She is a bright thoughtful young priest, serving as curate in an urban Anglican parish. As part of her placement she was assigned the task of performing a detailed “Congregational Analysis,” of the church in which she shares in ministry, and a “Social Analysis” of the community in which the church is located.
In the process of exploring the wider community around the church she interviewed a number of community leaders. She asked a variety of questions attempting to discern what impression the church is making on the community at large. Most of the people to whom she spoke were unaware of what the church might do.
Asked whether there was anything that might bring these people into church, the most common perception she encountered was that,
You have to be a member to go into a church.
This statement illustrates the extraordinary gulf there is between the institution of church and the surrounding community. People outside the church view the church in the same light as I view my local Masonic Temple.
I am not a Mason. I do not understand Freemasonry, or have the slightest interest in becoming a Freemason. Masonic terminology is completely foreign to me; their ritual is a mystery.
It would never occur to me to think that I should gain access to the Masonic Temple; I am not a member. Why would I even think they should take me in, or want me in their group?
I am not antagonistic towards Freemasons. I do not object if they want to gather in their Temples and perform their ceremonies. Freemasonry simply does not register on my radar. It is not part of my culture.
For many people outside the church, church simply does not exist. If they hear us at all, they do not understand our language. If they ever encounter us, our world view is strange and alien to their experience.
I have officiated more times than I care to remember at a funeral, a wedding, or some peculiar civic occasion, looking out over a sea of faces, the vast majority of which register no recognition whatsoever of my words. It feels as if I might as well be speaking Swahili. There is a total disconnect.
I am the last Canadian generation in which most people have at least a vestigial memory of church.
I remember one of my daughters, when she was about ten years old, recounting the following conversation she had with one of her peers:
“What does your Dad do?”
“He’s a minister.”
“What does a minister do?”
“He preaches the sermon.”
“What’s a sermon?”
My daughter’s young friend came from a well-educated, sophisticated family. But, for her, the word “sermon” communicated nothing. Church and faith were as foreign territory to her as Freemasonry is to me.
When my daughter’s young friend became an adult, why would church ever figure in her world? What might ever cause her to even think of exploring the foreign territory that is church? How might the church ever create an opening that might cause her to imagine entering churchland?
There is no program I know that has the capacity to effectively bridge the gap between the majority of people for whom church is a blank and the tiny minority for whom Sunday worship is a regular practice. I am not convinced that tinkering with liturgy will do the trick. I doubt gimmicks or marketing will start a flood of people into our pews.
What is the bright young curate with her “Congregational Analysis” and her “Social Analysis” to do? What does the future hold for her ministry as the number of people who choose church continues to shrink?
Perhaps we need to shift our focus from trying to capture outsiders and hook them into church. Perhaps we need to turn our attention to nurturing and supporting the faith of those people God has brought to worship as part of our church community. Perhaps we need to work at empowering people to go out beyond the walls of the church to bear vibrant witness to the reality of God’s presence in their lives and in all the world.
It may be that we need to encourage those who choose to attend church to burn so brightly with the love of Christ, that his light may shine through them into those parts of world that will never be touched by the institution of the church.
The challenge in this vision is that its only hope of “success” is if it starts with the young curate. She will only be able to communicate a burning faith and trust in Christ, as this faith and trust burn brightly in her heart. Leaders can only hope to produce in others that which they already possess in their own lives.
So, I want to say to those who are starting out in ministry in churchland – nurture your faith. Spend time in prayer. Read the sacred texts of our tradition. Go on retreat. Nurture your spiritual life. Keep your heart open to God’s presence in your life. Listen for the Spirit.
Perhaps this will result in more people considering the possibility of making the journey through the church doors for worship. It may not. But, at least you will be sustained and strengthened for the journey of your life.