20th February, 2000

 Twenty-first Century Denomination
John 17: 13-21

There is a concern worldwide for the future of main-line denominations like the Uniting Church in Australia. Main-line denominations are in decline in many countries. Their church membership has been eroding for the better part of this century. Some observers have predicted their demise.

Prof. Thomas C Reeves, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin in his well researched book "The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity" asks: "Why are the churches failing to teach right from wrong? Why are young people abandoning them? Why are church leaders so quiet in the face of growing moral anarchy? And why do they spend much if not most of their time promoting counter-productive social and political causes?"

1. This is a time of despair in many churches

The American mainline churches have been in a serious and unprecedented numerical decline, losing between a fifth and a third of their membership. The US Methodist Church has lost 1,000 members every week for the last 30 years! Theologically liberal churches are rapidly greying - their average age is increasing.

Methodist Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School said recently "God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we goddam well deserve it." Why do theologically liberal clergy, out of touch with the members in the pews, gain control of mainline church structures? How come that views expressed by the hierarchy are so often out of tune with those of their members?

Dr Jim Heidinger of the United Methodist Church claims the hierarchy "often have difficulties in the parish because of their views, and then they begin searching for power. There is little else for them to do. Conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to stay out of the political side of church life and concentrate on spreading the gospel. The result is a liberal takeover of church authority."

That is true of the Uniting Church in Australia. The result has been that contemporary mainline denominations have fallen for current fads, political correctness, and cultural captivity. Liberal Christianity is indistinguishable from a dozen humanitarian causes. It may cease to be really Christian.

The result is terminal. Secular humanism has triumphed over the faith of our fathers. The social, political and sexual agenda of the church's officials find little support in the pews. Members of the church are discouraged about the direction and future of the church we love.

This despair is seen in the cry of Daphne Freeman, a South Australian lay-preacher with extensive experience in Church councils at all levels, who asks: "Do I stay or do I go? How can I stay in a church where some do not hold to Biblical truth? I feel isolated; butting my head against a brick wall. It is as proclamation of truth is brushed aside and forgotten, or what is worse, distorted." Her lament is echoed by thousands who have left the Uniting Church or who are still hanging in there hoping for change. The Uniting Church has undergone an intensive internal debate over sexual standards among church leaders, and the acceptance of homosexual activity as a Christian standard of behaviour. This debate has been good fodder for the media.

It will soon be continued in the next Assembly in Adelaide. The weapons in the debate are not Biblical arguments but slur words. Synod officials call members who seek to uphold Biblical truth: fundamentalist, reactionary, sexist, homophobic, while they describe themselves as inclusive, modern, liberated and victims. Craig Bailey says: "Our denomination and its structures have been hijacked by those who reject an informed, Biblical position on matters of life and faith. They have rejected it in favour of a liberal ideology that relentlessly extols universalism at the expense of truth; experience at the expense of revelation; and humanism and subjectivism at the expense of Biblical standards."

Many ordinary Christians feel they are suffering more from the church than they have ever been called upon to suffer for the church? Can people who believe clear Biblical standards are the norm, accept anything that does not allow them to be true to their convictions? Consequently thousands of members have moved from the mainline denominations, largely into charismatic and Pentecostal churches. Others remain "believers" but cease to be "belongers". The X generation may believe in Jesus Christ but refuses to belong to the Uniting Church and mainstream denominations like it.

This week, the Australian Christian Church, a network of Pentecostal, Apostolic and many independent churches was formed. It now replaces the UCA as Australia's third largest denomination. It has 1,000 churches and 170,000 members. In terms of Sunday attendance it ranks as number two denomination in Australia. They also launched Australian Christian Care (ACCare).

The inaugural President of the ACC, Pastor Brian Houston said: "The ACC has drawn together a huge network of churches. Together they represent a vibrant, united and thriving Church with answers to the challenges of modern day life. This means a focus on social justice, supporting people in need through our welfare organisations and providing contemporary worship relevant to every sphere of Australian society." That was the kind of statement said a hundred times, 25 years ago when the Uniting Church came into being.

Dr Keith Suter tells me that Wesley Mission's International Congregation is the only very large evangelical charismatic congregation remaining in the Uniting Church. All the others have left. Rev James Calvert said, as he, and a significant proportion of the membership of the Young Uniting Church left our denomination "To remain in the Uniting Church would leave me either in rebellion against the hierarchy, or in submission to them as they lead us into sin. Rather than remain in rebellion or submit to sin, I have resigned from the ministry of the Uniting Church." That is very sad.

