A new year has begun. A new year, and a new opportunity to lament a church in decline. Each year, the lament grows louder as denominational leaders and local pastors anxiously demand to know why nobody wants to go to church anymore.
I get it. I do. I am a part of a denomination in decline.
And yet, even here in Canada, I find that so many of the most-talked about end-of-the-world and end-of-the-church scenarios being referenced do not come from our country at all. Instead, they come from United States. And while that isn’t a problem per se (folk to the south have every right to lament the church’s transition too), it leaves me feeling more than a little exasperated.
I’m left exasperated for two reasons:
1) As a Canadian, I see no reason to fixate on the state of the church in the United States.
2) As a Christian who understands Jesus’ resurrection to be central to our common faith, I see no reason to fixate on the church’s state of decline uncoupled from a commitment to moving creatively into God’s dream for the future.
I believe in resurrection. But I also know that you have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter. To do so will require patient, unglamorous acts of fidelity and love. And we have to do it. We have to faithfully travel through the disorientation of Good Friday and Holy Saturday to see what – if anything – is on the other side. Will it all work out as we’ve planned?
With God, there is always maybe.
There are some areas of our country – predominantly located in Canada’s Bible Belt – that seem resiliently able to remain in denial. There are those who proclaim “He is Risen” while glossing over the pain of Good Friday coupled with the disorientation and unknowing of Holy Saturday.
But to be faithful to the story is to accept all of it. Even the hard bits. To be faithful to the story requires that we enter into death and unknowing to find out what God might have in store.
For those of us who believe that God was made flesh incarnate, and that God – in Jesus – lived, died, and rose again, we cannot jump to the church’s resurrection – whatever that will look like – without travelling through this very real time of death and disorientation.
There are some parts of the country where the decline isn’t as noticeable. But for those of us in places like Quebec and British Columbia, we’re running out of excuses. We must recognize where we are, what time it is, and the significance of the illness. There will be death. But we live as God’s covenant people. We live as people who have received the promise of God’s fidelity, even when we have been unfaithful to God and God’s dream.
So where are we? Those financial bequests of the last years won’t last forever. We’re burning through the capital of those legacy gifts and endowments at alarming rates. Many congregations are shrinking (and yes, there are some who are not).
Death is with us, has been with us for some time, and we need to figure out what it means to be church here and now, not in a cultural context that is 20 years behind the decline of Christendom in Canada. And so, with each passing day, it becomes less and less helpful to pass around articles from US-based churches on their state of decline. There might be some interesting stories, but their cultural location is light years from our own.
To fixate on these stories from another country is to be distracted from our own neighbourhoods, our own context, and our own ability to be faithfully present. Here. Now.
Do we not want to exegete our own culture?
Do we not want to do the hard work of discerning our vocation and ministry in this place? Sometimes I wonder if all we’re looking for is validation for that sinking feeling we’ve had creeping up on us for decades? And so, I’ve written a letter. And I hope you’ll read it. It’s for me as much as it is for any of you. I’m as implicated as anyone in the present state of affairs, as well as whatever future God is dreaming for us.
To the church in Canada.
As should be patently obvious at this point in history, the church in the United States has little to teach us. Even its most secular of cities – think Portland or Seattle – do not compare with our reality. You might find sparks and ideas, but you need to remember:
This is not that.
We are not them.
Here is not there.
Turn your face into the wind, listen to your neighbours, and respond as though your feet are planted on this soil. Become familiar with this place, its people, and all of God’s good creation that inhabit these watersheds. Feel the grit between your toes. Get to know the terrain. Begin to understand your watershed, and its inhabitants. Tread lightly in this place, for it is through this place and its inhabitants that God seeks to bring you – and many others – life.
Turn your face into the creating, sustaining wind of Holy Spirit and ask for the wisdom to understand what gospel might look like, sound like, feel like in this place.
And then listen.
And listen some more.
We have work to do. Of course there is work to do, and that work is manifold. But hear this: our witness is compromised. If we are to move forward faithfully, we will need to listen. And when we listen, we might discover a few things that will shape our participation in God’s mission for the days ahead.
The church needs to be decolonized. Perhaps we can join together in prayer that this be so.
Our toxic masculinity and misogyny need to be expunged. Our racism – implicit and explicit – requires repentance. Our classism requires redress. We need to stare down our glaring homophobia and transphobia, and repent. The structures that exclude those of differing abilities need to be dismantled. Our rampant abuse of the earth is only further evidence of our infidelity to God’s creational covenant and our unwillingness to live in right relationship with the people indigenous to this land.
We need to listen deeply to Jesus. To what he is saying here. Now. With and amongst and through and to our neighbours. We need to start in silence. We need to continue to listen to the stories that are being told.
When she says #metoo or #churchtoo, listen up. Hear her. Believe her. Weep. Confess. Resist. We are complicit. All of us. To borrow a phrase, “there is no one righteous, not even one.”
As members of Christ’s body we have responsibility to one another. Let it start with you. Let it start with me. But for God’s sake, let it begin.
It is time to strip this whole ship down. Dismantle it. Become citizens of this land. We must call this place home, and act as though we can never go back to wherever it is we came from. The Euro-tribal church has had its run, and it’s time to abandon ship.
We are here. Let us learn to call this place home. May we respond to the people that surround us in fidelity and love. Grow in relationship with God’s non-human creation in the watersheds that give us life. May we grow in relationship to the God who created it all, who created us all, and who calls the whole mess of it good.
Perhaps, once the ship has been stripped down, we will finally be able to listen. To learn. To honour our bodies and others’ bodies. Perhaps then we will recognise that our bodies are granted life by the broken body of the earth, and the Creator who called it all into being.
Perhaps, once the ship has been disassembled, we will finally be able to take it for what it was – a tool. But it is not a tool for, and of this land. To move forward in fidelity to Christ will require us to pay attention to the shipbuilders of this place, and those who question the need for ships altogether.
It is our time to listen. To listen for others’ embodied witness, to take it in, to meditate on it, to let it change us, rather than incessantly talking over the witnesses indigenous to this place with our limited understanding of what God has already been doing here.
Then, and only then, will we be able to know what – if anything – is worth salvaging to be Christian in this place. There may be some things. My bet is we’ll be surprised by what exactly that might be. Whatever the case, our task now is to venture further up and further in, discerning at every step of the way, how we might become faithful to the one who was here long before we ever arrived.
What might it look like to be a part of God’s family in this time and place? Creator invites us. Jesus shows us. Holy Spirit inspires us. All we have to do now is listen, and respond.