“Oh, that God the gift would give us
to  see ourselves as others see us”

Robert Burnes

The Declining Church

Tom Bandy observed, during his recent visit to Australia, that the decline of mainstream institutional Christianity was about ten years more advanced than in the USA and that some of the Australian responses to the “crisis” might be timely for churches across the Pacific. The turn around that happened at Prospect Road Uniting Church,i a cluster of small, declining, inner suburban churches where I was Pastor, and the extension of these strategies in a new faith community plant with Port Adelaide Uniting Church are an Australian response that may assist pastors and leaders in other declining church situations to turn them around also.

Becoming an Outside-in Church

What is an outside-in church? It is a church that looks to the culture outside itself as the locus for its Christian praxis. As Jesus changes people’s lives in that “outside” culture, the energy and witness of these changed lives comes in to renew the church’s culture.ii This contrasts with the Christendom church, which sought to bring people into the church’s culture where Jesus could transform their lives to go out to maintain the (Christian) culture – an inside-out church. In these rapidly changing, post-Christendom times, an outside-in church will be more effective. Becoming an outside-in church means identifying, and engaging with two emerging and major factors in the public’s relationship with “church” –

•    A suspicious and hostile public attitude towards institutional, religious authority

 •    A patronizingly insensitive attitude of “church” towards the public.


Identifying, and engaging with suspicion and hostility

There is antipathy towards the institutional church in Australia that will increasingly affect the public’s stance in North America. Signs of this are:

•     The collapse of a relationship of complicity between the media, corporate culture and institutional leadership to cover up scandal. The suspicion and hostility that is a result of this has an extra “bite” when applied to the church’s institutions and leaders.

•     The change in the attitude of local planners. Forty years ago, a church was considered to be a desirable community amenity. Now it is an unwanted source of noise and traffic congestion.

•     Now, in Australia, it is an increasingly “normal” attitude to consider church involvement as eccentric – the reverse of earlier attitudes.

One response to suspicion and hostility is to make the church a safe zone – like a gated community – guarded against suspicion and hostility. As decline bites, churches like this will seem to thrive. However, current Australian evidence suggests that even this kind of church will decline as Gen Y adults make the mid-twenties life-phase change and leave. At Port Adelaide, even more than at Prospect Road, a different strategy is working out. When I lived in a rough, tough part of Sydney, people coped with suspicion and hostility by becoming “street-wise.” This meant on the one hand, knowing the neighbourhood well enough to understand its pitfalls and dangers and to live and work in a way that allowed one to avoid becoming a “mark.” The other was to engage in support networks for people of good will. While most mission fields are not as extreme as this one was, the same principles of street-wise engagement and support apply. This is being an outside-in church. At Prospect Road, being an outside-in church meant engaging the micro-culture of parents with young children through local schools, play groups, kindergartens and parents’ groups, and engaging another micro-culture, residents in more disadvantaged areas, with community development support. “Street-wise,” outside-in service and evangelism have gone a step further in Port Adelaide. There, a form of spirituality is being developed for a micro-culture of Gen Y couples that addresses everyday relationship issues, and can be used at work, while waiting at the rapid transit station, or on the front doorstep, as well as in a house church meeting.

Changing the Church’s attitude towards the public

A church still enmeshed in a Christendom self-understanding is often patronizingly insensitive towards the public. In the Christendom era, the public related to the church through denominational and family affiliations, architecture and sometimes through preaching and program excellence. In our post-Christendom times, it is the availability of choice, life-style relevance and spirituality that people look for. Inside-out churches try to make the old relational hooks work, but often what they are offering is far less attractive than what they imagine. I use the following simulation to help churches change their perspective about the public.

I invite people to consider a tabletop as the Prospect Road mission field and on it I place four plates of food to represent the four Prospect Road worshipping communities. I begin with four plates of dry crackers and invite the audience to consider the effectiveness of what they see as a food celebration. Perhaps that is how four traditional worship services at about the same time on Sunday morning appear to the public. Amalgamating the four plates of crackers into one does not improve the situation. Then I replace each plate of crackers with a plate of food representing a different ministry focus for each place –

crackers with different toppings for seniors, teddy bear cookies for families with young children, multicoloured marble cake for a more cosmopolitan micro-culture, and pizza for the battlers. Each is a metaphor for what appeals to the four different micro-cultures in the Prospect Road mission field and beyond that to the worshipping communities that evolved to serve and evangelize them. The enormous difference in appeal between the last menu and the first makes the point, and the presentation finishes on an enjoyable note with everyone eating the food on the table.

Refocusing on what the public hopes the church will be, rather than what the church hopes the public will be, often reveals truths that should be self-evident but often are not. One church I visited had a potential mission outreach to young singles, but only offered early Sunday morning services. There is no way for young adult lifestyle to mesh with that! We looked at the possibility of an 11:00am cooked breakfast followed by labyrinth style worship around the church and its garden. Another church wanted to engage young families in worship and lamented that there were none in the area, but a large group of children and their parents met Sunday mornings at the local park for soccer. (At the same time as the family service.) The service time will have to change before that church might begin to engage the soccer crowd. Churches that are enslaved by their tradition will decline or become defensive bastions. Churches that re-invent themselves to be effective servants and evangelists to micro-cultures in their area will, firstly, halt decline, then grow – the spirit and heart of their tradition re-discovered.

Beyond Decline

Unfortunately, churches tend to leave doing anything about their decline until it is almost too late. Leadership support declines because it is either burnt out or controlling an agenda to maintain the status quo. But it can be done. Prospect Road was small and elderly – and yet halted decline. Turning around a church takes much more than is outlined here, but becoming an outside-in church and “seeing ourselves as others see us” is an essential and achievable first step that could help US churches that take this step move beyond decline.

i This is described in detail in my book, “The Small Church at Large.” Nashville. Abingdon 2003.

ii See my article, Facing up to Jesus – Relational Evangelism, Net Results September 2004I have also found The Celtic Way of Evangelism – How Christianity Can Reach the West Again, George G. Hunter III Nashville Abingdon 2000, to be a helpful resource, provided that the built environment is included in the “outside” missional context as well as the natural and social environment of the Celtic missionary praxis.

Robin Trebilcock – www.robinjtrebilcock.com

New Faith Community Church, Port Adelaide – http://www.c-changespirit.org