There's a narrative that many churches in Canada are hearing on a consistent basis – we are in decline. Earlier this year I presented a paper at the Wesley Studies Symposium, sponsored by Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, ON. Here are few excerpts...
Last year, James Emory White commented on a Canadian report from Alpha Canada and Flourishing Congregations Institute. White is a former president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary. He says, “The church is in decline because we are turned inward instead of outward. Our hearts are not breaking for what breaks the heart of God, which is people facing a Christ-less eternity. And sadly, only a simple “invite” is all that is often needed: “Come and see, come and hear, come and explore.”
The antidote that I hear in much of this narrative of decline, is that “we need to do something.” WE need to DO something. White says we just need to “invite people.” We need to turn outward instead of inward. Others say we just need to pray more. Or just modify our orthodox theology. And then our congregations will be thriving again, people will love us again, we will be relevant again. And then we will return to the place of privilege/influence in Canadian society (if that were ever true). But is that really the goal?
“We are becoming a secular society. The church is in decline, we are losing our voice in the public space, and we must do something about it.” That is the word of caution and concern that we are hearing.
That’s the backdrop, now let me take you on a brief journey of reflection. More than 40 years ago, Malcolm Muggeridge, British journalist and social analyst, delivered a lecture at the U of Waterloo. The lecture was published as The End of Christendom. He was describing social circumstances that were contributing to the decline of Christendom in western society. I remember reading at the time, this statement: “in these circumstances why should anyone expect Christendom to go on forever, or see in its impending collapse a cosmic catastrophe?” Coupled with this pessimistic reflection, he offered this optimistic word, “amidst the shambles of a fallen Christendom, I feel a renewed confidence in the light of the Christian revelation with which it first began.”
Muggeridge then suggests where his renewed confidence comes from – the thriving of Christian faith and community in locations where it has been most repressed -- in his historical context (1978), the underground church in Communist Russia. His conclusions: “let us then, as Christians, rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of the institutions and instruments of power… For it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming… it’s then that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm.”
Muggeridge was describing the impact of modernity upon inherited forms of Christian expression, suggesting that decline might not be a bad thing.
In a recent article in Faith Today, Canadian church consultants, Chris Bosch and Lon Wong commented, “There are megatrends, like the decline of Christianity in Canada, that a local church can’t do anything about, … Just as death is a natural part of human life, it is part of life for churches. Churches have come and gone in different regions of the world, but that doesn’t mean the faith is irrelevant or all is lost.” They go on to say, “A healthy church can benefit from asking questions about why it exists.”
Not what should we do, or how should we do it, but why do we exist? Why does this “called-out” community of Christian believers exist? That’s a question I reflect on fairly frequently. Not out of a sense of despair regarding the future, but to continually adjust my focus, when things are getting blurred by this narrative of concern or that strategic planning exercise.
Charles Taylor talks about the importance of social imaginary, or the articulation of a story, a narrative, that shapes who we are and where we want to go, what we are trying to bring about.
If I was continually reflecting on the narrative of decline, that would probably lead to despair. If I was continually reflecting on the narrative of “we have got to do something!”, that could very easily lead to burnout.
In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus laments (denounces) the towns that were unresponsive to his ministry, including Capernaum where he had invested significant time. He carries on in verses 25-30, “I praise you Father… because you have hidden these things from the learned and the wise and revealed them to little children.” He concludes with, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”
I hear a narrative in this passage. “All my energy invested there had limited results. The Father reveals to whom he chooses to reveal, and these (disciples) are the ones he gave me. Come to me and I will give you rest. If you work with me, the work is easy and the burden is light.” That’s an alternative narrative to, -- “you’re not being effective, so speed up and do something.”
So here’s my alternative Wesleyan narrative. It’s not a formula, but a story I tell myself that centres my call to ministry in these times.
We are living in challenging times, as a minority people, in a society from which God seems to be absent, and most people are fine with that. My task as a spiritual leader is to equip, to prepare, the congregation that I serve for their daily, ministry interface within this set of circumstances in which we find ourselves. To aid our daily ministry,
- we need to experience the living, resurrected Christ as present in our lives; that we are being healed and made whole as we surrender our lives, increasingly, to the renovating work of the Spirit;
- we need to experience the encouraging, Spirit-directed promptings of our brothers and sisters in Christ as life-giving, as necessary, something we can’t do without;
- we need to experience opportunities for engaging with, perhaps serving, those who are different from ourselves (age, gender, education, language, culture, economic position, life-stage), because Christ will meet us in those encounters, in ways we cannot imagine.
In short, we exist to affirm that the living God is not absent from our society, and that truth impacts how we live our lives. As we do this, we bear faithful witness.