2. This is the time to renew our Church

I love our denomination. I am committed to spending the rest of my life within the Uniting Church in Australia. I have no intention of leaving the Uniting Church, but I am not content to leave it as it is! I am working to improve it, to be a true church of Jesus Christ, obedient to His will and word. I am committed to remain within the Uniting Church and change it. This is a great time to renew our church!

There is much that is good in it, especially the ordinary church members in the pews. They are wonderful Christians. I frequently praise the Uniting Church for its strengths and accomplishments. We are a democratic denomination giving many people a voice in church government through an incredible series of councils, assemblies, synods, conferences, committees, reference groups, boards and so on. There is a spirit of mateship abroad. There is a strong community focus with service ministries to every kind of human need involving an army of staff and volunteers. The main-line denominations are contemporary in their concerns and sometimes in their worship. They are Australian in culture and viewpoint. However, each of these claims can now be made by the Australian Christian Church. Yet I believe it is a great time to renew our church for several reasons:

Firstly, Uniting Church members put their faith in Christ not in structures. Professor Herbert Butterfield said: "Hold onto Christ and for the rest be totally uncommitted." At the heart of everything must be a commitment to Christ as the incarnate Son of God, Saviour from sin, risen, reigning and soon returning Lord. We evangelicals have that commitment to Christ, so we can weather any aberration within or attack from without the church. Denominational structures are very human institutions, full of man-made regulations and less than Christian politics. But with Christ in our hearts, no human activity can discourage us. Our faith is not in the structures of men but in the Lord of glory! The temple of God is holy, but that doesn't mean it is perfect. With Christ in our hearts, we can live in an imperfect structure.

Second, Uniting Church members hold fast to the Scriptures. Church doctrine lies not in the decisions of its leaders. We hold to the living word as revealed through the written word. The battle is really over this issue: does the Bible have a continuing authority and significance today? Evangelicals strongly present the intellectual and faith responses to the nature and place of the Scriptures within the church and our lives. We do not propose different interpretations of the Scriptures: liberationist, feminist, post-modernist, or any other of a dozen interpretations, which increasingly are available only to the select few with particular training. We simply state in advance, we commit ourselves to obey what the Bible says as can be understood by committed Christians. We believe, not what is new, but what is true.

Third, Uniting Church members commit themselves to personal holiness and morality. High personal moral standards set Christians apart, help them witness to their faith, and uphold Christian values. Dean Kelley states "no strong religious movement ever got far on a diffident, believe-and-let-believe approach." There is no future for any denomination in which anything goes and nobody cares. A move from Christian moral standards is not to an alternative set of moral standards, but to a moral vacuum. We are committed to moral standards.

Fourth, Uniting Church members obey the Great Commission to evangelise. We call the world to be committed to Christ, not the church to be conformed to the world. Without a commitment to bringing people outside of God to faith in God, from sin to righteousness, from death to life, the church is already dead.

The only way a church in decline with a membership that is growing older and a which is failing to retain its youth, is to commit itself to aggressive, intelligent and effective evangelism.

Fifth, Uniting Church members are coming to grips with multi-culturalism. The Uniting Church has the highest proportion of people born in Australia of any denomination with more than 90% being English speaking only. But evangelical congregations have started more than 90 ethnic congregations throughout Australia with Korean, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders predominating. It was the people from non-English speaking backgrounds and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Congress that supported our views in the sexuality debate. They hold core Christian values.

Sixth, Uniting Church members have a great program of community service. Many liberals talk about justice, but it is the evangelicals that do the work and give the money. Visit any of our caring centres for the aged, the sick, the mentally ill, the disabled, the disturbed, the homeless, the drug addicted and so on, and you will find evangelicals who express their faith in caring service. There is great community service being done in the Uniting Church, and the people who are active in personal service are the evangelicals.

This is a great time to renew our church! I intend to stay within it and change it. I intend to work until this human structure is more closely aligned with His church, its purposes and program as revealed in the Scriptures. Will you join with me to make a difference?

Click book title for listing
THE EMPTY CHURCH Thomas C Reeves The Free Press 1996.
THE EMPTY CHURCH: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity" T C Reeves,

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes

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