Our Presbytery, the Presbytery of Waterloo Wellington, is presently working its way through a visioning process, trying to decide what the priorities of the church will be in the coming decade. As part of this, our facilitator, Peter Coutts, has challenged us to talk about our expectations for the coming years in the church in an online blog. I have responded to that challenge with the following. I am just speaking to my personal expectations. I am sure that others will expect different things. I would encourage you to join the conversation on the Blog that Peter set up. You’ll find it here:
Here is what I have written:
As Peter has said, we certainly cannot predict the future as it has a way of surprising us. Nevertheless, as I look forward, I do it with certain expectations. I definitely expect a great deal of change in the coming years – as I have expected it ever since I first started my ministry. One thing that I have seen up until this point is the change never seems to occur as quickly as I have expected it to. So I must say first of all that I have learned to expect that things will take longer to change that I expect.
I do not expect that the trends that we have seen will change dramatically. Overall membership and attendance numbers will continue to decline. More and more people in society will cease to identify with the Christian faith and with organized religion in general. I don’t necessarily see this as a negative trend but it is obviously very challenging to the church and to its continued work.
Because of this, we are likely to see a number of things develop. We will continue to see national organisational and denominational church structures decline. National offices, strapped for resources, will be ever more limited in what they can offer to support the ministry and mission of the church which will render them less relevant. Regional bodies – such as Synods – will continue to decline in relevance and in the resources that they can offer.
These developments don’t necessarily distress me. The way I see it, we are in the death throes of a way of doing and being the church that hasn’t really been working for a while. Some of that structure likely needs to die in order for there to be a resurrection – a new way of being the church that is really effective in the world today.
I just feel I have to say something about the matter of declining Sunday School enrollment. This is just a pet peeve of mine. I do not like the hand wringing we often do over declining Sunday Schools. The distress over this fact has an underlying assumption that is dangerous. It is an assumption that we know how Sunday School is supposed to work. Essentially, what we are doing is holding up the model of our church Sunday School programs as they were in the 1960’s and 70’s when our programs were full of kids and bursting at the seams. That, we proudly declare, is what a successful Sunday School looks like and that is what we used to be able to do.
But do you know what? I don’t really see that as a success. Sure, our programs were full of kids in those times. But do you realize that those were the very kids that we lost when they grew up? That generation, who were kids in the sixties and the seventies, dropped out of the church in far greater numbers than any generation before them. If we’re going to call that success, then I’m not sure we really have a good idea what success is.
I think a little bit of humility is called for. I’m personally very excited about some of the things that we are doing these days and our children’s ministries. But I that doesn’t mean that we’ve necessarily got it right. Nevertheless, there are all kinds of reasons to be hopeful that, with God’s help, we will do better with this generation.
Congregations will continue to be the heart and soul of the church. As larger structures fall away, this will only become more and more true. Yes, we will continue to lose congregations. Some will take longer to die than you would expect but that has always been the case. But, alongside this, we will continue to see congregations of various sizes that remain strong and that get stronger. There will be pockets of healthy, vibrant church life spread throughout our presbytery.
We will continue to see, as has been the case for some time now, that it is congregations that are engaged in their community, that are active in local and larger mission, that have excellent leadership and that can communicate the message of the faith in relevant ways that will be strongest. (Although even congregations that do all of this and do it really well are not guaranteed to thrive as there will continue to be other factors – economic, demographic, etc. – at play.) These healthy and strong congregations will do some really exciting things and will be a joy to their members.
We will likely continue to see that congregations that are strong and vital will seek out the resources that they need to continue to strengthen wherever they can find them. They will not insist on or seek out denominational resources as they have in the past. This will partly be because those resources will not be there, but also because other agencies will be able to adapt to the changing circumstances much more quickly and flexibly.
We will not lose our central focus on essentials of our faith. Jesus Christ will remain our only king and head. We will continue to acknowledge the Scriptures as the authoritative witness to the living Word of God. We will still practice sacraments, pray and seek and find God through faith.
But some things will change. Our churches will likely find the need to set themselves apart from some of the more extremist Christian faith groups. For me, that means we need to:
- Practice greater inclusion – finding a place for all kinds of people who live and think out their faith differently from us.
- Clearly reject anti-science strains of Christianity. (e.g. those who reject evolution)
- Find ways other than substitutionary atonement to talk about what Jesus has accomplished for us.
- Read the Bible for what it is – a collection of various kinds of ancient literature – rather than forcing literal interpretations onto it.
- Focus our Christian life and work on this world and not on another world to come.
- Actively and positively engage the fastest growing religious group in Canada: the atheists
This is the church that I expect and this is the kind of church that we need the presbytery to support.
What that means for me is that the presbytery needs to be careful to use its resources (time, talent, energy, financial and real estate assets) very wisely to support the church that will be.
As far as I am concerned
- There is no point spending our resources on maintaining structures or infrastructures that are dying or becoming irrelevant.
- We need to invest in creating strong, healthy and vibrant congregations, especially in places where circumstances like economics, demographics and other factors are in our favour.
- We need to create and support strong leaders (lay and clergy).