Sharing the experience of God

Published December 1, 2009

I HAVE A CONFESSION to make: I love change. Maybe you’ve guessed that already. On the other hand, I know that trying to do too much is a trap. It’s easy to get caught up in this. In fact, our culture promotes it. If you aren’t going 100 miles an hour, you’re lazy! But now, experts are saying that to really get where you want to go, you have to stop everything. That’s right. Put down whatever’s in your hands, stop moving your body, sit comfortably and just stare into the middle distance. (Not as easy as it sounds, especially if you’re a coffee drinker.) Apparently, that’s how you engage your creative self, your non-linear thinking. That’s where the aha! moment comes from. Boy, we could sure use some of those. Let me explain.

Last month, the Anglican Journal invited the Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi to speak to the House of Bishops (HOB) about declining enrollment in the Anglican church and what we can do about it. Nicolosi is a transplanted Episcopalian with 27 years’ experience helping dioceses on both sides of the border reclaim their vitality. He lives in Victoria now, where he’s a congregational development officer in the diocese of British Columbia, helping 54 churches grow spiritually, financially…and in numbers.

There’s a story Nicolosi likes to tell about a parish where the threat of doors closing was looming large. The congregation was shrinking to microscopic levels and the deficit budget had become a fact of life. Reluctant to call it quits, the Anglicans decided to give it one last try. If we can just find a dynamic preacher, they told each other, we can turn this situation around. The search committee looked high and low and found the perfect priest: a woman, neither too young nor too old, knowledgeable, charming, impassioned. Her rousing first sermon knocked it out of the park. Then she said, “By the grace of God, we will bring our beloved Church into the 20th century.”

There was a collective gasp as everyone in the pews realized her mistake.

“You mean the 21st century!” called out one front-row parishioner, helpfully.

The new priest smiled: “We’re going to take this one century at a time.”

ALBERT EINSTEIN said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Nicolosi likes this quote. Maybe we are going a little nutty trying to fix the same old problems with the same old solutions. A lot of clergy are feeling overwhelmed, even dispirited, putting all their energies into solving something that just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Dennis Drainville, the bishop of the diocese of Quebec, knows how that feels. When his turn came to speak to the House of Bishops, he warned that his diocese could be going the way of the dinosaur, thanks to collapsing parish finances and dwindling numbers in the pews (see story on page 1 and full coverage of the HOB meeting on pp. 6-7). He called on the House to find ways to respond to the world as it is now. And while he acknowledged that the church has got everything people are looking for, “We don’t know how to present this to society,” he confessed.

Nicolosi is on board with that. It is not the message of Christianity that needs to change, he says, it’s our methods of doing ministry. And the gap between where the Anglican Church of Canada finds itself today and where everyone else seems to be is growing wider with each passing year.

For one thing, more and more Canadians are saying they don’t believe in God. An April 2009 Canwest and Global national survey has shown that the number of Canadians who believe in God has dropped from 84 per cent in 2000 to 71 per cent in 2009. The biggest decline is among men. Apparently, 36 per cent of Canadians under the age of 25 don’t believe in God, either.

TO UNDERSTAND how we got here, you have to understand the culture in which we now live. In the past 50 years, just about everything has changed. Pretty much the only thing we know for sure is that constant change is here to stay, and the speed at which things change is increasing exponentially. It’s time to fasten our seatbelts, folks, because whether we like it or not, this is what we’re working with.

Nicolosi calls Canada the second most secularized country in the Western hemisphere, next to Cuba. We’ve gone from print to digital media, from a linear worldview to a multicultural mosaic.
Stability has been replaced by uncertainty, and rational thought with experiential learning. Nowadays, people don’t just know something to be true because someone told them or they read about it somewhere, they decide for themselves after experiencing it. For examples of how this plays out in our culture, look no further than advertising, suggests Nicolosi. It’s not the number of rpms under the hood that sells the Porsche, it’s the feel of wind in your hair, the smell of leather and the exhilaration of stepping on the accelerator.

The good news in all of this is that the experience of God is the one thing that only church can deliver, says Nicolosi. “Churches are places where people encounter God. No other social or government institution can match that claim.” Give people an experience of God, says Nicolosi, and they will respond. Why? Because our society, while it may not believe in God, is highly spiritual, believing in paradox, in that which can’t be seen, in something Bigger Than Us. People aren’t looking for sacred spaces, says Nicolosi. They’re looking for sacred moments.

THE ANGLICAN CHURCH, with its rich traditions, rituals and sense of mystery, is uniquely poised to offer this. “I’ve never had anyone question me about the virgin birth,” says Nicolosi. “But then there are lots of people out there who think human life on earth was started by aliens.”

The demographic group in Canada most open to attending church? Traditional families with children, says Nicolosi. Why? Because they’re socially more conservative than most. If they’re going to come to church, however, we have to be able to provide excellent programs and facilities for their children and teens. That’s on top of helping them make sense of their lives, of course.

We’ve also got to get with the program when it comes to technology. Boomers may be straddling the new and old ways of communicating, but for all those that follow (especially the “Millenials,” born after 1979), the computer is a first language. For this group, it’s not about thinking outside the box, points out Nicolosi. There is no box!

Nick Brotherwood is assistant director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He’s also team leader of Fresh Expressions Canada in Montreal. Like Nicolosi, and in fact many others, Brotherwood points to the growing awareness of the church’s missional role, not somewhere “over there” but right here in Canada.

Nicolosi describes a “bridge” to secular culture and the notion of two-way movement back and forth along it. Brotherwood talks about “rhizomal” church growth in which disciples from the Anglican church germinate out into the culture and stay there. They engage with the unchurched, share the experience of God, and help people define and create a worship experience that is meaningful to them. Brotherwood calls it “a principled loosening of the structures so that mission can take place.”

Leadership in this new Anglican church will likely be plural rather than singular, with a “mutually respectful status quo.” Nicolosi refers to a “flattening of the hierarchy.”

Merely showing up for church will no longer be good enough. In the new church, everyone becomes a disciple and promotes change towards a more missional expression of church,” says Brotherwood. The responses to ministry, while principled, will not be along the lines of “anything at any cost,” he adds. “The core tasks,” he explains, “have come from Jesus.”

If the makers of Coca-Cola can sell a billion cans of sugar water every 48 hours, surely the Anglican Church of Canada can add value to people’s lives, insists Nicolosi. After all, he says, index finger stabbing the air above his head, “We’ve got Jesus!”


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