Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life inside the Doughnut

I  suspect the experience of my own denomination in this corner of the world is not unique or isolated. A demographic map of its members through the last century or so would look like an expanding doughnut, matching the population shift from the inner city to the outer suburbs. The flagship churches of the denomination have gradually moved further from the city centre, with the growing churches at the outer urban fringes. The mission strategy and leadership structure has largely replicated the same approach which drove the inner city churches in the 18th century: focus on young families and children’s ministries, and let the population growth do the rest.

During this long period, declining churches in the inner city were shut down, and their properties sold off. Surviving churches struggled through the decline, with little in the way of resources and opportunities from traditional ministry approaches to refashion themselves for a new era. As generational change lead to people moving away from the inner city, these churches were maintained by a faithful remnant who only knew one way to be church.

No-one envisaged the residential return to the inner city that has unfolded over the past two decades. Town planners were largely unprepared, and churches with them. While the cities have undergone a massive renewal of infrastructure, many churches inside the doughnut find themselves with churches and ministry centres designed for ministry in the 18th century, and with ministry strategies best suited for communities filled with young families beginning their journey in new neighbourhoods.

Some important things considerations inside the doughnut:
·         Renewal of church infrastructure in the inner city is an expensive exercise, often complicated by heritage constraints. Inner city churches are often faced with a conundrum: in order to reach people in their community, they need to renew their infrastructure. However, due to the size of the church community they lack the financial resources to undertake this renewal. (As a side note, it is interesting to observe that most growing and vibrant churches have renewed their infrastructure in the previous decade. Cause/effect?)
·         Families in the inner city are a different demographic than those in the new dormitory suburbs. They are generally older, and have a stronger commitment to environmental and political concerns than their outer-urban cohort. It is likely they are more affluent and more highly educated also.
·         Risk and reward for inner-city ministry is often such that denominations are less likely to invest. New models of ministry need to be found, which makes choices between investing in the inner city (with its unproven track record for growth strategies) and in growth areas on the urban fringe a no-brainer for denominational resources.
·         Ministry training is largely focussed towards church-as-it-is, or at least a continuation of the trends which have been evident for decades.

In reality, an approach which appears to make the hole in the doughnut larger is not only dangerous, but one might suggest ultimately counter-productive. There ARE signs of re-emergence in inner suburbs and inner city around the world. But not only are the models of this re-emergence diverse, they are mostly very different from the models driving outer-suburban church plants. I suspect that the large majority of these re-emergent models are based in refurbished infrastructure.

An old adage offers wisdom: As you go through life, make this your goal: Keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. For the sake of the future, we have to look to the hole, lest the doughnut be lost altogether.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Democracy at work?

The cynicism of Winston Churchill in relation to democracy is legend: “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter,” being one comment reflecting his dissatisfaction with the process. Churchillian cynicism now appears more widespread in Australia in the wake of the results emerging from Saturday’s Senate elections. In a bizarre twist it seems that at least one candidate could find themselves sitting on the Senate cross-benches on the back of having won so few first preference votes that their deposit is might well have been at risk. The major parties are up in arms at the preference deals which are about to deliver a handful of seats – and the balance of power – to a group of people whose policy focus, if one has been developed at all, is narrower than the ballot paper which bore their name. Should we be concerned?

The instinctive reaction by the major parties to review the voting system ignores the fact that this is a system which has historically served to keep minor party representation to a minimum. If there is a lesson to be learned from the outcome, it is that the micro parties have learned how to use the system to their advantage, and the big kids aren’t enjoying having the sand kicked in their face. With the possible exception of New South Wales, where one in 12 voters clearly aren’t savvy enough to tell the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal National Party Coalition (maybe Churchill was right!), the large vote for micro parties is a clear statement against the parties which have long populated the parliamentary benches. Stitching up tight preference deals across this group has resulted in an aggregation of protest vote to bring an outcome no one predicted. While we might wring our hands at the election of people we know little about (and care little about), the outcome does represent a desire on the part of the electorate to turn its collective back on the Coalition and the ALP.

The new Senate brings with it an element of uncertainty not seen in the national parliament since, well, the last election. The difference this time is that the uncertainty has moved across the building from the green chamber to the Senate. Theoretically at least, it has made the job of legislating more complicated, evidenced by the media scrutiny of the position of these potential senators on such matters as paid parental leave and the carbon and mining taxes, amongst others. More telling, perhaps, is the unwillingness to ask whether these candidates will have the capacity to fulfil the community expectations of a Senator (roo-poo fights notwithstanding).

But there appears to be a consistency of message from the people to the parties in the parliament, one which expresses a deep discontent with their behaviour and policies. While the Coalition settles in to the seats of power, comforted by the expression of confidence in them to form government, a look to the red chairs of the Senate ought to provide as much food for thought them as does the warming of the opposition benches to the ALP.

Looking from the outside then, we could well ask whether we have we confected a problem which doesn’t exist? Is a system which results in the election people from outside the major parties to the Senate a point of concern, or something to celebrate? Are independents, even politically na├»ve views, not welcome on the floor of the Senate, let alone the corridors of power? An early scan of the policy statements of these potential Senators exposes views and ideas which I would oppose on many points, but isn’t that what the health of democracy is founded upon – the clash of ideas? Even if a Senator is elected on the back of 0.2% of the primary vote, to does reflect that our system of election is designed for exhaustive selection at the whim of the people. We do well to remember that it is not long ago that one of the major parties subverted the will of the people by replacing Senators who left the parliament with representatives from the opposition parties, which provided the platform for the dismissal of the elected government. To hear them now complaining that the system works against them (or, more expediently, against democracy) is ironic.

The Australian people have elected a Senate – perhaps unwittingly, even though intentionally – which reflects their unwillingness to trust the responsibilities of the Senate to the government of the day. Whilst there may be a case to examine the system of election, they would do well to examine the reasons why the electorate deliberately turned their backs on the major parties in the first place. Democracy has fired a warning shot across their collective bow.