Five big trends in Sydney Anglicanism

Jeremy Halcrow

This was meant to be my farewell blog for Sydneyanglicans.net, finishing with my traditional end of year analysis of the trends in Sydney Anglicanism thrown up by our site.

Not being great at goodbyes, I've ended up stretching this blog over two installments.

The popularity of our various ministry blogs helps sketch a rough outline of where this generation is heading, whereas news trends gives us a much sharper snapshot of our immediate location. So this week I will look at this year's top ministry/life blogs (the big picture) and next week at the top news stories (the current moment).

5.  Post-Anglican church planting

Over the years that have been involved in editing this site, I have witnessed the sources energising the church planting movement in Sydney Diocese shift significantly.

To recycle the military language much-loved by church planters: we have moved from picturing the Diocese as a large conscript army to one that favours a post-Anglican guerilla movement. Our Winston Churchills have become Che Gueveras.

From the 1980s the church planting debate in Sydney Diocese has been shaped by trends in the US, particularly the Church Growth Movement. Flicking back through old editions of Southern Cross, it's clear that first Bill Hybel's Willowcreek and then Rick Warren's Saddleback had their moments on Sydney's ministry pedestal.

So it has been interesting to watch Sydney's love affair with Mark Driscoll heat up and then cool. In 2008, articles about Driscoll - especially his critique of Australian evangelicalism - dominated this site.
Last year's top rating blog was Michael Kellahan critiquing one aspect of Driscoll's ministry strategy. After receiving 7,000 views last year, this piece provided ongoing interest receiving a further 2,300 reads in 2010.

There is not doubt the Driscoll phenomena has shaken up the Sydney Anglican scene. It's much harder to pinpoint the longer-term legacy.

No serious commentator on Christianity in the West doubts the need for radical church planting. Every parish should be looking beyond traditional patterns and experimenting with missionary-style endeavours.

Especially given the significant (Driscoll-inspired?) developments this year around Geneva Push and New Churches, it's surprising that articles about church planting have rated so poorly.

This year our blogs and articles on various church planting conferences garnered very modest readership (around 1,000 views). My video interview with Steve Timmis, who explained the radical Crowded House model, was watched by just 1024 people. Why has the buzz around this issue become so muffled?

Exciting church planting initiatives are happening in the Diocese. I recently spoke to Peter Hughes from SOMA whose use of the 'gospel community' model pioneered by Crowded House has born extraordinary fruit. (Read full details in the upcoming edition of Southern Cross).

Given we know most of our readers are churchworkers. It would be helpful to hear readers reflections on why recent articles and resources on church planting are not engaging you. Can Sydneyanglicans.net do a better job?

4. Reconstructing Sydney Anglicanism

The flip side of to the influence American Church Growth Movement is the destablising effect it has had on Australian evangelical Anglicanism.

The cover and editorial of the latest edition of the Australian Church Record talks about the need for a "post-revolution reconstruction".

"If only we can separate what is truly 'gospel' and truly Christian Truth from the Baby Boomer rhetoric with which it has so often been clothed for more than half a century. Why is it, for example, that we are still hearing about the need for 'entrepreneurial thinking' when the entrepreneur has been firmly laid to rest? At this point our Christian Baby Boomers are just speaking the same rhetoric as the major [political] parties."

Huh? Australian Baby-boomers? It was Mark Driscoll, an American Gen-X'er, who said Sydney evangelicals had failed to be entrepreneurial.

While the ACR's take on the state of play is eccentric, they are not merely making a traditionalist protest against change for change sake. The ACR speaks out of the dominant Reformed and conservative ethos of the Diocese. True conservatives have always argued that revolutions are inherently destructive, and the best kind of reform takes small, evolutionary steps. Christians who are Reformed usually eschew grand utopian schemes because of their skeptical take on human capacity.

Instead, this must be read as an early salvo in lead up to the election of the next Archbishop of Sydney. The ACR does not specifically spell out what it means by 'reconstructing' the Diocese.

It seems the next episcopal election will take place in the midst of an identity crisis for Sydney Anglicanism. Is being a Sydney Anglican more than a personal loyalty to the current Archbishop?

Some of the causes are temporal and temporary - such as the financial losses. However there are bigger, deeper trends around ecclesiology.

What does it mean to be an evangelical Anglican any more? It once meant a commitment to the (Scripturally informed) patterns set out in the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book. But many younger Sydney Anglicans have no knowledge or experience of either.  Denominational affiliation is meaningless for most younger church goers.

