Do you remember the time of the mission statements? Everyone from your local bank to the specialist hospital wards to churches had one. The idea was that if a group could decide what its mission was then this would provide a foundation for decision making and planning. Much faith was placed in the process. All of the stakeholders of the group were invited to spend a day under the direction of a facilitator to produce the statement. he mission statement was produced from suggestions and discussion arising out of the group. This process had some of the advantages of democratic process and all of its pitfalls. The resulting statements are bland and self righteous beyond comprehension. When was the last time you read a mission statement and thought, Oh my! How exciting, how informative? My idea of hell is to be forced to read mission statements for eternity. The eyes glaze over and the mind is numbed by the banality, the sheer goodness, and the obvious motherhood statements that defy criticism. One is gripped by anger and resentment that something so dull could be seen to be foundational and yet what is there to complain about? Mission statements are truisms that convey little information except of the naivety of their composers.
It seems that the idea of the mission statement is receding but every so often one finds a remnant statement at the bottom of some publicity blurb or on the wall of a government department. But we should not celebrate our freedom from such rubbish too soon. For now we are in the age of the Strategic Plan. Having decided that finding out who you are and what you should do is not enough it has been decided (by whom?) that we need a map to get us from A to B. This cannot be all bad. I am sure that such plans do provide some aid for business and agencies. It is sensible to have some idea of where you want to go and how you are going to get there. To not have some sort of plan is to be ruled by reaction and distracted by "non core" issues. The trick is to allow enough openness to the serendipitous.
To have any hope of doing anything useful, planning must have an analysis of the present situation. Otherwise the plan will be just another wish list, well intended, passionately advocated, sincere but completely separate from reality. The brilliant business man ("man" embracing "woman") will need to understand as much as he can of the economic, sociological and political environment as he can in order to direct the company in a certain direction.
Just as the Church embraced the idea of the mission statement it is also tempted to embrace the Strategic Plan, hopefully with more effect. I have in mind here large sections of the Anglican and Uniting Church in Australia. The question is whether they are capable of analysing their situation in the culture of the West in late modernity. Without such analysis any attempt to produce a strategic plan will rely on enthusiasm alone, and that is not a good thing.
It is recognised that liberal Protestant Churches have been in decline for decades and this has prompted all manner of schemes to reverse the trend. It is also recognised that most of these schemes have failed. No amount of talk about the Church being in mission has helped. We may blame the environment and say that the culture has turned against us or that the language of the Church is foreign to the man in the street but this does not touch the underlying problem. Liberal Protestant Churches have lost their way, they have conformed to the culture of modernity to the extent that they have become irrelevant.
For example, we train our clergy to appreciate modern historical critical views of the bible without, at the same time, convincing them that it bears witness to the Word of God.
Our engagement with social justice issues have more to do with secular aspirations regarding equalitarianism than to a proper ordering of society under God. The Church has thus embraced the slogan of the French Revolution of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and ignored the gospel promise that death is the gateway to life (on this side of physical death).
The liberal Protestant God has been thoroughly domesticated. He is no longer such a one who could break out among the people and destroy them. He does not stand in judgment of the world. God has become subsumed into pastoral care as the one to turn to in time of need. He no longer speaks a new world into being.
Faith has been turned into therapy as the human potential movement merges with pastoral care and is thus only appropriate for the sick and inept.
Our liberalism has painted us into a corner from which we are unable to make distinctions. We are bound to embrace Islam as one of the great religions of the world and even say that we all worship the same God despite the obvious differences. We think that all we have to do is to be inclusive to ensure our acceptance in a diverse society. In this atmosphere of moral relativism we cease to make the stands we should to protect the unborn, to inculcate the young into the traditions of faith from which they will know that sex is about love and reproduction and that drug taking is a damaging short cut to relieve present difficulty.
In short, liberal Protestantism, in its eagerness to be loved, has lost the centre of the gospel which is stranger than we can imagine and more terrible. Unless we begin to see how we have wandered from the path of the gospel under pressure from modernity nothing will change because the causes of our demise will remain in place and no amount of planning will help.
What then, are our options? The danger is that we judge these according to what looks like success. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are growing, often spectacularly. Do they show the way to the future of the Church? To their credit Evangelical churches, in contrast to their liberal counterparts, take the bible seriously. They train and discipline their people in a way that is unthinkable for liberals. However, their focus on the literal text is itself a product of modern rationalism and a denial of the Spirit. On the other hand, the Pentecostal churches display favouritism of the Spirit and neglect of the Word. Neither of these paths can be an option for the failing liberals. They both have theological problems that in the end remove them from consideration.
I would suggest that the only option is the path of radical orthodoxy displayed so well by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I heard the other day, from one high up in the Anglican Church, that he was too hard to read. I took this to be a symptom that infects us liberal Protestants. We are not prepared to do the hard intellectual work that we need to understand our present situation and to see a theological direction that is faithful to the gospel. This is a move that requires long term theological leadership that will act to transform the way we train our ordained men and women so that they can lead congregations into the surprising and confronting demands of the gospel. Like all of the previous revolutions in the Church, change will only come from a more faithful theology and this will come only when we have built up theological institutions of quality.
In the mean time we must give up the idea that we are responsible for the future of the Church. Such an attitude exposes our practical atheism; we no longer believe that God will do anything in our churches. If we did we would have to ask the question (after Hauerwas) as to why God is killing them. Our brief is to be faithful and that requires hard work because faith has been so obscured. This is not new, faith has always been obscured and theologians from the beginning have struggled to articulate it in each new situation. We must also give up the idea that the Church can be fixed in our lifetime. It is obvious that we will dwindle even further before any renewal will take place. We, like Moses, may not see the Promised Land. It is not that we do not care enough or try hard enough, it is that we have lost the vision of that to which we have been called.