Re-thinking how we do church

Published September 1, 2009

When it comes to declining enrolment in the Anglican Church of Canada, there is hope. In the first of a series of articles about a paradigm shift taking place across Canada, Rev. Gary Nicolosi, congregational development officer for the diocese of British Columbia, talks to Journal editor Kristin Jenkins about how we got here and what we can do about it.THE FIRST THING you notice about Rev. Gary Nicolosi is that he speaks in sound bytes. He’s a passionate, articulate man and when he talks, people listen.

“This is the number one issue for the church today,” he tells a roomful of diocesan editors at the recent Anglican Editors Association conference in Victoria. “Yes, the stats are grim but we have to keep hope alive.” Even for this somewhat cynical crew, you can hear a pin drop.

Mr. Nicolosi is talking about the fact that the Anglican Church in Canada has lost more than half of its membership in the past 50 years. People just aren’t coming to church the way they used to. As a result, the number of people in the pews has plummeted by 53 percent, from 1.3 million in 1961 down to 658,000 in 2001. Citing statistics from Reginald Bibby’s Project Canada, The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, Statistics Canada and The Living Church, a U.S. Episcopal Church magazine, Mr. Nicolosi calls the drop in membership “precipitous.” When the census is taken in 2011, he warns, “I think the numbers are going to be under 600,000. I think people are going to be shocked.”

Tell people the truth, Mr. Nicolosi implores us, no matter how painful or humiliating. “God is a new god of transformation and death is not the end of the Christian story. We can move on.”

[pullquote]Statistics on average worship attendance, a key indicator of how healthy a church is, show that there are even fewer committed Anglicans going to church than we think. Of the 9,200 Anglicans enrolled in the diocese of British Columbia in 2007, for instance, only 4,755 actually made the effort to come to church two or more times a month. “These are the attenders and the givers,” points out Mr. Nicolosi, “and they determine the viability of a church.”

Look through this lens on a national level and declining membership drops to a shocking 325,000. “People are dying and we’re not replenishing the ranks,” says Mr. Nicolosi. “Our baptisms are not keeping up with the funerals.”

A transplanted American now living in Victoria, Mr. Nicolosi holds degrees from Temple University School of Law (J.D.), Trinity College, University of Toronto (M. Div.) and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (D. Min.).

Working closely with Bishop Jim Cowan and the diocesan congregational development team, Mr. Nicolosi is helping the 54 churches in the diocese grow as vital centers of mission and ministry. He also works with parish clergy and lay leaders to develop leadership skills for growing their congregations.

Work in other dioceses is taking root as well. In the diocese of New Westminster, a major strategic plan to revitalize the dioceses is in the works,” says Mr. Nicolosi. “It’s not fundraising. It’s re-thinking how we do church.”

The dioceses of Niagara, Toronto and Caledonia are also taking the issue of congregational development very seriously, says Mr. Nicolosi. And he points out examples of churches that are bucking the trend and growing their flock, including Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver and Trinity Church in Streetsville, Ont.

The good news about declining membership is that Anglicans will not have to “reinvent the wheel,” says Mr. Nicolosi. But we have to start talking as a crucial first step. “We talk about international issues over which we have little or no control or we talk about sexuality. We have allowed this to happen.”

There are no simple solutions. Each parish is unique. Still, some basic principles apply. For one, ministry has to be intentional, says Mr. Nicolosi. Being able to meet people where they’re at – not where we want them to be – is an important building block of congregational development.

“We need to get back to how to reach people, to understand them and to connect with them. We can’t just assume that they will come to us,” says Mr. Nicolosi. It also means coming to terms with where the mission culture actually resides. “It’s outside your front door, not in Africa,” he says.

Quantitative benchmarks are crucial. If you don’t measure, you’ll just end up with the status quo, says Mr. Nicolosi. “I think that we need to be sensitive to the intangibles and the pastoral side of the ministry but we also need to recognize that numbers matter. They don’t tell the whole story but they do tell part of it.”

Money is never the problem, he adds. Instead, underlying currents in the parish that affect giving, such as conflict, director style or the death of parishioners, affect the viability of a church.

In developed countries, including the U.S., England and the rest of Europe, membership and average attendance also are down. Fewer than one million attend church regularly in England, where the mother church is officially 28-million strong. “They just go to have the baby christened and never come back,” says Mr. Nicolosi.

In the U.S., the ranks of the Episcopal Church have thinned by 55 percent, dropping from a peak of 3.5 million in 1964 to 2.2 million in 2007.

Still, declining church attendance is not universal. Attendance at the Pentecostal, Baptist and Christian Missionary Alliance churches is growing. “Evangelicals don’t just study the Bible, they study the culture and then connect the two,” says Mr. Nicolosi.

Given the substantial age gap between the average Anglican (upper 60s) and the average Canadian (upper 30s), growing churches where the demographic is different from the outside community will be a challenge. The key is to build on strengths, says Mr. Nicolosi. If the congregation is made up of elderly parishioners, don’t start by building a youth ministry. The effort will suffer for lack of resources and staffing.

Can the Anglican Church of Canada change its approach without compromising its values to attract new members? Ultimately, changing an organization that is used to doing things the same way for so many years is profound.

There is no easy resolution but finding the answers does matter, says Mr. Nicolosi. “Christianity is always one generation away from extinction, so we all have a responsibility. If we are truly conservative,” he points out, “then we are conserving what is essential.”


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