Mission imperatives will also see a further institutional unhinging. There are shrinking revenue streams and all Diocesan organisations are facing increasingly open competition from independent rivals. Brand loyalty is weak. Structural tensions are becoming clearer, and this may be what Peter Bolt, the Moore College based ACR editor, is alluding to.

It is in this context that we see ongoing high ratings for blogs on this site - even old articles - that touch on what it means to be both 'evangelical' and 'Anglican'. There appears to be a growing anxiety around these issues.

This year Bishop Rob Forsyth's column on clergy dress came in at #4 (4891 views). In a similar vein these older blogs continued to rate strongly:

* Michael Jensen on neo-Prayer Book Anglicanism (2009: 6068 views - over 2,000 views this year.)

* Craig Schwarze on infant baptism (2009 8403 views - over 3,600 views this year.)

It should be noted, however, that the discussion and interest around Craig's infant baptism blog may not be primarily internal Sydney Anglican discussion but a reflection of long-standing differences between Australian evangelicalism's two largest groups: the Baptists and Anglicans.

3. Debating 'worship'
As in 2009, this year discussion of congregational music rated very highly on the site.

In some ways, the so-called 'worship' debates are an extension of the points above.

It is also a mistake to see this purely a generational issue. There is a clear split in attitudes between the male churchworkers who read this website and the readers of Southern Cross (who tend to be lay and female).
Craig Schwarze's column on 'dumping hymns' generated by far the most number of critical letters to the editor this year. In contrast his blog on the top 10 congregational songs was the #3 rated blog of the year. There is clearly far more sympathy to his music vision on this website.

2. Connecting

Connect09 was my personal and professional highlight of five years in the editor's chair.

I am a true believer. From early 2008 I was certain this strategy would become the game-changer because of the way it was engaging and energising the laity. All currently available data suggests this is what happened in 2009.

The more significant question will come clearer over the next two years. What was the sustained impact of the campaign?

In looking at our website data, it is interesting to see the extent to which Connect resources published last year have continued to be utlised this year.

Most of the video resources created for Connect09 have continued to be viewed by thousands of people. In fact Professor Ian Harper's Inspiring People testimony outstripped all other content on our site this year and was viewed by some 17,000 people in 2010.

All of Archbishop Peter Jensen's Essential Jesus Bible Studies continued to be read throughout 2010.

Intriguingly his last Bible study was viewed by over 7,000 people this year - which would make it the #2 blog for the year - after barely showing up on our ratings in 2009. However some caution should taken with this ranking. The result may be an anomaly caused by the lack of articles published in his section this year. His Archbishop Writes columns are no longer being published here but only in the printed Southern Cross.

1. Re-discovering the Christian life (ie ethics)

At first glance it may seem surprising that Craig Schwarze's blog on whether Christians should watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was our #1 top rating blog of 2010.

While it certainly reflects the fact that younger male readers frequent this website, a fuller analysis of the discussion which followed indicate something deeper.

Our readers were asking some profound questions. What is the purpose of pain? And when is violence sinful?

There is a hunger for theological reflection on a host of real ethical issues that Christians struggle to unravel in their daily lives but that rarely get touched on from the pulpit.

The list of top rating blogs is pack full of other examples including Phillip Jensen's column on "Evidence-Based decisions" (#6) and Michael Jensen's blogs "How Should a Christian Vote?" (#4) and "Bring me a Burqa!" (#9)

This year a number of bloggers pointed out the 'missional urgency' of preaching on anthropology and the doctrine of sin. Michael Kellahan suggested that Archbishop Peter Jensen's 2010 Presidential Address models one way forward.

My prayer as I depart Sydney is that Moore College's new Centre for Christian Life does not get entirely high-jacked by the high-brow issues.

No doubt blokes who like punching other blokes need better biblical thinking too!

TOP 10 MINISTRY/LIFE BLOGS ON SYD ANG PUBLISHED IN 2010
1. The Christian and the Cage Fighter (8612 views)
2. Essential Jesus Bible Study #39 (7010 views)
3. Top 10 Best Australian Church Songs (5864 views)
4. How should a Christian vote? (5621 views)
5. Giving clergy a dressing down (4891 views)
6. Evidence-based decisions (4557 views)
7. The 10 most pressing issues for evangelical theology today (4490 views)
8. Bring me my burqa! (4309 views)
9. SRE: singing a better song (3809 views)
10. The one who is to come (3754 views)