I’ve been feeling a little down today as a few thoughts in my head coalesce. I feel a perfect storm is coming, a revelation of what our society is really like under the surface. The following is a little melancholy – be warned!

What are the winds that make this storm?

First, we have a rapidly ageing workforce, and a majority of the population will be beyond working age. Two major consequences flow from this: 1) that there will be less tax dollars to fund human services such as mental health, community development, youth work, family support etc; 2) a generation which is, in general, more likely to serve the community, is going to disappear soon.

Second, my wife came back from a work conference at which a Department of Human Services (DHS) senior bureaucrat foresaw the withering of the welfare sector as the financial crisis that is currently engulfing Europe inevitably finds its way to Australia. Funding to nonprofits and human services will be cut drastically, with the idea of the Big Society coming to the fore. The Big Society is a UK policy of devolution of responsibility for communities to the local level. Usually, I am all for a such a redistribution of power to the local level: it gives responsibility and ownership to people on the ground, who know what their community’s need. My first thought was – that’s great that the financial crisis has stimulated such a creative policy.

But then the crunch came.

Mark Sayers spoke at “Heartland”, a Christian youth work training event organised by Praxis and others in Bendigo. There, he mapped the cultural terrain that youth workers need to navigate. Mark’s main point is that youth and young adults approach life from a consumer perspective. That is, choices of all descriptions (phone, job, education, church, relationships) are re-framed in terms of what is good for the individual. The arena of decision-making has become the individual, rather than the community. Mark gave a rousing challenge to us there, to model wholehearted commitment to the cause of the reign of God.

You might be able to see the connections I’m making here. The factors of ageing population and financial crisis/Big Society require a new generation of people committed to the common good, who make decisions within that orbit rather than their personal needs. Great! But the pervasiveness of a consumerist worldview, across most of the population, means that people generally have a consumer approach to community service. I’ll do this homework club until I get bored; I’ll read to these kids until their parents frustrate me; I’ll visit the nursing home for as long as it’s ‘rewarding’; I’ll mentor those young people until I get a job offer interstate.  This consumer approach to community service doesn’t build a community, it undermines it. Let me say that this attitude is not limited to young people and young adults.

What is needed? A body of people committed to the wellbeing of others and the community beyond personal comfort, whose source of motivation comes from beyond what others can give me. Sounds like the Church. Jesus Christ’s outright denial of a culture of reciprocity, which consumerism relies on (I’ll buy this if it gets me that; I’ll participate if I get X), is the good soil in which commitment to the common good can be fostered. And here is where I get alternately despondent and hopeful. On the one hand, the Church is withering away in Australia, and its numerically successful instances often rely on consumerism. On the other hand, there is a new movement of Christians excited about mission, pouring energy into their neighbours, schools, workplaces and communal institutions – that gives me courage!

However, if this ethic of community service doesn’t get passed on, and if the Church’s better angels don’t win out, and if the welfare sector we have contracted to do our dirty work for us is simply not there to hold back the tide, what’s going to happen? Wholesale breakdown of society. I’m not usually given to hyperbole, but I don’t see another option. Feel free to provide a more hopeful one.

In that day, the oddest book in the Bible, Revelation, will become eerily sensible. When humanity is stripped bare, when all the props have been knocked out, all that we have left is “patient endurance”. The book of Revelation advocates that the Church be the Church – if we allow God to shape us into that Church, there’s some hope.