‘Perhaps the cross is indeed God’s great “plus” sign for humanity- and we should say so.’
“WHAT ARE ALL the plus signs for?” the six-year-old asked as he gazed around the church.
His mother had called saying she had come to my church once, years ago, and she’d always meant to have him done, but just hadn’t got around to it, and now that he was in school, would I baptize him?
It seemed to me to be a good opportunity to meet a potential member, so I said I’d be happy to talk about it and I arranged to meet her at her home.
Her home turned out to be a couple of tiny rooms in a sprawling run-down housing development on the edge of a large city. As I threaded my way through the maze of identical buildings, I felt sure I was the first priest in a clerical collar ever to have walked those barren hallways. The sense of suspicion of a church official was palpable.
The boy’s mother and I chatted about church, about faith, about God, about the meaning of baptism. Her son came running in-and ran out again just as fast. The miscellaneous adults who wandered in and out of the apartment had no interest whatsoever in our conversation. The upshot was that I arranged to talk with her son at church so he would have some sense of God’s role in his baptism. And the church itself would be a good object lesson-I could hold his attention with the symbols of the building itself.
And so it was, a couple of days later, we stood around the font in the little church, me explaining what baptism meant, in terms a six-year-old could understand.
Then I asked if he had any questions.
“Yeah. What are all the plus signs for?”
It took me a moment before the penny dropped.
There were plus signs on the font, plus signs on the books, a plus sign on the far wall, and a plus sign outside on the roof.
He’d never been in a church building in his life. Nobody he knew had ever been in a church building. Nobody had ever spoken to him of God, of the faith, of church, or what a cross is. In a church, being prepared for baptism, he found himself in an utterly alien world.
To this six-year-old in grade one, crosses are just plus signs.
This would be just another amusing story of a child’s misunderstanding. If he were the exception.
But he isn’t. He’s the new normal.
We all know long-time deeply committed members of our churches who bemoan the fact that their adult children don’t attend and won’t get their grandchildren baptized. That’s happening everywhere. Ninety-three percent of the people in the provincial capital where I live attend no religious services of any kind, including non-Christian religions.
A whole generation is growing up that has never been in a church and have no idea what the most basic concepts of our faith are about. Imagine what will happen when they become adults and have their own children.
This is the biggest challenge the church has faced, perhaps since Roman times.
How do we talk about the faith in a world that has absolutely no idea what we are talking about?
What should we do?
One approach, favoured by the fundamentalist wing of the faith, is to withdraw from the world and study, and even shop, only in a Christian context. But Anglicanism has traditionally not gone the route of withdrawing from the surrounding society. One of our great strengths is that we engage with society.
So how do we engage with a generation of people who think crosses are plus signs? How do we turn this disaster to our advantage?
We start by listening to them. The New Testament writers were not afraid to use symbols in whole new ways. Perhaps the cross is indeed God’s great “plus” sign for humanity-and we should say so.
Even more importantly, we must learn how God speaks to us-outside the church. God is alive and well out there. Only when we ourselves have first-hand experience of the cross outside a church service will we have something to speak about with this new generation who don’t know what a cross is.
Canon Harold Munn is rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C.