Those of us who find a place in church, have no position from which to critique anyone for whom church is not a useful formulation.

So, it is important to note that, although I may offer arguments that seem to favour the enterprise of church, I am equally critical of the organization in which I have served for over four decades. And, please do not think that I am in any way implying that people who do not feel drawn to attend church, lack all sense of mystery, beauty, or truth in their lives. Many people outside of the structures of church do live profoundly spiritual lives. They practice community and honour mystery and beauty. They seek to grow in their ability to love and often have regular devotional practices that do not depend on any institutional imprimatur or look to any external authority for validation.

There are no non-spiritual beings in the human race. Some people may not acknowledge or even perceive the spiritual dimension of life. But many other people do affirm a deeper dimension to existence but simply experience no draw to express their spirituality in a formal faith group. And of course, a shrinking number of people find our awareness of the spiritual dimension of life nurtured and deepened by participation in the corporate life of a faith community.

There are exceptions but most us who do engage in some expression of institutional religion, grew up within a context of institutional religion. We find a place in church because we were taken to church as children. It is part of our heritage. We may switch our allegiance, but almost no one chooses church from a complete vacuum. In a society in which increasingly the majority of people lack even the slightest background in institutional religion, the path to growth for churches or even maintaining the status quo, climbs an almost impossibly steep hill.

In the church community in which I serve, we have worked hard at being accessible to the wider community. We have provided opportunities for hundreds of people to cross the threshold. We have hosted benefit concerts, art shows, speech arts festivals, music recitals and a regular pre-school. We have provided space for electoral polling stations, alternative spirituality groups, annual children’s summer day camps, and a variety of workshops and public lectures that appeal to a broad cross section of the wider community. We have been involved in many acts of service to people in need outside our church enclave. We have provided multiple end-of-life observances and weddings for outsiders, and have warmly welcomed regular visitors drawn by either romance, relational pressure, or social demand to occasionally worship in our midst. We have created off-site or outdoor opportunities to build bridges with the wider community through musical offerings outside the church, a labyrinth on our lawn, a regular Spirituality Cafe, Theology On Tap, and outdoor social gatherings aimed at welcoming our neighours. We have had great, often long-term, relationships with the people involved in many of these activities. We never entered into these relationships with any intention that they should be used as recruiting tools. I do not believe anyone who has entered our building has ever felt pressured to sign on to our program. We only wanted to serve the community and be available to people outside of church.

But, I am surprised when I look out on a Sunday morning, to find that I do not believe I can identify a single person who has made a lasting Sunday connection with our church simply because of the availability of our building or the attraction of any single program or event we have offered.

I have to conclude that recruiting from a body of people who have no church culture in a society for which the practice of church is increasingly unfamiliar is unlikely to ever return institutional religion to the numerical strength it had fifty years ago. And I need to be ok with this. The desire for numerical strength is a self-serving motivation that falls far short of the call to be church.

While continuing to do all we can to reduce any unnecessary hurdles that impede people connecting with church, we need to focus on being church alongside those people who freely choose to worship as part of our community. We need to conduct ourselves with authenticity and integrity, never resorting to manipulation, guilt, judgment, or shame, in an attempt to pressure anyone into more involvement that feels right. While remaining deeply sensitive to those outside the church, we need to liberate ourselves from the burden of feeling it is our job to get them to join us.

Becoming free of the determination to recruit, may result in continued numerical decline. This may make it hard for us to fund our life as a community to the level with which we have become accustomed. So, we need to deepen our trust in the Spirit who moves among us and manifests in ways that may be unfamiliar. The presence of God is not confined to the familiar. If Jesus showed us anything, he showed that the Spirit is in the business of manifesting in ways that are unexpected and unfamiliar to those who sometimes thought they were the only, or at least the primary, instruments of God’s work in the world. God may be doing a new thing. It would be sad if, because we are so determined to maintain the things God has done in the past, we miss the fresh wind of the Spirit blowing in unfamiliar terrain beyond our familiar structures.