29.11.13

Problems of Lutheran Evangelism in the Australian Context : The Beginning of the End

"Evangelism...is also a task for all churches of Australia. Perhaps it might be well first to look upon our country as a whole and upon our young and growing nation before we speak of the specific task of our own church. Church-life in this country is determined to a very great extent by the church-life in England, and so we may expect that the methods of evangelism in our sister-churches will be influenced from there. British Christianity is passing through a deep crisis. For the first time in the history of England there is a feeling that the Christian foundations of England are shaken. The process of de-Christianisation which on the continent is going on since generations begins to become a feature of modern British life. As in France, in Germany, in Sweden, the British family of the lower middle class ceases to go to church on Sunday. This does not mean that people want to sever the bond with the church. They want to be Christians. They abhor Russian atheism [i.e. Soviet Communism - Acro.]. But they simply fail to see why they should go to church regularly. There is no longer a real longing for the church. Church attendance was and is a custom, it is something which belongs to a respectable life. But now these old customs are dwindling with the changes of life. This then is the beginning of the end, as it was the beginning of the end on the continent."

From 'Problems of Lutheran Evangelism' , undated and uncopyrighted copy in Loehe Memorial Library, Adelaide.

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Comment - I suspect, from references within the text, that this was a speech given to a pastors' conference of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia and that it was written sometime in the early to mid 1950s, since there is no mention of the evangelistic campaigns of Billy Graham which took place in several Australian cities in 1956. For better or worse the visit of Graham, then at the high point of his popularity, was a very significant event in the lives of all the churches at the time and was to bring forth further theological reflection on evangelism in the Lutheran churches.

Since that time the influence of English Christianity here has declined somewhat (although it naturally remains strong among the Anglicans) and the influence of American forms of evangelical Christianity has grown. But certainly statistics and anecdotal evidence suggests that the English pattern Sasse describes of the  lower middle classes dropping-out of church attendance was paralleled in the decades post-WWII Australia, a period which saw the majority of the mainstream Protestant churches become the preserve of the educated, professional classes, which in turn was to lead to an increasing liberalisation of doctrine and practice culminating in the formation of the Uniting Church of Australia in 1977. The Uniting Church was a project begun by liberal Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists which optimistically aimed to unite all Protestant churches on a minimalist doctrinal platform. The reality is that it only succeeded in adding yet another denomination to the ecclesial mix which has been in numerical decline ever since.

The exceptions to this prevailing pattern in the 1950s-70s were, interestingly, the Roman Catholics (who retained a large working class participation), the Sydney Anglicans (doctrinally evangelical & practically evangelistic), Lutherans (an ethno-cultural minority with a relatively strong confessional unity; still largely a rural curch at the end of the war but about to establish numbers of suburban congregations in the great cities in the 1950s & '60s) and the sects.

More extracts to follow.


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