can you?

I had a stab at visualising what “Church Lite” could look like a few months back, and could I be cheeky enough to commend it to you again? I think there is something to be said for communities of faith that are outwardly focused, not primarily concerned about their own success, and which keep the main thing the main thing (meeting with God). Regardless, Jesus was deeply suspicious of institutions – read Matthew 23 for a glimpse of his attitude to the religious authorities of his day, and the institution they had created. The church Jesus founded was meant to be different, and if it isn’t… well, facts are friends. Let’s do something to change it.


True, as Paul warns in Ephesians 6:12 our battle is not against flesh and blood but against evil rulers and the mighty powers of darkness. Anyone who dismisses the concept of evil has not read enough history.

For all that I suspect we are are sometimes regarding friends as enemies simply because they tell us things we would prefer not to hear. It’s the old mistake of killing the bearer of bad news – or more precisely, the bearer of the news that deep change is needed. For it is. When people alert us that the church is experienced as racist, misogynist and homophobic, we should lean in and listen with a breaking heart, not fold our arms in angry dismissiveness. When people tell us of their disappointment at the failure of yet another church leader who has fallen off the lofty pedestal we placed them on, we should hear the disappointment, and stop making the same mistake again and again (why do we make idols of our leaders? Jesus is so much more impressive.) When the church is seen to align with dodgy causes, or dodgy science, or dodgy politics, we must ask why, and allow Jesus to be the plumb-line against which we test ourself. Those who challenge these foolish choices are not enemies. To the contrary, they would do us a disservice if they remained silent.

So if the issue isn’t really a secular age, or a postmodern mindset, or enemies – and only a small part is about institutions, how should we diagnose our time?

Perhaps the best diagnosis is a far older one, found in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way

It is indeed the best of times. It is indeed the worst of times. In every season we are called to work out what it means to faithfully follow Jesus. And each time it is a little bit different.

As always, nice chatting…

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  1. Great wisdom here again Brian, when we are bereft of ideas creates fertile ground for God to start something new

    • Thanks Col. I do think we need to be open to the new things God is doing.

  2. Nailed it I think!

    • Thanks Rob. Good to hear from you. It’s been a while.

  3. Yeah but I’m still around! I think there are some excellent points made in what you said. I often fluctuate between tears and hysterical laughter at some of the misdiagnosis of societal ills presented by the church and, sadly, sometimes our diagnoses of our own failure. I think perhaps something that sits beside this is the pursuit of church growth. Its a dumb idea because growth is a consequence of other things and our willingness to follow that latest guru in growth has not helped I think. And you are right. Misdiagnosis has some very negative consequences.

    • Very good that you are still around Rob! Our desperation for a “solution” often sees us land up more compromised than before.

  4. The quiet voice of the alternative thinker can only be listened to when space is held for it to speak …lest it ends up yelling contrary to the ways of a peacemaker and the ways of God. Sometimes it might even warrant a regular passing of the mic. Maybe leaning in is too passive for where the church finds itself right now. It might require proactive curiosity in search of the voices it has feared as foe and has either silenced or dismissed; for many of these voices are no longer in its midst. People being called out to follow God perhaps. This is potentially a source of exciting hope for something we might call church.

    • Thanks Ruth. Holding space for uncomfortable voices isn’t easy, and requires maturity, but it is an important part of proactive curiosity.

      • I think it is essential. Addressing the misdiagnosis will reveal the misdefined. If we let go of the idea of church as we have commonly come to understand it and practice it, we might just find rich exciting opportunity to grow the church that has been thought of as lost.

        When a health or support service tries to integrate lived experience into its service delivery model it is significantly less successful than those services that have started from a clean canvas to co-produce and deliver something new.

        Proactive curiosity is in my view an imperative if we wish to be a part of bringing a little of heaven to earth. If I let my emotions get the better of me I would go so far as to implore it.

        • Phyllis Tickle prophetically reminded the church that about every 500 years the opportunity comes for the church to redefine itself. She called it “the great emergence” and suggested that now is the time. So it’s the era for reimagining and proactive curiosity. A time of real possibility… I think it’s right to implore for that.

  5. How refreshing, Brian! It’s not easy to see the misdiagnosis when one’s in the thick of the institutional church. Only as I’ve moved to the margins have I been able to catch glimpses and start to see differently. Sometimes a painful journey. So appreciative for companions.

    • Thanks Paul. Very good to hear from you. There is something about watching from the margins that permanently changes the way we see things.

  6. Yes Brian, holding space for uncomfortable voices requires skills that seem to be hard to find. Having been close friends with at least two wonderful and prophetic voices who were pushed to the margins – and out – of our denomination and having been basically invited to leave myself but simply refusing to go, I have some sense on how it happens when it just gets too uncomfortable. Sadly, I think if we’d listened to those voices we might not be facing our present dilemmas with quite the same intensity as is now required. Still we must try and the Spirit walks with us in that endeavour.

    • It is important to note how much poorer we are because of the voices we have lost. I’m glad you refused to go.

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