If you happen to come across a prayer book from the U.S. Episcopal Church, check the calendar of saints. You’ll find that April 8 commemorates William Augustus Muhlenberg, an outstanding 19th-century priest and pastor in New York City. Muhlenberg founded the Church of the Holy Communion, which was consecrated in 1846. In its heyday, the church combined uplifting Anglican worship with compassionate social ministry. It was the first church in New York to have free pews, and among the first to offer weekly communion services. In 1883, the church hosted the first convention of black Episcopal clergy.
After Muhlenberg’s death in 1877, the church continued to carry out its founder’s vision. Over time, the congregation decreased in size and wealth. In 1976, the dwindling congregation joined with two other churches, after which Holy Communion’s building was vacated and deconsecrated.
The former church building was then used as a drug rehabilitation centre until 1983, when it was sold and transformed into the infamous Limelight disco. Drug trafficking, prostitution and heavy alcohol consumption were common, both inside and outside the building and grounds.
Limelight closed in 1996. Today, the former Church of the Holy Communion is a shopping mall.
What happened to the Church of the Holy Communion is a dramatic example of what is happening across North America. Buildings that once served as churches have been converted to antique shops, restaurants, libraries, theatres, yoga and holistic health centres, and so on.
And yet, for all the churches that go the way of the Church of the Holy Communion, others are thriving. I include in this group Canadian Anglican and Episcopal churches that are doing solid ministry. These vital centres bridge the gap between religious and secular, meet needs, heal hurts and transform lives in Jesus.
In these tough times, the church can offer people something that cannot be found anywhere else-an experience of God, and more specifically, Jesus. When people come to church, they have a right to expect that they will experience God, be drawn to God and come to know, love and serve God in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Some Anglicans wonder how the church can be both faithful and “successful.” I suggest that the church is successful when it offers people an experience of God in Jesus. I remember a young woman who used to attend worship occasionally in my parish in Pennsylvania. She wasn’t a member nor was she particularly religious, and she certainly was not an Anglican. One Sunday, as I was greeting people after worship, I asked her what motivated her to worship with us. “Every time I worship in this church,” she said, “I leave feeling a stronger, better person. I sometimes doubt God’s existence, but when I leave here, I know God is real.”
I am convinced, as I hope you are, that the church has something to offer people-the life-giving, love-making mystery of the universe that we call God.
We all have opinions about what’s wrong with the church and how to fix our problems: raise more money; get more people in the pews, and renew our structures and ways of doing things. But the underlying malady in the Anglican church is much more serious than any quick-fix solution.
We need to rekindle our sense of mission, and I don’t just mean the Five Marks of Mission that are widely disseminated. I mean our foundational mission as a church-the mission of God to be Christ’s agents in the world, doing Christ’s work in the world; the mission that looks outward rather than inward and reaches out to the least, the last and the lost as essential to the very fabric of our being.
The church goes back two thousand years to the time of Jesus. Think about that. Every generation from the time of Jesus until today is a link in a chain. If there is to be a tomorrow for the church, it will be because we have done our part today. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin put it rather bluntly when he said, “The church is always one generation away from extinction.” Every generation has to do its part for future generations to exist.
If we are intent on preserving the patterns of church life we’ve grown comfortable with, we will discover that God has moved on and left us behind. God is always out there ahead of us, leading us into the future, and if we want to be working hand in hand with God, we have to be willing to ask the right questions. Not, “What can we do to preserve what we find comfortable?” but “What can we do to be partners with God in mission?” The first question leads to a church that is dead and declining; the second to a church that is alive and dynamic.
We need a passion for Jesus, a renewed commitment to mission and a greater willingness to share the good news with the people around us-to engage people at their own level of need and understanding, and to help them experience God in a personal, powerful way. And we need to help them experience the church not as a judgmental, rigid, outdated institution but as a place of grace where people face tomorrow in the power of God’s love.
Do you experience God in your church? Do you know in your heart that, because Jesus lives, you shall live eternally-a free gift given you by a God who says that you are the most cherished soul in all creation? If you know Jesus in your life, then will you not work to share him with others? Let’s claim the courage and power that is ours as his followers. Let’s get on with our mission, that the entire world may know the sweet love of Jesus!
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.