By Dr. Peter Mallen
I recently had the pleasure of attending a celebration for my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. It was a great occasion with many family members present, from interstate as well as locally, some of whom I hadn’t seen for ten years or more. One of the gifts they received was a folio of newspaper cuttings from the years leading up to their wedding in Adelaide in 1955. Many older Australian newspapers have now been put in digital form so it’s possible to search their contents by name. What was interesting to me was to see the amount of space devoted to social happenings in the newspaper – debut balls, 21st birthdays, engagements and of course weddings. Articles included lists of guests and intricate details about what clothing was worn (by the ladies at least!). It was the equivalent to what might be shared today on Facebook or other social media.
This got me to thinking about how much our world has changed in the past 60 years – and yet how some things have stayed much the same. Some of the biggest changes have come in communication technology – think mobile phones, tablets, personal computers, the internet, email, Skype, Facebook – all things that were undreamt of 60 years ago. These devices and technologies have dramatically changed how we communicate – and especially how younger people communicate.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the gospel message about Jesus. As Hebrews 13:8 expresses it: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. The good news is that Jesus still shows us the way to relate to God and how to live well with one another – with compassion, inclusive love, forgiveness, generosity and justice. Christian community that demonstrates and lives out these values remains deeply attractive to many people. So our message is just as relevant and just as life-transforming as it has ever been.
The challenge, then, is how to take our unchanging message and communicate it to people in our contemporary culture. Back 60 years ago, the approach was simple – build a church, put a sign out the front indicating worship times, and people would come. Today it’s not so simple. Many people regard the church as largely irrelevant or even harmful. And most people under 50 years of age do not resonate with organ music, ancient hymns and a fairly passive experience. That is why so called ‘fresh expressions’ of church are vital for our future. Places like Messy Church, the SPACE contemplative community and the Café of Dangerous Ideas are just three examples of how we are trying to connect with younger people and to share the unchanging Christian story.
As much as I enjoyed celebrating my parents’ recent wedding anniversary, the harsh but sad truth is that they will probably no longer be with us in 5-10 years time. Then the family stories will have to be told and shared by the younger generations. It’s the same in the church. It’s why we need to put significant effort and energy into fresh expressions of church so as to pass the Christian story onto younger generations.