(Re)growing the fringe

In the mid 1980s at a Ballarat Diocesan Conference, the Rt Revd Bruce Wilson (then Assistant Bishop of Canberra/Goulburn) challenged participants to think about our strategy (or lack thereof!) for adding new people to congregations. He had just published Can God Survive in Australia?, a stinging critique of the failure of mainstream churches to communicate the Gospel.

Wilson’s basic point was that in our defensiveness against contemporary culture, we had turned into ghettos of the marginalized, unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly!) destroying the ‘fringe’ around our worshipping communities. In terms of the Church’s mission and future, Wilson said, this was a disaster, for it is from the fringe that most converts come.

At the Conference, Wilson described the two main kinds of churches we find in modern Australia. First, there are those that are ‘hard-core and hard edges’. They have a clearly defined, well-taught and highly committed core, and an equally committed membership with no fringe at all. Conversion is nearly always a climactic event, with little space afforded to people whose faith journey is longer and more torturous.

These churches can be big or small. Even the big ones make a negligible impact on society because of the lack of interaction with the outside world. Many fundamentalist and Evangelical churches are like this. The historic ‘Irishness’ of much Australian Roman Catholicism meant that until recent times not a few Roman Catholic parishes had a similar ethos.

Secondly, according to Wilson, there are the churches that are ‘soft core and soft edges’. At their core are people for whom Christian symbols still bring comfort and help, but in reality these core members are often no more Christian than society as a whole. They sit lightly on the most fundamental claims of the Gospel, and are not usually interested in belonging to study groups aimed at deepening discipleship. The idea that they might be called to evangelize is distasteful and frightening.

Much middling Anglicanism is like this. It is, however, more significantly true of the Uniting Church, a consortium of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions. In the southern states of Australia the core and the edges are often so soft that it is difficult to imagine anyone having difficulty in belonging, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof.

The survival of ‘soft core and soft edges’ churches has been due in part to inherited wealth (and in the case of the Uniting Church, capital generated by the sale of redundant properties which began when union took place in 1978), and in part to the skill with which these churches have attracted massive amounts of government funding for welfare programmes sponsored by them. An example of this is an inner suburban church with frenetically busy markets and stalls in its grounds every Saturday, which provides a range of government-funded welfare and counselling services, and aligns itself with a number of trendy political causes. All very ‘successful’ and ‘relevant’. Except that its weekly ‘worship service’ draws less than a dozen elderly people, and seems to be totally disconnected from what appear to be the real priorities of the parish. In fact, that church is all fringe!

Wilson said that neither the ‘hard core/hard edges’ church nor the ‘soft core/soft edges’ church can make any meaningful impact on modern Australia for the Gospel. In order to do that, he said, we should be developing churches that are ‘hard core/soft edges’. The nucleus of our congregations should be as well taught, committed, close-knit and sacrificially giving as any of the fundamentalist and evangelical churches; and they should be just as intentional about real evangelism, numerical growth and inspiring worship. But they should also be intentional about growing the fringe that has all but disappeared from the church as a whole.

Indeed, the ‘church growth’ movement of the last forty years emphasized that congregations must meet some of the specific needs in the wider society that are not being met by anyone else, perhaps by feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, providing ‘parenting’ courses, child-care facilities, marriage counselling, drop-in centres, music teaching, or after-school coaching for slow learners. It may still be advantageous to tie in with government-funded welfare programmes – although even some Roman Catholic bishops, whose agencies have their fair share of such programmes, are now wondering how long this can continue without the church having to compromise its own values

Anglicans face particular problems with regard to our fringe. With the best intentions we seem bent on destroying what little of it there is left. For example, in our zeal to develop a proper baptismal discipline, we often turn young people away who as a result will never approach the church for anything again. We know what we mean when we try to ‘safeguard’ the Gospel and the sacrament of Baptism. Tragically, all these young couples hear us to be saying is that we (and God) reject them as not being as good as we imagine ourselves to be!

In this country the day is long gone when most young parents had their babies baptized due to social or family pressure. So, when they enquire about baptism for a newborn baby, the wise priest will discern the spark of faith there, and look for ways of nurturing it and loving them into a real relationship with the Lord, rather than closing the door in their faces.

The other thing many priests mess up is the opportunity they have at Christmas services to cuddle the fringe while they preach the Gospel. Yet instead of telling people how wonderful it is to have them in church to help celebrate the coming of our Saviour, these priests – every year! – scold visitors for not coming more often. It is as if some clergy bottle up their frustrations all year until Midnight Mass. The problem is that such an unleashing of anger during what is the closest thing to a successful ‘seekers’ service’ that parishes of all traditions have each year shrouds the joy of Christmas for regular parishioners and casual attenders alike. Maybe that is why there is a crisis in places like Melbourne Diocese where Christmas communicants plummeted from 61,000 in 1991 to 39,000 in 1998! It is not hard to be nice to people; indeed, it is the only way to re-grow the fringe.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.