Book Review: Two Elephants in the Room by John Bodycomb

Two Elephants in the Room: Evolving Christianity and Leadership, John Bodycomb, 2018, Spectrum Publications Pty Ltd, Richmond, Victoria.

John Bodycomb clearly has a long experience at the workface of the church and its ministry. His sociological, teaching and ministry skills are obvious in this short thesis on the two most significant elements challenging organised religion. He also demonstrates a wonderful sense of humour that ‘thinking’ readers will enjoy. He needs to be heard and responded to.
The two elephants:
• The future of organised religion in western society, and
• The future of professional ministry
are apparent at a time in Australia when the consensus is moving towards ‘no religion’ in their lives. Indifference to organised religion is steadily increasing. At the same time many young people still believe there is more to life than the material and view being ‘spiritual’ with its multiple meanings as a transcendent dimension that takes them to a higher experience of life.

Drawing on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and motivation research, he explains why some people stay with the church and that here is a key element for church leaders to note when looking for answers to how to grow the church. What has intrinsic worth in our lives today is very different from that of previous generations. This includes ‘ethical axioms’ that no longer produce this ‘transcendence’. Nevertheless, Bodycomb is able to identify real benefits to people engaging with organised religion. He offers 12 fascinating ‘benefits’ that effective churches demonstrate, including:
• Developing proficiency in relating socially – getting along with others
• An aid to an effective ‘inner gyroscope’ – enabling one to preserve a placid interior, undisturbed by outside buffeting
• Bringing ‘inklings’ of transcendence through music, philosophy and theology.

But Bodycomb emphasizes that the intangible benefits for ‘living life to the full’, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching, is dependent on the inventiveness of the local church. The church needs to be a thinking institution. He sees the greatest risk to the church is its tendency to discourage thinking. Theology needs to be re-invented, re-defined. ‘God talk’ has been manufactured. Doctrines need to undergo close critical deconstruction and theological colleges need to open up this discourse and encourage it.

Whilst Bodycomb has seen the expiration of the church as we know it, he insists that the great ‘existential’ questions will still exercise minds e.g. Is there anything to describe as ‘transcendence’ beyond what we can physically see? “Is G-O-D a fantasy or …. a reality?” What is G-O-D? Like Spong, Bodycomb sees the imperatives for change – without evolution we will witness extinction of organised religion. Evolution has been going on since the European Renaissance and the Reformation, but change has always been met with counter movements to restore the ‘authority’ of the church. This is no longer working. Consequences of massive socio-cultural changes are no longer able to be stopped. The ‘back to orthodoxy’ movement is alive but now only impacting on a slim minority.

Bodycomb identifies the key adaptive responses as cerebral and visceral with the former being adopted by ‘progressives’ and the latter by those who are still holding onto unquestioning fundamentalism. He has a long history of asking questions about theological education and has challenged the theological colleges with learning lessons from Tillich and others who knew the value of pastoral ministry over having the ‘right’ theology. His ideas about church today should be heard and acted on. What he says makes so much sense and, if acted on, would re-connect the church with the secular world. His 10 disincentives and 10 incentives to consider when going into ministry today are critical lessons to all church teachers and ministry mentors. His model for moving ministry into a sphere of relating to the world and its pressing needs stands as a credible guide that should be informing training programs.

This thesis could have been titled – Asking the Right Questions about the Church and its Leadership. It has convinced me that the church enterprise needs urgently to move from its ‘maintenance’ model to an urgent energetic response to a world that needs help with massive life-threatening problems.

The author: Rev. Dr John Bodycomb is a Melbourne-based minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He retired in 1996 after forty years as parish minister, Christian educator, University Ecumenical Chaplain and former head of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall in Melbourne. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his promotion of religious freedom and to fostering ecumenism.

Reviewer: Dr Paul Inglis, 8th October 2018
Retired UCA Community Minister
Retired Academic, QUT Faculty of Education
CEO UC Forum – https://ucforum.unitingchurch.org.au

Where to purchase: Spectrum Publications

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