‘An undercurrent of growth’: Making a church of disciples in a secular age

Top: St. Anne’s six founding parishioners along with visiting clergy and members of the Port Franks community pose for a photo after the official reconsecration service.Bottom left:Five new members of St. Anne’s hold candles after their baptismal welcome. In its first year, the church grew from a congregation of six to 35.Bottom right:The lay leaders of St. Anne’s did much of the renovation work for the building, which had been unoccupied since 2008, do-it-yourself style PHOTOS: CONTRIBUTED
Published December 14, 2022

First instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This month’s call: Mission and Evangelism.

The call on mission and evangelism from last summer’s Lambeth Conference charges the Anglican Communion to discern the needs of its communities and find ways to respond to them by lovingly sharing the gospel of Christ. In an address on the call to the conference’s assembled bishops, Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell likened discipleship to the end-product of the work of the church.

“McDonald’s makes hamburgers. Cadbury’s make chocolate. Starbucks make coffee … and the Church of Jesus Christ makes disciples. And disciples make peace,” he said.

Similarly, in an address to Sacred Circle in 2018, then-national Indigenous Anglican archbishop Mark MacDonald spoke of the need for the Indigenous church to make disciples rather than mere members of the church as the only way it could really make a difference in Indigenous communities; and one of the seven guiding principles outlined in the Indigenous church’s Covenant is “to nurture and foster the spiritual formation of others.”

Cottrell told the Lambeth assembly that the gospel is full of good news for a world replete with division, fear and loss, but in much of the Western world especially, Anglicans have lost the knack of sharing it. “That’s such good news. And we have been so good, particularly in the North and the West, at keeping it to ourselves,” he said. “Let’s resolve today to change that.”

In an interview with the Journal about declining membership in the church, the Rev. Peter Misiaszek, director of stewardship and development for the diocese of Toronto, says the Anglican Church of Canada is suffering from a similar problem.

“We don’t have it in our DNA, in the most recent generations, to be proselytizing publically,” he says.

While the overall membership of the church both nationally and in Toronto is on the decline, Misiaszek sees what he calls an “undercurrent of growth” in Toronto’s numbers. The pandemic years have thrown the numbers into disarray, he says. But as of 2019, 20 per cent of parishes in Toronto were stable and 30 per cent were actually growing.

In a 2020 doctorate of ministry thesis called Bucking the Trend, the Rev. Grayhame Bowcott examined parishes in the dioceses of Toronto and Huron and found similar results. While both dioceses had deconsecrated numerous parishes over the past two decades—Huron 57 between 2007 and 2017 and Toronto 64 between 2001 and 2017—both also had some growing parishes.

One common difference between these parishes and their neighbours was what Bowcott’s thesis describes as their “local theologies”—that is, the beliefs of their clergy, lay leaders and congregations that define the way they see key elements of church life: mission, worship and—especially relevant—evangelism.

Bowcott says much of the discussion of the church’s falling membership is coloured by what he calls the “contemporary Anglican lament,” an attitude that couches the church’s identity in the days of its peak membership several decades ago. That idea—that the church is on an inevitable decline—makes it difficult for Anglican churches to envision what growth looks like or what could be done to revitalize their mission and ministry. The result for those congregations is a feeling of paralysis.

To illustrate the lament’s effects, he mentions a question he repeatedly asked when attending the deconsecrations of churches as a domestic chaplain in the diocese of Huron: What had these parishes done in the last few years of their lives to reach out to prospective new members?

“The responses that I heard to this question often astounded and discouraged me,” writes Bowcott. In several cases, congregations pointed to new accessibility aids like ramps or elevators—which, he goes on to say, might be useful in eliminating any barriers to theoretical new members but would do little to attract them in the first place. In one parish, a building manager told him the elevator had been used just 12 times before the church shut down.

“The most difficult fact that I see in the autopsy of a dead church is when you ask the question: what did you do in the last few years to form new relationships. Often that’s when you hear a lot of silence,” he said in an interview with the Journal. “Anglicans in general have lost the capacity to foster new relationships.”

In Canada, the Anglican Church has historically taken an “if we build it, they will come” approach to evangelism, says David Edwards, bishop of the diocese of Fredericton. But while that method may have worked in the 1960s and 1970s, Edwards adds, today’s climate makes it ineffective at best. Today, understanding the Canadian context means understanding the public relations problem facing Christianity nationwide.

“One of the things we face in Canada is overcoming our legacy. And that’s going to take time,” he says. “The headlines … around abuse, etc., have made an impact that has said ‘the church can’t be trusted.’ Another part of the problem, he adds, is “how often the church has tried to force people into belief.”

