John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that the main function of economic forecasting was to make astrology appear as a reputable science. The same could be said of other types of projections, including predictions of the demise of the Anglican Church in Canada based on patterns of declining church membership. In addition to raising the profile of astrologers, such predictions have another function, and that is to create anxiety. Decline in Anglican affiliation, membership and participation measured as a percentage of the Canadian population beginning about 1941 is a fact and has been known for some time by people who take an interest in Canadian religion. Furthermore, unlike 20 years ago, this fact is generally known and accepted today by the majority of people who participate in congregational life. Generally speaking, most of the historic Protestant congregations are either stable or in numerical decline. Certainly some are experiencing growth in numbers, and new congregations are being founded even as older ones close or amalgamate. However, overall the number of congregations is also decreasing. People know this general picture to be true, even if they happen to be in a thriving congregation. But one cannot extrapolate from this general picture to speak of the future, desperate days of the last of the Anglicans. I think the function of such dramatic forecasting is to create anxiety. These projections are intended to wake people up, especially people with some authority, by creating as much distress as possible. The objective is to get attention and to shift focus. Who, after all, wants to be part of a church whose end is in sight, not from the Second Coming, but through the inaction of its leaders? The danger with anxiety is that it encourages us to focus on the wrong things. A focus on “getting more Anglicans” is an unworkable solution to the wrong problem. The church growth consultants I know and read all ask the difficult question, “What for? What significant difference will it make to a newcomer’s life to be part of your congregation?” This is a good question that shifts the focus from numbers to the quality of congregational life. Now that our attention is engaged we can look at some creative and productive responses that congregations and their leaders can take:
- Developing self-confidence and discovering that the gifts you have are the gifts you need.
- Realizing that congregational resources are there for the service of other people.
- Moving from being a church indistinguishable from part of the culture to becoming a Christian community of faith.
- Becoming ecologists, aware of social influences and encouraging healthy relationships between congregation, neighbourhood and society.
- Becoming more intentional about congregational life and ministry. Having a vision for ministry that emerges from a process of Christian community development and engages a high proportion of the members.
- Learning how to go through significant transitions. Rightly grieving what is lost, but in letting go of the past finding the courage for new ventures – in new or reshaped ministries, renovated buildings for new purposes, amalgamations to found new churches, and dignified closures.
- Lay leadership sharing authority, responsibility, and accountability for ministry.
- Managing conflict that inevitably accompanies change.
There are many examples in Anglican and other churches where these shifts are occurring. They do not happen overnight or even in a year. They require inspired, persistent leadership on the part of clergy and lay leaders. These efforts bring energy, purpose and direction to congregational life. Congregations become places of spiritual development for individuals; there is a symbiotic relationship between the body and its parts, so that spiritual energy flows between personal and corporate life. This is in marked contrast to the defeatist approach that suggests a dwindling congregation should see itself as a faithful remnant in a godless society and take comfort in the line “Lord, we are few, but thou art near.” Will all this make a difference to membership figures in another half century? I do not know. I am convinced that these are the right things to focus on, and that instead of despairing about declining church membership we should celebrate the fact that we belong to communities of abundant hope. Paul MacLean is executive director of Potentials, a Canadian Ecumenical Centre for the Development of Ministry and Congregations, www.potentials.ca