Monday, 11 January 2016

Churches must look outward

With the turning of the new year, the usual prognosticators come out to suggest where we will be in a year’s time. They predict the stock market will be up or down. Interest rates will be higher or lower. No one will predict anything about North Korea.
The same is often true in the church. People want to predict this or that about the future. And they are mostly wrong.
But fear not. I’ve taken a number of predictions about the church which I have read over the last month and come to some conclusions. And I’m willing to take the risk of making a few predictions about the church in general.

 No question, churches are in trouble. In the United Church alone, the national church’s budget is being cut by 30% in the coming year. Layoffs are already beginning. A new governance structure for the church has been proposed and putting it into place has already started.

 The Mennonite Church Canada, not a high profile denomination, found itself $300,000 in the red last November and laid off five staff.

 The late Phyllis Tickle, an American scholar and author, said in her recent book, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why” that every years or so, the church has a giant garage sale, getting rid of the stuff it no longer needs.

 During this garage sale, she said, the institutionalized church throws off things that are restricting its growth, breaking open “the incrustations of an overly established Christianity.”

 For Western Christianity, the first garage sale was when Pope Gregory the Great helped bring the church out of the dark ages. The second was the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. The third was the Protestant Reformation, about 500 years ago.

 And the next one, she said, is happening right now.

 I think she’s right. We have only to look at the breaking down of “incrustations” in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Francis to see what that means.

 For Protestants, it’s a little more complex.

 The Protestant church, has, I believe, lost its sense of mission. It has become confused. Denominations are not clear on their focus. Local congregations have, in many cases, turned inward for survival, focussing on keeping the doors open and the lights on as opposed to remembering that the church, no matter what the denomination, is about mission first. And lack of clarity and priority about mission is killing the church.

Churches, large and small, which understand they have a mission (and it doesn’t have to be a complex mission other than it has to be outwardly focussed) will survive and do well in the next decade. The rest? No so much.

 Want to know who those churches are? Just look at the churches who support and sponsor refugee families coming into Canada. Look for the churches that support food banks and soup kitchens with their time and money. Find the churches who welcome people with disabilities; seniors; children. The list goes on.

 The churches who do those things and live out their mission will be around ten years from now. The remainder? I doubt it. At least that’s what I predict. But don’t take it to the bank.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.