Re-membering that “This is that”: The Importance of historical perspective in building Christian communities

By February 24, 2017Articles

One of the significant challenges to Pentecostal churches in the present is precisely that – our addiction to the present. Almost any cost is, within the value system of our churches, worth bearing as long as change and relevance are attained.  Whilever we live in the shadow of the mainstream Christian traditions, which seem to be shrinking around us, there is no doubt that this idea will continue to be plausible. Speaking recently to a key administrator in one of those mainstream traditions, it was suggested to me that nearly half of their churches in the Sydney area would cease to exist over the next 10 years, in part because their members are passionately connected to their traditions. Being unwilling to change can be a fatal attraction in a rapidly changing world.

This belief – that change and the new will see us succeed into the future – therefore, is plausible – but is it in fact true? There is good evidence that the by-word of the actual present in which our churches are operating is no longer (just) ‘the new’. As Hugh Mackay has noted (Advance Australia … Where?, 2007; The Art of Belonging, 2014), people have a “deep need to connect, to belong, to be taken seriously by others and accepted by them”[i] which is translating into new forms of tribalism specifically designed to moderate, mediate or even deny forces towards change.  The proliferation of 19th Century beard styles on the streets of Newtown are one pointer in that direction: the upswing of popularist conservative politics is another. The fact that the voting patterns of the former differ from the latter does not change the basic fact: people of all kinds in our society are responding to a deeper crisis of the social self, leading to a rejection of the new. Why is this so, and what are the consequences for our churches?

The main reason for this sort of backlash is the fact that ‘change’ itself has become institutionalised and led by class interests which are increasingly apparent to the ‘commuter on the Clapham omnibus’.  After a while, even that handsome, well-educated and suitably multicultural Muslim presenter on The Project appears on the front cover of GQ, is nominated the ‘no. 1 most culturally powerful commentator’ in the country[ii] and starts winning awards. He becomes, in other words, observably part of ‘the system’ (which, I have pointed out elsewhere, bears an uncanny resemblance to the unquestioned virtues of the secular Welfare state).[iii] Too much change and the strings become apparent to those marginalized in the process. The marginalized then begin to look for alternatives: some choose cultural/ religious approaches to community building, others tick the box for Pauline Hanson in the privacy of the electoral booth. The aforesaid commentariat then run around flapping their hands and expressing shock at how unexpectedly racist (or conservative, or uneducated, or … insert key unquestioned public value here.]

Churches are not immune to such trends. In a recent paper, I pointed out that the trend within our largest churches indicated a 20 year transition across the 1980s and 1990s from individual charismatic leadership to organizational charisma and increasing bureaucratization.[iv] (This is a ‘normative’ pathway of development for new religious movements, albeit with unpredictable twists and wrinkles to it. As David Martin has noted, Pentecostalism has followed Methodism in almost all other aspects in its escape into the global, why should it be exempt from the perils of increasing respectability as well?) The result is an institutional dilemma: how does the culture of the ‘new’ manage change when its institutional forms and founders age, and in effect become a tradition in and of itself? Foundational German sociologist, Max Weber, has a solution. In pointing to the variety of forms of authority which are common in human societies, he notes that ‘charismatic’ authority is only one of a range of possible organizational forms. Others include ‘rational bureaucratic’ and ‘traditional’ forms. In a culture of inevitable and rapid change, organisations are much more adaptive if they have at hand not just one form of authority (‘the charismatic’), but if they can also draw upon efficient systems (‘rational bureaucratic’) and that deep sense of belonging which comes with the new tribalism (‘traditional authority’ – or ‘that’s just the way we do things around here’). Is it possible that Pentecostals could adopt the right mix of rational bureaucratic and traditional forms of authority in addition to the charismatic?

There is plenty of evidence of maladaptive behaviours in Christian churches today.  Change cannot simply be adopted: it must be managed.  This means that tradition (even if it is only 20 years old!) is a real force, which can be dealt with well or plain mismanaged. Denominational administrators are more than ever subject to considering the rights and perspectives of the members who sit in their churches.  If they proceed with a blind ‘cut and paste’ approach to managing change, the consequences can be catastrophic. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is, in this regard, both a terrible testimony to the ‘good intentions’ of many corrupted by the self-absorption of the minority, and evidence as to how badly church (and club, and school, and NGO and… well, you get the idea) leaders can misread the shifting legal, moral and social norms of their times. Historians of the future will, there is little doubt, write this chapter of Australian Church History as a major reorientation in the relationships between church and state.  This level of professional and bureaucratic compliance and scrutiny is the new normal: get used to it. The age of the untrammeled charismatic hero is over.

The fact that this has not sunk in yet can be seen in the way that some church leaders mishandle authority.  While our movement continues to grow at the ‘top end’ (ie. The megachurches), and there is some churchplanting at the bottom end, the broad middle of ACC churches is struggling.  While some of this relates to mundane things (such as the impact of the motor car, the price of Sydney real estate, or the ceaseless culture of comparisons with being able to be virtually present to major ministries anywhere in the [globalized] world), some of it relates to purely bad leadership. As Robin Gill noted in his Myth of the Empty Church, rapidly growing revivalist movements run into intergenerational problems of building and leadership replacement: as they continue to build for and train for (in the midst of contextual and organizational change) the conditions in which they were founded. They then hit crisis point, and either fail to change or step out of their strengths into innovations which see them swallowed by the zeitgeist. They fail, in other words, to innovatively adapt their histories, so they can build continuing identity while allowing to pass that which is of purely heritage value.

