Thursday, October 9, 2008

This is not the best of times for the church

I don't like being despondent about the church and its future - it is God's church, after all. But I have done a lot of reflecting on our 'Diocesan attendance statistics' since 2007's figures were published at our recent Synod. Statistically we are a Diocese in decline, especially measured against a great high point in accelerating growth in the mid 1990s. And, of course, our Diocese is part of an Anglican church in statistical decline in these islands, and our 'western' Anglican church is part of a declining Anglican Communion in its 'western' regions.

I recognise - thankfully - that there are many wonderful exceptions to the decline in the Western Anglican church (and, indeed, to a general decline in all Western Christianity). These exceptions are attributable to some reproducible factors (well-trained clergy, relevant and engaging preaching, etc), though I wonder if some of these factors work better in larger cities than in smaller towns and country areas.

What's going on in the non-exceptional parts of our diocese and wider church? Partly I think we are neglecting some basics in the provision of ministry (e.g. pastoral visiting); partly we are confused in what we are offering (e.g. a quasi-pentecostal format) when our long-term strength and experience lies in offering a 'reformed catholic' form of church; partly we are weak in our national leadership (e.g. here in ACANZP our General Synod has proposed a series of 'dumbing down' and 'watering down' eucharistic prayers) but mostly we are not responding smartly enough to the continuing social changes in the Western world which, whenever they were conceived, came to life with vigour in the 1960s.

Yesterday I went to a huge funeral for a member of my extended family - a real good bloke who died way too young. The funeral was well taken by a local Nelson minister who specialises as a 'funeral celebrant' in taking funerals for a wide range of people in our community. Looking around the vast crowd I knew few people, and most there would have been (guessing reasonably) more familiar with the portals of pubs, rugby clubs, and sports bars than the doors of churches. Here I take another guess: most there could engage with the way the funeral touched on the possibility of God's presence, but few could engage with evangelicalism's tendency to engage through extensive reading and rational argument, or charismaticism/Pentecostalism's tendency to celebrate the weird and wacky as signs of God's reality. I wonder - but am not sure - whether Catholicism's tendency to elevate symbolism might connect better: there were some interesting and moving symbolic elements in the service yesterday. OK, so much is speculative in my thinking here, but I am suggesting that some elements which we have prized greatly in our Diocese in recent years may be good and worthwhile; but not enough to reach a large and increasing majority of our society which is either unchurched or rapidly losing touch with church. Put another way: in the 1990s I think we got a number of things right about how to be excellent churches, and we drew in a goodly number of people either already Christian/churched or open to becoming and growing as a Christian. But what we got wrong in our busyness being excellent was a failure to engage with accelerating secularization in our society. A decade or so later, during which people have moved, died, or whatever, we have a decline in numbers, and few new people coming into our fellowship.

Or perhaps there is another explanation!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Peter - as always, an honest and thoughtful reflection.
I wonder if there are other factors from the wider antipathetic culture that are hindering evangelicalism from being as effective as it could. A couple of random thoughts:
- Have personal devotional lives become too thin and lax, and maybe too individualistic, for many church members? Do we need to rediscover the discipline of praying and reading the Bible together? A passion for winning others for Christ can only be born in prayer and the sad belief that others are lost without him. It needs to be daily discipline of each Christian to ask the Lord to give him or her at least one conversation with another person about faith in the course of the week.
- What would Nelson be like if it had its own diocesan high school, a place where Christian faith was openly taught and practiced among the young?