In a world that worships growth, where bigger is always better, from soda pop servings to gross national product, the United Church is a loser.
Plants, people, perhaps institutions as well, once they stop growing begin to die. Not only is the United Church not growing, but it has shrunk by half since its peak a half century ago and now counts fewer members than at church union.
This is embarrassing, even humiliating. The pews used to be crowded every Sunday; when the moderator phoned, the prime minister took the call.
How could we have fallen so far when we’re so right with the times? Saving the planet! Women clergy! Same-sex marriage! If bigger is better, there must be something wrong with us.
What’s wrong, some say, is that we lack a marketing strategy. We need to sell salvation the way McDonald’s sells hamburgers: demographic studies, focus groups, giving the target audience what it wants (babysitting, sports clubs, lots of free parking). And none of this depressing talk about justice or the chance of a rich man getting into heaven. In troubled times, stick to a feel-good message: God has everything under control.
But that’s not the United Church. And what shall it profit us to gain the whole world if we lose our soul?
We can argue about whether growth in the world’s economies is good because it means a decent life for the poor, or bad because it destroys the planet we all share.
But for the church, growth is a false god. In the church, bigger is not necessarily better. More people crowding in the doors would indeed be a good thing, for the sake of their souls and our budgets. But growth as a goal in itself isn’t what it’s all about. When we measure ourselves by numbers inside the church, we lose hope and energy for the mission outside.
It’s true that fewer people show up on Sunday, but those who do are there because they really want to be. By one measure at least, today’s churchgoers are more committed: although the number of persons giving to the United Church has gone down over the past 10 years, the amount we give, even when adjusted for inflation, has gone up.
The Gospels never mention mega-churches. Jesus sends his disciples to share the good news, but he also urges them to love their neighbour and to seek justice and resist evil. He talks about his followers being the yeast, the salt, about being with them when two or three are gathered together. In our time, we’ve thought of congregations, with buildings and paid clergy, as being the church itself. But in Christianity’s 2,000-year history, there have been other, simpler forms of communities of faith, carrying on the mission in their time.
Someone who has something to say about this is Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopal lay minister who writes about what she calls emergence Christianity. About every 500 years, there is in her words “a great rummage sale” — the Reformation, the separation of Orthodox and Roman Catholics before that — when “whatever was in place simply gets cracked into smaller pieces, and then it picks itself up and reconfigures.”
If she is right, we are due for a new model of being church and, surprise, one more like the New Testament original. No buildings, no paid clergy, a committed few gathering with joy and hope. Their energy will go not to maintaining the institution but, like the salt or the yeast, to transforming the world around them, working together with people of all faiths or none.
Concentrate on that, and let growth happen, or not. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “Neither he who plants nor he who waters, but God gives the growth.”
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