Tradition is not everything – but neither is it nothing. Leaders ignore it at their peril. History, as the art of interrogating the past through the questions of the present, is an art precisely calibrated to facilitate the ‘management of change’. It is, unfortunately, also an art which (while much appreciated among the grey nomads) has slipped out of the realm of professional skills and into the category of ‘leisure pursuits’.  The profound historical ignorance in our pulpits is staggering. Pastors may trouble themselves with church history when they come to reflect on their legacy—in other words, largely when it is too late to do anything about it. Along the way, they have pressed the Pavlovian reset button on their church cultures with little regard to what is lost in the process. When they finally get around to writing up their memoirs, on the end of the pier while fishing, all the records and broader communal memories which would have enabled the construction of a useful heritage has been tossed into a skip or antagonised into walking out the door. Having been complicit in the destruction of useful community identities for others, it is too late, quite often, to appeal to how history will, in fact, see us.

So, what are some of the things which can be done to promote more effective churches by re-balancing the types of authority to which we appeal?  How can we, in short, integrate historical awareness into our contextual interpretation and action? A couple of things come to mind:

  1. Prepare yourself. In a world where, if your audience doesn’t know better than you, then they will in about five Google minutes, the nature of categorical statements is much relativized. Leaders no longer lead because they know better – they lead because their audiences recognise in them the ability to take them some place where the members themselves can become better. The 1970s was a time when there was something to be gained by sweating every inference out of a bible verse, and arguing the toss over interpretations.  No longer.  A better preparation would be to read broadly, and come to know the broad rhythms of how it is we got to here. This is the core of effective apologetics: to be able to identify what is being said, and why it is being said by this person, in this now. Inevitably, a good basic historical knowledge is the key to that.
  2. Learn to listen: When a person starts a discussion with “you know, in my grandfather’s day, the pulpit was facing the other direction”, you have a choice. Either you can say, “Well, guess what? Grandad is dead, and I’m running the show now”, or you can say, “Really, I guess they did that because they were committed to effective witness. Tell me about your grandfather’s love for Jesus.” The former forces the leader to exert either charismatic or rational/ legal dominance – undermining the former (by forcing the science of the future to dress itself in the ordinary vestments of the present), or spending the latter’s vital social capital resources on a minor encounter when it could be better spent Learning to speak the language of place, tradition, and to identify the missional core embedded in it, wins followers (you care for what they care for) and invests leaders with prophetic status. When Peter stands up and proclaims “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass…” (Acts 2: 16-17), he bases the authority of the present on a literary and charismatic moment from the past. At that time, empowered by the Spirit, he moves from being a defeated champion of a dead messiah to the embodiment of God’s plan surging through history. But you have to know your history first…
  3. Capture and interpret the past for the present: If you have older people with memories, set up some projects for younger people to speak with them in front of a microphone. Not only do you build intergenerational unity, but you have a resource which can be digitally stored in perpetuity and used for other things. Buildings, so much the focus of leaders’ ‘bid for the future’, come and go… an embedded, historic mission taught well, however, continues to have great power generation after generation. Borrow and digitize photos, capture funeral orations and eulogies, and appoint a volunteer in your church to do it.  Storage is cheap and perpetual these days – a great [If you would like some advice on setting up such projects in your church, contact Ben Harris at the Australasian Pentecostal Heritage Centre here at AC. He’d be happy to talk you through a simple plan.]
  4. Develop future vision on the basis of past values. When pitching vision, as Dr Ian Jagelman here at AC notes, it is essential to remember that “people follow a plan, leaders follow a vision”. In other words, vision without substance doesn’t work. It needs a place to stand. For those listening to you, the most powerful thing you can do is point out how this present is the fulfilment of visions of the past.

A good friend and former student of mine tells the story of running an Easter event which got a little out of hand. Many hundreds of people over the seating capacity of their venue turned up to their advertised event. So, what did he do? Tell them to go home, disgruntled at the poor organization (bureaucratic) and vision (charismatic) of the Church? No, he stood up out in the forecourt of the venue with a microphone and declared to those denied entrance that they were the fulfilment of the dreams of those who had planted the church decades before: that the church would grow so fast that the buildings they had would not contain the growth.  He then led them into worship, and… well, the rest is, as they say, history.

The point is, that if one is banging away on a limited range of authority (be it charismatic, rational/ legal, or traditional), the result will inevitably be a drained account of “good will”, disgruntled members, and powerless leadership. Authority is a gift to be used sparingly. Tradition is an implicit form of authority which is expressed well if you know and can express your history in ways which sing in the hearts of your community.  Prepare, listen, capture and develop… these are steps to a more powerful engagement with the present through a better comprehension of the past.


About the author: Mark Hutchinson is Dean of Education, Arts, and Social Sciences at Alphacrucis college, and Professor of History and Society.


[i] “Hugh Mackay on the power of the tribe”,

[ii] “The 15 most culturally powerful people in Australia in 2016” Read more:

[iii] ‘Fools and Fundamentalists: The Institutional Dilemmas of Australian Pentecostalism’, in H. Hunter and N. Ormerod (eds), The Many Faces of Global Pentecostalism, Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2013.

[iv] “‘Just up the Windsor Road’: Social complexity, geographies of emotion and the rise of Hillsong”, in T. Riches and T. Wagner, “You Call Me Out Upon The Waters”: Perspectives on the Hillsong Movement, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 (forthcoming)