Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, rightly says that our church needs to embrace change as it emerges from the pandemic. (“‘Realistic hope’ needed as church weighs pandemic’s toll, primate says,” January 2022) What change do we need?
Does our church’s anxiety about its future affect you? Are we stuck in anxiety; have we lost heart? Our most pressing question—what to do about the church’s declining numbers—predates the pandemic by decades.
St. Paul can help: “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (1 Corinthians 4:1) The change we may need to embrace is a change of heart, a recovery of courage. Like the church at Ephesus, we are called back to our first love. (Revelation 2:4)
When you spend a lot of time and energy on worry, it consumes you. I wonder if worry has become so deeply ingrained in our church’s culture that we are now a culture of worry.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said management guru Peter Drucker. Everyone knows employees leave companies at least partly because of their culture and are drawn to other companies for the same reason.
Similarly, a culture of anxiety in the church may drive people to look for more encouraging places to pursue their spiritual quests. A culture of hopeful confidence in God may attract people.
One thing is certain: a culture of crisis in the church cannot help a world in crisis.
Surely what we are for, our church’s reason for being, is to help a world in its crises of climatic upheaval, enormous human displacement, injustice and profound spiritual unease?
Drucker might suggest that we have been consumed in seeking new methods and strategies to strengthen the church. Fresh Expressions is one excellent strategy of recent years. Yet do we all have a clear grasp on what we want to express with freshness, what we are for?
The old question of vocation must be posed in every age, lest we lose the dream of a world transformed in Christ, who is the author of the New Creation; or, lest we focus on the container more than on what it holds—on buildings instead of communities, models instead of message.
In a healthy culture, the life of that culture is aligned with its stated values and purpose, and everyone in it can, in some measure, articulate what those values and purpose are.
The church has mostly propagated a gospel of individual salvation, divorced from the world around us. That view predominates in the popular “Christian” theology of our culture, both among believers and unbelievers. It is a contradiction of God’s intentions. It is not Good News.
We are all saved together or not at all. This is becoming clear to the whole world these days, unless you’re a billionaire who dreams of escaping to somewhere else!
The gospel envisions a New Creation: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new Creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We see the New Creation when we are able to see the old Creation through fresh eyes. Then, we want to shape it according to God’s original intentions.
Fresh eyes see the world for what it is, as God made it. They see that it is not a bottomless treasure-chest of resources to be plundered, exploited for our personal gain, sapped of riches, stripped bare of rich life-forms, all to serve our human needs.
We humans have made the world all about us. We Christians have made Christianity primarily about satisfying our own individual spiritual needs. In so doing, we have destroyed a lot of our world. We are learning—hopefully not too late—that our well-being is intertwined with the well-being of all other life-forms on Earth. That is how God made things.
Perhaps this is the original gospel we must re-discover: how much God loves the world and wants the world to be whole (again) through our ministry and service.
Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, in the 1940s, said that the Church exists “to serve those who are not yet its members,” that is, the whole world. As John writes: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Our anxiety even leads us to wonder whether our own Anglican church will or should survive. But consider this: We have learned that all the species of trees in a forest make their own unique contributions to the health of the forest. Anglicanism is one species in the forest of faiths, all of them depending on the others for their health and clarity of purpose. The world Church needs the Anglican church and vice versa.
When young people encounter again a Church that knows what it is for …. My! Then we will see her grow again into a renewed purpose, and we will stop worrying about the numbers.
Modern human society is obsessed with numbers and the Church has been distracted from its purpose by a results-oriented, perpetual growth-oriented society.
My own long, 35-year friendship and partnership with our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Episcopal Church in Amazonia has shown me that one small community can accomplish a great deal for God. Our church in Amazonia is tiny by comparison with ours, but it still thinks its main purpose is to plant new church communities that serve the gospel. It continues to do just that. Meanwhile, we lament that the number of Canadians identifying as Anglican, according to the census, shrank from 5% to 3.8% of the population between 2011 and 2019. That’s still 1.4 million Anglicans in Canada!
Imagine if we let go of our fear and anxiety for long enough to realize what 1.4 million people can accomplish when we all know what our purpose is.
When we re-establish the church on her ancient firm foundation in Christ, young people will flock to the purpose of lives renewed and a world renewed. They are longing for this. This is what the church has to offer, all she ever had to offer, all she needs to offer now.
Can we let go of our anxious fears, be still, return to the gospel, pray, listen to one another and rediscover what we are for? Can we make this an integral part of our journey beyond the pandemic? Can we talk to one or two others about our hopes and dreams and visions for how we, the church, will reach out to a world in crisis right here where we live? Can we find our lost love, encourage one another, give one another new heart? Call someone in your parish today. This is how we begin to embrace the change that is needed.
However much our church has been decimated—by cultural factors, demographic change, or the pandemic—the one thing that matters is expressed in Stephen King’s words, heard on the lips of the convict Andy, in the film The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
I’ve heard enough about how the Anglican Church of Canada may be dying. She doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to, if she rediscovers what she is for, under God. Let’s get busy living.