Stop putting new wine into old wineskins, says missioner

Stewardship gathering participants discuss the impact of new expressions of Christianity on the church's fundraising efforts. Photo: André Forget
Stewardship gathering participants discuss the impact of new expressions of Christianity on the church's fundraising efforts. Photo: André Forget
Published September 12, 2016

Mississauga, Ont.
For decades, many parishes and dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada have watched the money raised through tithes and offerings drop. At the same time, they have seen the growth of new kinds of spiritual practice based around tight-knit, less denominationally rigid communities of worship.

What if the first development has in part been caused by the second?

In a presentation at the recent annual Resources for Mission (RfM) stewardship gathering, Mark Dunwoody, diocesan missioner for the Anglican diocese of Montreal, argued that the way the church raises money has not kept up with the seismic changes that have taken place in the church in recent years.

Dunwoody said that many newer expressions of Christianity, which he calls “new contextual churches,” do not have as strong a sense of denominational affiliation as more traditional elements might. This means they are less willing to give for the purposes of supporting institutional Anglicanism.

“[New contextual church] folks want to see life change,” he said. “They want the brokenness that they perceive addressed. They don’t want to hear you talk about it-they want to see it.”

Ever since the Enlightenment, Dunwoody argued, Protestant churches have been structured on corporate, programmatic models that emphasize the efficient pursuit of what they believe to be the will of God on Earth. This model assumes that the church exists in a largely Christian society into which it can speak with an authoritative voice-it assumes that the context is “Christendom.”

But, in the past three decades, there has been a shift toward a model based not on “politics or power, but on participation and presence,” he said.

Churches in the new mould, such as the emerging church movement, Fresh Expressions, church plants and neo-monastic movements, are skeptical of hierarchical authority and value a less rigid, more experiential sense of faith.

While Dunwoody believes there is much to celebrate about these new expressions of Christianity, he thinks the institutional church has been too slow in adapting to the different ways new contextual churches operate.

For example, he said, Gen Xers and Millennials have less money than their parents and grandparents. They will support something they care about, but they want to know it isn’t simply “to keep a sinking ship floating.”

They are also less likely to be in church every Sunday morning, which Dunwoody says has a direct impact on church fundraising.

“There are going to be fewer Sundays where a household is going to be in attendance,” he said. “What that means is there are going to be less times in a year when people’s bums are in the seat so they can get the money in the plate.”

In fact, among new contextual churches, even the definition of “church” is changing.

For some, “going to church” doesn’t necessarily means showing up for a proscribed period of time once a week. Dunwoody explained that in his own diocese, activities like Messy Church sometimes draw larger numbers than weekend services.

While alternative methods of tithing, such as monthly automated electronic giving, can offset some of these changes, churches also need to be willing to ask some existential questions, Dunwoody said.

For parishes to understand what their purpose is, they not only need to have a strong sense of the general mission they share with all Christians, but also to know the roots of their particular churches.

“In every locality where we have a church, there was an original purpose,” he said, noting that buildings that often seem timeless expressions of piety were created to meet the needs of a very specific historical moment.

These needs were not, he added, always purely or even mostly spiritual: in his native Ireland, Dunwoody said, many Protestant churches were set up not to spread the gospel, but to demographically edge out the colonized Catholic population.

Every church must evaluate whether it is still meeting the need for which it was created, or if there are other needs it is positioned to serve, said Dunwoody.



  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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