Are declining numbers and empty pews a serious problem for the Christian church today? Not according to the new Bishop of Crediton of the Church of England, Dame Sarah Mullally.
Dame Sarah, former Chief Nursing Officer on the UK’s Nation al Health Service and now an Anglican priest and the church’s newest Bishop Designate, said in a media interview recently that people will still “encounter God” without ever taking their place in a pew. She went on to say that “...clerics must recognise that young people are as likely to hear the Christian message through social media sites such as Facebook or in cafés as in a church.”, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Society is changing, she went on to say, and membership in many organizations is declining. She pointed out that many people encounter the church and encounter God, but will only occasionally engage the church on a Sunday.
This is the kind of forward thinking I like to se happening in the church. For far too long and especially in North America and western Europe we have been bound to buildings where somehow we thing God can be found.
God isn’t just in church buildings. God can be found in many places; in a hospital room; in a hospice; at a local coffee shop. God can be found on the ranges at Meaford and on the cliffs overlooking Georgian Bay at Cypress Lake. God can be encountered anywhere.
That does not make the church, as a gathering irrelevant. By definition, one can not practice the Christian faith alone. It’s a faith founded in community and community gathering. But Gos is everywhere.
Many years ago I knew of a Roman Catholic parish which had an ongoing dilemma. They held Mass every Sunday in a local community centre. Sixty of seventy showed up regularly and I was told there were probably a hundred or so families connected to the parish. They had property a mile down the road from the community centre. There was even a big sign on the property saying that this would be the new home of St. So and So Roman Catholic Church.
Over the years, the sign became more and more worn. The paint peeled and eventually the wind blew the sign over.
The parish could not come to agreement whether they should build a ”proper” church or keep using the community centre. One group argued that the money raised for a building could be better used for mission and outreach work while the other group sais that they needed a permanent, dedicated church building.
If God can be found anywhere (or at least beyond the church doors), doesn’t it make sense to worry less about buildings and more about mission?
I envied that parish and their freedom. Every church I have served has had a permanent sanctuary that has taken up an increasing amount of money to heat, cool and repair. Is that a responsible use of time, talent and treasure? Or should it be dedicated to outreach in the community?
On one hand, it’s a chicken and egg situation. On the other, it neatly captures the dilemma the Christian church faces today.
I don’t have any solution to offer, but I agree with the Bishop of Crediton. God can be found and encountered in many places in life. The more important question is Where will the church be found? In those many places? Or only in it’s buildings?
The answer will be an interesting one.