CULTURE CLUB

This is a paper I presented recently at a discussion/mentor group for a small group of younger clergy and youth workers new in ministry, called “Culture Club”

“How should the Church respond to rapid and major social and cultural change?”

I have just read and reviewed three books on the history of the Australian Church with an emphasis on a time of radical and major cultural change in Australian life. The particular focus of one of them was on the dramatic and far- reaching changes in the late 60’s and early 70’s but the other two also cover part of this period. They are: The second volume of Stuart Piggins two volume history of the influence of Evangelicals in Australian history from 1740 -2014 “Attending to the Nations Soul” and his biography of Harry Goodhew who was Archbishop of Sydney from 1993-2001.  The third book is by the historian Hugh Chilton “Evangelicals and the end of Christendom – Religion in Australia and the crisis of the 60’s and 70’s.”

These books all raise the question of how the Church and Christian ministries should respond to periods of rapid social and cultural change. Periods of rapid change tend to come in waves. The last big wave was in the 60’s and 70’s and Chilton makes the case that this period was the beginnings of ‘Post Christendom’ in Australia. It coincided with the population bulge of the high number of post war births – the ‘Baby Boomers’. This population bulge drove the changes for the next 60 years. They are all now retiring and still creating waves – in retirement pension costs, health costs and elderly care!!   

Chilton describes how this period was the end of the strong influence of the old cultural Christendom model of the 50’s. At that time, the Australian Church was still accepted as an important part of the cultural furniture. Most protestant children went to Sunday School, (although not all their parents went to church,) and a high proportion of Catholics went regularly to Mass. It was a period of Church growth and many new Church buildings were built. It was thought of as the guardian of the nation’s morals and all politicians gave it respect and accepted its moral role. The Catholic Church was also the backbone of the Labour Party till the DLP split in the late 50’s over Marxist influence in the Unions. Almost all social welfare was conducted by or initiated originally by the Church or Church agencies – aged care, orphanages, hospitals, palliative care, etc.

The 60’s and 70’s dramatically changed all that. I was a youth and student worker in the 60’s and early 70’s and watched the Sunday school numbers and Confirmations drop through the floor. The big teenage population bulge fuelled many of the changes but of course as usual the causes were complex and multiple. Some were philosophical with the influence of post war Existentialism and then Post- Modernism in the University, some were technological with the advent of T.V in everyone’s home, and some were economic with growing prosperity, almost every family now owned a car. The Whitlam labour government in the early 70’s introduced free university education and so tertiary education expanded. The post war baby boom meant the vast and rapid expansion of primary and secondary education and so large numbers of graduates had to be trained as teachers, this was facilitated by free government scholarships. Many Boomers got their university education this way.

The 1959 Billy Graham crusade was the last great social impact of Christianity before Post Christendom was upon us. Ten years later the 69 Crusade had nowhere near the same impact.

Now I do not want to spend time trying to analyse the forces that led to the dramatic changes in the 60’s and 70’s that are still reverberating through Australian society because I want to focus on the question of how the Church and Christians should respond to times of rapid social and cultural change. We are now in a period of change as big and as dramatic as the 60’s and 70’s and the Church’s social and cultural place is much more contested and fragile.

In this discussion there are always two key areas to consider:

  1. The theological impact – how cultural changes impact our faith and how we should now express or communicate it. This in turn raises the question of how to avoid theological ‘reductionism’ or becoming ‘accommodationist’- just reducing our Biblical and theological convictions to fit the spirit of the age.
  2. The impact on our methods, structures, and organisation – this raises issue like how we gather for corporate worship and fellowship, and the “cultural style” of how we do that, how we teach and educate our children and youth, how we do evangelism, the leadership style we now adopt, how we relate to the social needs and the marginalised of our society, etc. What do we need to change, adapt, reinvent, and what new initiatives do we need to take?

If you read these books with these questions in mind it helps you to look back and see how churches and denominations responded both positively and negatively, the mistakes become clear and where they fell for the seductions of the spirit of the age also become clear. The message is – those who responded faithfully and creatively prospered, those who didn’t declined or were wiped out!

Some examples:

  1. Anglicanism – Anglo Catholics by and large failed to adapt their formal worship style and their pastoral maintenance role of ministry and lost several generations of youth and declined. Also, their focus on the all age ‘Parish communion’ service did not work in an increasingly age segmented culture.

Evangelicals generally did better and were more adaptive, but very conservative congregations declined.

  • Methodism and the UCA – they generally failed to adapt methodologically but more critically they went further down a theologically accommodationist and reductionist line with the culture and often sounded more like humanists than Biblical Christians. They have declined steeply. (There were and are of course examples of some congregations that did not follow this trend.)

Because youth work was in general decline at the time in the mainstream churches the impact of the social changes was greater. Those congregations that pursued strong, creative, and culturally adapted youth ministry did much better, and those churches often grew during this period.

