The disconnected church

26 November, 2013 — 21 Comments

My PhD thesis has been signed off and it is now public on the university’s online scholarly commons. It is called:

The disconnected church: a critical examination of the communication of the Christian church in New Zealand.

Below is the 500 word abstract from the start of the thesis which gives a concise picture of what it’s all about. If you’re interested in reading more, you can download the entire thesis from AUT here:


The Abstract

The purpose of my research is to investigate if and why some people outside of the church do not see relevance in the church, and to investigate if and why the church does not see relevance in the point of view of these people outside of the church.  This research project will explore the possibility that this is an instance of two separate groups of people who think they have the same concept in mind when they use the word “church” but may in fact hold entirely different ideas about what “church” is.  In other words this research investigates the issues around communication and the church, and is therefore situated in the communication problem.

My research is based on the proposition that the Christian church in New Zealand is maladapted to contemporary society.  By maladaptation I mean, specifically, that the church is failing to meet its own claim to be relevant, is failing to connect individual’s spirituality with their profane daily lives, and exhibits a diminishing capacity to manifest good in the world.  The purpose of this research is to use basic communication theory as the lens to identify and then prove this maladaptation, by first, in stage 1, seeking to discover how some people outside the church perceive the church.

I let the framework of critical studies guide my use of qualitative data gathering through in-depth semi-structured interviewing of people who have never had anything to do with the church, people I define as not being Christianised.  In order to narrow down my sample group, I interviewed people who self-defined themselves as being spiritual.  Through the process of thematic analysis nine “perceptions” of the church were uncovered, which were overwhelmingly negative.  In stage 2, I presented these nine perceptions to a selection of church leaders through the process of focus groups, in order to discover their reaction to how some people outside of the church perceive the church.  This identified a massive gap, or disconnect, in the way the people in each of these two research stages view themselves and each other.  The church representatives in stage 2 expose strong ingroup tendencies which may be negatively affecting the communication and work of the church.  They also expressed the difficulty they face as they identify as Christians in New Zealand.

I suggest two new labels to define the church and its communication (mission) connection within society: firstly, the “disconnected church” which through its modus operandi fosters the historical connection to the past era and attitude I define as Christendom.  A disconnected church (and disconnected Christians) struggle with the realities of how hard it actually is to be Christian, but they do not embrace the fact that many of the difficulties experienced through a negative response from society might actually be the result of how the church and Christians are being Christian.

My second new label is the “connected church”, which describes a church through which its modus operandi shows evidence of understanding and appreciation of the current context it finds itself in.  It therefore lives with the tension of both holding cultural change loosely enough to be able to evolve with changes such as leadership structures, community values, and philosophical influences such as post-modernity, as well as retaining theological and spiritual integrity in the essence of being Christian.

That’s it! If you’ve gotten through the abstract and are keen to read more, you can download the PDF here: or if you’re local, I’m happy to lend you a hard-copy.

Now that my thesis is finished, I’m keen to find ways in which it (and I) can be useful. Through my research I’ve been able to articulate some stuff that I think every (“western”) church could engage with as connections with local contexts are considered, or in other words, as “mission” engagement within society is explored.

My next project could be to make these ideas more accessible. I’ll start with a few blog posts on key themes and ideas.

So, what are your thoughts, ideas, critique?…

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  • Chris

    Hi Mike. “Well done” is my first thought. And second, I hope this can be widely accessed as an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about mission, church, connection, and all that stuff.

  • jonathanrobinson

    Hi Mike look forward to read this, and to the blog posts.

  • Rod Fleming

    Hi Mike. I will download and read. Love – Rod

    • Hi Rod – great, I’m keen to hear your thoughts.

  • Ruth Corlett

    Really important topic to be dissecting Mike. I love your descriptive labels of the disconnected and connected church, and look forward to hearing more of the practical ways that churches can actively connect with their communities, and with those outside the church in general.

  • Pete Ward

    Hi Mike looks great. Love you to do something for my new journal ecclesial practices. Email me if you are interested

  • Richard Goodwin

    Hi Mike,

    the abstract looks really interesting and I have downloaded the full thesis. Should have it read by tomorrow (Yeh right!)

    • Hi Richard – excellent! I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it.

  • Well done Dr Mike.

  • DrDon

    Hi Dr Mike and my sincere congratulations. I have downloaded the thesis this morning and have read the first three chapters. Excellent reading – good on you. I will keep any main comments until I finish reading it all. Needless to say, I have read many thoughts to my wife and everything so far resonates with my thoughts – even though I come from a different viewpoint. What I would like to ask is ‘acknowledging that prayer and trust in God is the only way to move mountains, how are you going to use what you have written to allow God to work through you to help push those mountains?’ Do not allow the mountains to push you to one side or to try to smother you.

    • Hi DrDon, and thank you for your encouraging feedback. You’ve got through 3 chapters! I think chapters 7-10 are the best…

      I have been wondering how this work might be useful, and have a few ideas, such as popularising some of it to make it more accessible to people interested in church and society engagement. I have had some feedback from church pastors who are interested in how churches might engage with this, so I am pondering that also.

      • DrDon

        Hi Mike. It has taken me about 10 hours to read the main body of your thesis (to the end of the Conclusions). Yes I agree – the remaining chapters got better and better. However, one must understand the background to appreciate the outcomes.

