What colour is your church?

By on April 1, 2011

Photo:SRF

My friend Ian is a great guy, but why he persists in joining his wife at Sunday service is beyond me. For years, he “did” the flowers at their church, using his considerable talent to create beautiful, seasonal bouquets. Whenever the church needed new resource materials, Ian volunteered his expertise to shepherd the church’s message to the next level. He also took the challenging night shift for the Out of the Cold program, making sure that the men sleeping over stayed tucked in, week after week.

It couldn’t have been easy doing all this volunteer work, especially since Ian admits that he still feels like an outsider.

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That’s gotta hurt.

He says people talk around him and despite his outgoing nature, he finds it difficult to connect. There’s a cliquey-ness about the place and people just don’t seem that interested or accessible. The rituals, always mysterious, have remained so, rendering his observance wooden and meaningless. Referring to the arcane language, the Anglican-speak, Ian’s pained expression says, “Let’s not even go there!”

I think Ian goes to church because he loves his wife. And his wife, a cradle Anglican, loves her church.

Who loses in this, really? My friend may never get to experience God inside the doors of this particular worship space, but to my mind, the tragedy runs far deeper. By being unable, for whatever reason, to recognize and respond to the needs of others, even for those predisposed to get involved, this church is firmly slamming the door on its own future. Preaching to the converted eclipses true passion, and the spirit of gratitude and divine welcome is replaced with a kind of wretched xenophobia. Somewhere along the line, complacency became confused with meaningful engagement, and for some, like my friend Ian, relevant worship has taken on the appearance of puppet theatre.

When even one person is shut out by a congregation, it colours the whole, like a single drop of ink in a glass of water. And the impact can have a domino effect, like a sucker punch to the collective solar plexus. Who can blame “outsiders” for being skeptical when attempts to connect are shunned?

Why do you go to church? To worship God? To connect with others? Is it really necessary to open up your church to strangers? No, of course not. Maybe you feel that you’ve done your bit and that those who follow can do theirs! But what if there were no people to take your place? Do you care?

Turning a church that is closed to new people and new ideas into a welcoming church takes a lot of courage, chutzpah and a complete re-invention of the proverbial wheel. It also takes a committed leader with vision and talent, who knows how to navigate the often treacherous pathways of Church Land.

And so I must ask you: If we coloured every Anglican church in Canada “red” for “self-serving” and “green” for “serving others,” what colour would your church be?

At Stephen’s Anglican Church in Oldcastle, near Windsor, Ont., the atmosphere is “positive, joyful and superbly welcoming,” according to Hilary Payne, a parishioner who visited once and never left. Thanks to the dynamic vision and guiding hand of the Rev. Jane Fletcher, the pews are filling up, not emptying out. Similarly, at St. George’s of Forest Hill in Kitchener, Ont., an intrepid attitude is keeping it real for a membership that includes 400 families. “There’s no such thing as a bad experiment,” says the Rev. Donald Davidson, rector. “You always learn.”

As a journalist, I’m big on learning. I call it “research.” In fact, that’s what I tell myself whenever I head into alien territory, like online dating. (Bear with me: Growing your church would mean courting the outside world, after all.)

Here’s what I’ve learned. You begin with good intentions and an open heart. Then you ask a lot of questions, maybe over a cup of coffee. You listen to the answers, carefully. Don’t be surprised if you feel very, very uncomfortable at first. Notice the feeling, but don’t let it stop you. Tell yourself: It’s just research.

When you start to feel the energy-of connection, of possibility-you’ll know you’re on the right track. Ironically, the entire experience will teach you a lot about yourself and help you break through some pretty entrenched fear barriers. And that’s gonna feel good. Ω

Kristin Jenkins is editor of the Anglican Journal.

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