In the 80’s the growth of large regional Churches emerged as a positive response. They were very adaptive to the culture in music and style, initially to the Baby Boomers and adopted many ‘Church Growth’ ideas. Because of size and resources, they were able to produce services and music of high quality that appealed to the Boomers and young people. They also adopted the Church Growth mantra “that as you grow larger you must grow smaller” and so strongly pursued small groups or home groups as a strategy to build community. This model was almost exclusively adopted by some Evangelical mainstream, and many Pentecostal / Charismatic and Independent Churches. Many of these have continued as vibrant churches today. The large regional churches also tended to adopt a post-denominational approach.

Denominational structures struggled with this model being culturally locked into the old parish model.

The 90’s saw the emergence of new experimental church planting often with young adults and young marrieds frequently drawn from or sponsored by the larger regional Churches. These attempted new styles and models of Church sometimes targeting particular sub – cultural groups. Some have survived and prospered many have disappeared. The age group they often recruited as the core is inherently unstable being at a very transitional life stage. This response continues with different models being tried. Generally this group are very sensitive to the local culture they are trying to reach.

Hugh Chilton in his book focuses on the example of the ‘Jesus People’ or ‘Counter Culture’ Christians of the 60’s and 70’s in Australia as an example of a very creative and effective response to the dramatic changes taking place in the culture at that time. This was mostly in the youth and student culture of the time which was deeply affected by the changes. Remember these are the Baby Boomers and they were a very big population cohort.

The following is a list of the various and very creative and effective ways they responded:

  1. Music: they adopted the contemporary music of both Rock and the music of the protest songs which was a blend of folk music and Rock. The folk medium was message music and very suitable for communicating ideas and messages. Australian Christian Rock bands like “Koinonia” and “In the Silence” became very popular.
  2. Coffee shops were not commercially numerous in those days and Christian youth groups developed them as mediums to gather young people combined with contemporary music and short messages. With teams trained to interact with the people who came. The Theos coffee shop movement developed by SU became a feature at summer holiday resorts around the country and attracted large numbers of teenagers. It also trained a generation of young Christians in a new style of youth ministry.
  3. They adopted the informality and style of the counterculture not only in dress but in the way they communicated. There was a revival of the arts and drama and street theatre which they adopted. Numerous Christian drama groups emerged. Interactive learning models with creative elements like the “Serendipity” materials by Lyman Coleman were popular on camps.
  4. Adventure camping was also popular and Christian groups developed this approach very successfully.
  5. The counterculture was also heavily into community and a number of Christian communes sprang up. Community was a strong theme and Christians resonated easily with this.
  6. There was also a new sensitivity to the marginalised and those in need and new ministries sprang up particularly to street people and those caught in the emerging drug culture.
  7. There were also new experiments in Christian publishing like the magazine “On Being” and free street papers copying the style of the counterculture.
  8. There was also a new interest in politics and a general drift to left of centre among young Christians. New initiatives like Zadok (a kind of Christian think tank) and the Canberra house church movement that drew together thinker/activist Christians who were interested in having an impact on government policy, and publishing well thought out ideas on public issues. Inter Varsity Fellowship produced “Interchange” with professionally researched articles by graduates on a variety of topics both theological and public policy topics.
  9. The new interest in politics climaxed in the Kairos march by hundreds of young Christians on Parliament house in Canberra in 1973 one year after Whitlam’s election.
  10. The kind of books people were reading were: OS Guinness’ “The Dust of Death” a brilliant cultural analysis of the times. Francis Schaeffer’s books describing the philosophical roots of contemporary culture from a Christian perspective helped many thinking Christians to develop a more reasoned and well thought out foundation for their faith. Jacques Ellul a French Christian writer who wrote the “Technological society” and “The meaning of the City”. These were all excellent cultural analysis from a Christian perspective. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Ethics and Christian community was also very popular. What this shows is a desire to come to grips with modern culture at a greater depth.
  11. The impact of the Lausanne 1974 conference was also very significant in bringing together Evangelicals and Charismatics and social justice and evangelism concerns. The final conference statement guided by John Stott’s wise chairmanship became an important and significant document.

Some questions for us to ponder:

  • What are the major changes taking place right now in our culture?
  • What are the implications of these for the Church?
  • What are the major values and belief challenges for our theology?
  • What are the challenges for our means of communication?
  • What are the challenges for our ‘style’ of communication?
  • What are the changes we need to make to our current patterns or styles of          leadership?
  • What are the biggest opportunities for us now in the present state of our culture?
  • As effective youth ministry is always a key to the future survival of the Church – what do we need to do to boost and expand our youth work today?

Peter Corney    27/5/21  

Peter Corney

About Peter Corney

Peter Corney is an Anglican minister who trained at Ridley College Melbourne. Currently he is vicar emeritus at St Hilary's Kew, where he continues as a teacher and occasional preacher. He is involved in training and mentoring young emerging leaders with the Arrow leadership Program. His interests are the relationship between Christianity and Culture and the implications for evangelism and discipleship. He is married to Merrill with three married sons and six grandchildren.
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