        My emotions by the end of the reading are what has taken the most hammering. As I previously said, I resonated with the literature reviews – especially comments about the current church institution. I felt deep sadness as I identified with the comments from your interviewees, yet much greater sadness at the apparent lack of interest from the focus groups. Feedback is feedback, and if it hurts, then that should only bring good – which it will if it is accepted as truth and there is love for those who give feedback.

        So where is the problem, why do people outside the church have such perceptions. Why do I as a church member of 40+ years resonate with these perceptions. Why do I hurt when I read of the reactions by the focus groups. Because basically I accept that I can understand where people (insiders and outsiders) are coming from. It is interesting to remember that the Mosaic law was given, not for people to keep (otherwise there would be no need for sin offerings), but in attempting to keep the law, people would become a testimony to how great God is. The Israelites were to communicate this testimony through their lives.

        Where then is the love that Christ commanded us to have toward our neighbour? Where is the teaching/instruction (and I do not mean preaching) that will help us to become accustomed to obeying Christ’s commands, where is the instruction that will show us how to discern truth from scripture for ourselves. Sadly I have an unsettling feeling that the institution we call the church will have to die before God can grow a new church from the ashes of the old.

        Why do I feel this way? – The answer is in your thesis.

        • Wow!! This comment of yours could be seen as a great commendation for my work. You mention your emotional response – which is understanding after reading 10 hours of what contains plenty of bad news. I think I have spent so much time with the material that I am fairly clinical about it now.

          With the questions you ask here, my hope is that many people will get to ask these questions and engage with them in meaningful ways within their own local contexts. One of the problems is the difficulties of the answers to those questions, for example, the early Baptists have been described as “radical disciples” (Martin Sutherland has even published a book about them with that title, 2010), but it’s hard to see many radical expressions of discipleship in 2013 Baptist expression.

          I’m delighted at your response – at the feeling and depth (and speed!) of your engagement with it.

          Starting with your questions here, I will start a list of questions from people who have engaged with my material and see what kind of picture ends up forming.

          What’s next do you think?

          • DrDon

            Mike – Your question “What’s next do you think?” both suggests that what has preceded this question has started a journey while at the same time seeking an answer as to the direction to take to continue the journey. With God and Scripture at the head and focus of this discussion, one must ask ‘has God clearly outlined the answer in Scripture’? The answer to that question must be ‘YES’.

            Some people would argue that what the church has been doing and continues to do is the right way forward, but perhaps to preach with more fervour. Yet, if the answer was that simple, then you would have no basis for your thesis, we would not have church attendance dropping, and we would not have people disconnecting with the church. Surely, that alone should cause people to ask questions. However, I am not surprised that people do not ask questions, or question what is being done, because years of preaching at people has trained people to be passive. Having said that, I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to defend the current practice of preaching to a passive audience; using Scripture and rigorous study/research principles. Don’t just pick a verse and use it to argue some dogma.

            The church’s greatest resource is the people, not the leadership, nor the academic institutions. Jesus did not say ‘train up leaders’, he did not say ‘build institutions of learning’, he did not say ‘build church buildings’! He said ‘teach my disciples to obey my commands.’ Paul followed that up with urging his readers to be transformed through the renewing of their minds. Both these mirror the reason why Moses was instructed by God to not just tell people the Law, but show the people how to obey the Law.

            If we are to create an environment where people can become actively engaged in learning what God is saying through His Scripture (and hence become transformed), then loving others must become the focus, doing what Jesus did when at the temple (age 12) and with his disciples (Gospels). Jesus’ disciples were empowered to continue the work he had started through interactive, small-group relationships.

            The way forward? After a lifetime of helping people be transformed by the renewing of their minds, I don’t need to think what I would do. I know my approach would be to provide many more opportunities for people to be interactively involved in the church community meetings so they can learn how be like Jesus in the real world of life – and in doing so, worship God through their lives 24/7.

            Referring to Appendix R of your thesis: the last thing I would have done would be to drop the breakfast fellowship times – I would have removed those things that are preventing people connecting with God (just like Jesus did) by overturning the music amplifiers and the pulpit.

          • Hi DrDon – I’m enjoying reading your engagement with my thesis and seeing that you have already thought a lot about some of the things I look at. This is encouraging.

            I also love your contemporary application of the money-making in the temple…

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  • Tim Hodge

    Hi Mike
    Thanks for making your work available. It’ll be good to read through. I’m already struck by your experience on page 9 with students near a uni wanting to do a ‘survey’ with you, and you felt, quite rightly, conned.
    I’m so frustrated with that. Why some sections of the church persist with the old ‘switch and bait’ rather than being transparent is very frustrating, and it makes other parts of the church think that ‘evangelism’ and ‘mission’ IS that deceitful ‘switch and bait’. Completely against 2 Cor 4:2 and completely overlooking God’s sovereignty in bringing people to himself. * Sigh *
    Still – braced for more empathetic frustration with you as I read your hard work. Looking forward to it!

    • Hi Tim, and nice to hear from you!
      It’s nice to be able to share the frustration, and I look forward to hearing more of your response and reaction to my work.

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