A small fish in a big pond

Just over 12 months ago I left the rugby heartland of NSW to move to South Australia.

Previously the sport section of the nightly news featured any number of Rugby updates, from Izzy’s latest antics on social media and Kurtley’s party tactics to the scores, injury updates and Wallaby woes I’d grown accustomed to over 30 years in NSW.

Now, flick on the TV and it’s wall to wall AFL (well Aussie rules to be precise, the SANFL is almost bigger than AFL down here). Who is in, who is out. Odds. Interviews with players who were around before decimal currency. It’s a major adjustment.

I’ve hooked in with the local rugby community down here, which is around the same size and quality I was used to in the Illawarra. It’s great to spend time with likeminded men and women who love Rugby. But in many respects we are incredibly small fish in the sporting landscape in South Australia.

It’s fascinating the difference in the way Rugby is marketed, positioned and sold as a non-dominant subculture. Incredibly there is a novelty factor with rugby that just doesn’t exist in the eastern states. It changes the way you operate as an organisation, attractional models that would be successful elsewhere don’t and can’t here.

The fascinating thing is though, Rugby in South Australia is growing. Player, referee and volunteer numbers are on the improve. This non-dominate subculture of the sporting landscape has a place and is thriving. But it is not being grown in traditional ways we’d expect. Eastern states methods don’t work particularly well here, it’s why a new approach is being used and is working.

There are more similarities than i would like to admit with the Christian Church at the moment. It is a well established theory that Christendom (the period of time where Christians formed and shaped the dominant culture) is dead and buried. This seams to be true of the west, with religion as a whole, but Christianity specifically, being pushed to the fringes of society. The church has seemingly moved states from dominant to non-dominate in culture. Because of the subtle change over time, many churches are declaring there is ‘nothing to see here’, lets just keep doing the old tried and tested methods of growth that always used to work.

For better, or worse (depending on your framework) the dominant Christian worldview which once existed, interacts differently with society now. It’s my view that we can take a leaf out of Rugby Union South Australia’s book and explore innovation, novelty, and previously untried methods of growth. Or, we can continue to decline, insisting the tired (I mean tried) and true method will prevail.

Culture is a funny thing, hard to define, but easy to see. Incredibly hard to change when it’s set in its ways. However, like so many things in nature, the choice is either adapt or die.

Now you might be thinking, surely the church needs to be unchanging. If anyone has to be inflexible it’s the church. I often hear this objection in any discussion of change in a church context. The heart behind the objection is flexibility of culture can lead to flexibility of conviction. But I wholeheartedly refute this. The church needs to have unswerving convictions and commitment to the risen Lord Jesus. But their methods of communication can vary as widely as the earth. Just because you adjust the method, don’t mean you are changing the message.

RUSA (Rugby Union South Australia) communicates rugby to South Australia. No matter how much they want to attract new players, they will never give up a basic commitment to the sport. They are not going to embrace changes to the rules of Rugby to make it more like AFL even if it means more engagement.

The Church communicates Jesus to the World. No matter how much they want to attract new converts, they will never give up a basic commitment to Jesus. They are not going to change the rules to make it look more like society even if it means more engagement.

And so, like so many frustrating conversations, this comes to an end with a plea. Don’t confuse convictions with communication. The method is not the message.

So if you are inside the church, be flexible with the method, understand that change is not the enemy. Communicating Jesus is what is important. Giving up the method is not giving up the gospel.

And if you are outside the church, don’t insist on flexibility of the message. If you don’t like Jesus, walk away. That is the privilege of being in the dominant culture. Critique the method all you like, and you never know, you might unwittingly be helping a church more effectively reach their mission.

And Rugby Union South Australia, keep up the good work.

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