I grew up in the church, in a little United Church congregation in the east end of Fort William, now called Thunder Bay South. This church was an important part of my early life. Sunday School and cubs, and later on, I became a Sunday School teacher, and also had my first experiences of doing bible readings in church. I remember how scary that was.
Around this time last year I received an invitation from that congregation, to be part of their year-long celebration of 100 years of ministry. There was no way they could afford to pay my way to come to Thunder Bay. The idea was that if I happened to be coming up that way, they would love to have me come as a guest preacher.
I picked a date for this fall, and looked forward to going. I really wanted to share in their celebration, and to thank them for the influence of that church on my life.
While I was on sabbatical this spring in England I heard from their minister, who said that if I still wanted to come, I better pick a date before the end of the summer. I was able to fly up for the last Sunday in August. I was honoured to preach, and have my chance to say thank you to that congregation for their influence on my life.
The following Sunday, they had their very last service, and closed the church. The building is now up for sale.
This past Sunday, my wife preached, and presided over communion at the closing service of her home congregation, a little country church near Port Rowan and Simcoe, in the village of Walsingham. Our kids went with her, and they sang the beautiful hymn “In the bulb there is a flower”. There is grief, sadness, regret mixed in with these celebrations.
My home church had to close because the folks left are now too tired, and feeling too old, and can’t do all the work, or raise the money anymore to keep things going. They have been in survival mode for at least 20 years, maybe longer, and that is tiring, dis-spiriting. They just kept trying to do the same things over and over again, with diminishing results.
I knew most of the people who were there. That was good for me, but not a good sign for a church. I had not been active in that congregation for almost 30 years. As Jesus said in the second reading from Matthew, we are supposed to be getting out into the world, teaching people about God’s love, showing a way to live that is about following Jesus, and baptizing, and making new disciples. After 30 years, that congregation should have included a lot of people I had never met. What happened?
I love that church, and its people, and felt I could ask them questions. The same questions may work for us as well. How many of us have good people in their lives, in their family and circle of friends, who are kind, caring, spirited people, but who have little or no interest in the church, or organized religion? How many people do you know who might call themselves “spiritual but not religious”?
A lot of people in Canada fall into those categories. Statistics Canada numbers from the last census indicate that about 30%, a little less than 1 in 3 of your neighbours and friends go to church once a year. That might be for Christmas, or Easter, or for a wedding or a funeral. 9%, or a little less than 1 in 10 attend church once a month. 19%, or a little less than 1 in 5 attend on a weekly basis. The big number on this slide is the 42% of Canadians who never go to church. Many of them have never been, and have no actual idea of what we are about.
Is there something seriously wrong with all those folks? Probably, but not anything that isn’t also wrong with all of us.
Why do people not like church? Lots of reasons. It can be boring. Some church people act holier than thou. Some ministers and some lay people do incredibly stupid and cruel things in the name of religion. Congregations can be stuffy, and cliquish. Some people see congregations as too stuck in their ways. Others see churches as too willing to change, and not stuck enough! Some might wish we could go back in time to the era when the churches and Sunday Schools were full every week.
There can be mixed motives for this desire for full churches. Some wish for it because it would take the pressure off of those who work so hard now to keep things going. Like all those who gave their time and donations and efforts for the church auction last night. Some of us also wish for full churches because we have experienced the depth and breadth of God’s love, have been changed by it from the inside out, and sincerely wish that for other people.
Churches can be a means to point people towards God, and can be wonderfully caring, nurturing, challenging, and inspiring. The community that gathers in, and is nurtured in a church can be of great support and encouragement to us when we are sad, or hurting, or sick, or frightened.
But we live in a time in which many people are simply not interested in church the way we currently do it. How do we connect with them?
Jesus was pretty clear about what it meant to follow him. He talked about what matters. That we visit, befriend, show mercy and kindness to those in need. He did not discriminate on the basis of church attendance and he did not give extra credit for showing up. He was interested in how we actually love others in God’s name.
He went as far as saying that when we spent time with those who are sick, sad, hungry, unpopular, hard to get along with, in prison, or other kinds of trouble, that we were with him. He also talked about his followers getting out into the world to make new disciples, to teach, and show people a new way of life, that was about following him, in his ways of love and compassion. I don’t read that as being about getting people to come to church, but rather us who know, or who want to know Jesus, going to be with those who need a word of hope, of encouragement, of compassion.
We can actually see Jesus in each other, in each other’s vulnerability, and brokenness, and messiness. We can bring God’s love to each other, in the midst of the hardship and confusion of life.
It may mean that congregations like ours need to develop new strategies for connecting with the world around us. It does not seem to work all that well, for us, and for most other congregations to simply turn on the heat and lights, unlock the doors, and wait for people to show up. Some will, and that is wonderful. But there are a lot of other folks out there who are not reached that way.
A couple of weeks ago a group from our congregation went to an event called “Fresh Expressions”, which was sponsored by our Presbytery, which is an organization of the United Churches in Mississauga, Milton, Oakville, and Burlington. We came together to learn about a program that is encouraging congregations to dream, to take risks, and follow new visions of how to connect with God’s people.
One of the stories we heard was about a Methodist church in Yorkshire, England, that did something very daring. They recognized a new way to serve their community, made some significant changes.
That congregation is in a small village, a very different context from ours. They identified something that was absent from their community, and put their own unique stamp on it. During the week they operate a daycare that uses the soft play area, and on weekends, the Ark becomes an active Sunday School. It is also a great place for Vacation Bible School when there are school breaks. The indoor playground has become their way to connect with families with children, and begin to build relationships. Those caring relationships help the church people and their neighbours get to know each other. From that, comes new understanding.
That experiment could have been a total flop, but from the story, it seems like the congregation did not have much to lose. They were struggling to keep going, with less than 10 people attending worship. They were ready to take a chance.
One definition of mission is to find a place where the world’s need intersects with something we are able to give. That’s a bit like what Jesus was saying about visiting him, when we visit those who are poor, or sick, or in prison. Placing ourselves, and our resources, abilities, in the situations where they are needed.
In the new year, as part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of this congregation, we will be doing some praying, thinking, wondering, hoping, visioning about how we can reach beyond ourselves, to discover new ways in which what we have to offer can meet actual needs in the world.
When we find those exciting, challenging places, that will stretch us, scare us, push us beyond what we are used, but allow us to connect with, and show God’s love to people who are new to us, God will be with us. Amen