Recent political events in Australia have given us a fifth Prime Minister in as many years. This undoubtedly reflects the closeness of the major parties in recent electoral polling. That fact that any decisive edge seems elusive could reflect their trend toward centralisation on the political spectrum. Despite philosophical differences which clearly exist, the parties’ many practical similarities in policy implementation and daily practice may provide valuable lessons about the state of the Western Church today.
Of course, the polish and professionalism of many first-world churches has an attractive appeal to more people than ever, but this is often at the expense of the founding distinctives that were originally a part of one’s costly call to deep discipleship. This is sometimes hard to see in the blinding light of present glories, but is it not possible that people are looking past the safe centralisation of denominational similarities to be sold out to a clear cause? Might this not be one which stands up for distinctive biblical values that won’t settle for relevance at the expense of rawness, attractiveness at the expense of authenticity, and hip at the expense of holiness? What is it that really attracts people, after all?
Pentecostal churches have been challenged since the movement’s hundredth anniversary, now almost ten years ago, to clarify their call. Many traditions have waned over time, where the desire for respectability has seen them pull away from the characteristic elements that gave their birth in the first place. Speaking in tongues, extended free praise, demonic deliverance and regular healing are fast disappearing from everyday practice. For instance, one major Pentecostal church in Melbourne did not once publicly call people to Spirit Baptism in more than three years of Sunday services.
Granted, some church leaders are indeed prioritising such distinctives but then find some church members are either disengaged or even disinterested. Is this due to a loss of life-defining and self-feeding encounters with God in the form of personal devotion times? Church services should surely not be expected to compensate. On the other hand, some church leaders have often been so reluctant to cultivate the use of spiritual gifts in churches (of the 1 Corinthians 12 kind) and to promote spontaneous and expressive worship, that the resultant mediocrity and predictability becomes a turnoff. Of course vital and dynamic Christianity is an ‘every believer’ responsibility.
A healthy, passionate faith will always trend toward pulling people from the centre to the edges of the spectrum of possible positions, risking allegations of extremism. In the end, we can fear standing for something and end up standing for nothing, all the while failing to recognise a slide to spiritual luke-warmness. And this hides behind a craving for the very respectability (sometimes confused for balance) that has been the death knell for once-fervent church growth.