Edwards, who was at Lambeth for the discussion of the call on mission and evangelism, says a central component of the call’s intent is that bishops should be aware of and tailor their action to the national and local contexts their evangelism needs to speak into. The Lambeth call encourages Christians to pray that through each of their ministry “at least one person each year might come to faith and grow as a disciple.” And that may work well in areas where the church readily attracts new members, like South Sudan. But the local application of the call here in Canada, he says, requires Anglicans to first work on rebuilding their relationships with their communities.

That’s a key thing the congregations that are still growing have in common, says Bowcott: a theology of evangelism that prioritizes forging meaningful ties between a church and the community it serves.

He points to St. Anne’s, a parish in the diocese of Huron that was deconsecrated in 2008 due to a lack of donations. In 2013, Bowcott supported a group of people who stepped back into the property the diocese still owned to reconsecrate the church.

“The premise there was, ‘What if you have no money? Maybe you start off with next to no people.’ Can you grow something bigger out of nothing? And we found out that yeah, you can!” says Bowcott. In two years, he says, “they turned from six very miserable Anglicans who had experienced the scarcity model of the church into a congregation of 55 who were there on a regularity.”

Bowcott had a full-time job in his own parish at the time, so he was able to be present only twice a week—for a service on Sunday and a coffee meeting on Tuesday—which meant leaving the work of the refounding almost entirely to lay leaders. They renovated the building and even paid back $16,000 in debt that the previous congregation at St. Anne’s had accrued before the church was deconsecrated.

Even more surprising, says Bowcott, much of the money and resources needed to do that came not from the lay leaders or parishioners of St. Anne’s but from the wider community, who responded to the service- and relationship-building the new lay leaders placed at the centre of their theology of evangelism.

“The more that they gave back to the community—whether that was raising items for the local school for a breakfast program or hosting coffee and baked goods for a senior’s walking group or even partnerships with the local town council—whenever they did something in kind to others, the community responded, saying ‘What do you guys need?’”

That strategy of community engagement was born out of a resolve among the lay leaders to focus the church on rediscovering what it meant to be followers of Jesus, says Bowcott. “And to be honest, they also had a bit of, ‘You think we’re a dead church? we’ll prove you wrong.’ A good healthy dose of spite,” he laughs.

The point is, says Bowcott, the success of St. Anne’s is replicable. In a church where many congregations have an average age of 70, it can be difficult for parishes to see the possibility of fostering new connections. But it’s in congregations that try—looking for needs in their communities and finding ways to fill them in ways that create relationships between a parish and its neighbours—that the Anglican Church is still seeing growth.

The national church could help encourage those theologies of evangelism, he says, by ramping up its efforts to put catechesis teaching tools in the hands of “cheerleaders” and teachers in every diocese to foster a shared understanding that the life of Christ means reaching out to forge new relationships. It could also look for opportunities to increase the role of lay leaders so that they see themselves as drivers of the church’s mission, as the team at St. Anne’s did.

Judith Moses, chair of General Synod’s Jubilee Commission on financing the Indigenous church, cites its focus on ministry over buildings as an example of how churches can meet the changing needs of congregations. And adopting Indigenous spiritual practices, she added, could be an important way for the church to reach out to a group with the fastest growing birth rate in Canada.

Like Bowcott, Edwards suggests starting at the level of local relationships, looking out for nontraditional parish structures that may connect with neighbours in unexpected ways. He gives the examples of a parish in England that redeveloped part of its land to create storefront spaces for start-up companies, and, in New Brunswick, the parish of the Nerepis and St. John. Members of the latter, he says, saw a need in their community for a gathering place and transformed a part of the church they had originally been renovating for another purpose into an indoor playpark. After all, he adds, if the structures we’ve been using have led to decline, there’s not much to lose by trying new ones.

“We have to be willing to allow people to experiment and to fail and not criticise them for their failure,” he says.

On one hand, it’s important to keep the gospel at the centre of such endeavors, not turn the church into a simple community centre, Edwards says. But the effort to reconnect with secular people in Canada could benefit from meeting them with help, not pressure, he says. Rather than opening with a major push for newcomers to convert and join a church as soon as possible, it might be enough to start by being present at public events just to meet members of the community and let them see Anglicans as friends and neighbours first, he says.

Edwards points to a 1992 Church of England survey of new believers from all denominations. “The big question was: what was the most influential thing in your coming to faith? And the answer was: a friend.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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