This month, I am taking up a portion of my future placement in the Canberra Region Presbytery, in a 25% supply role, alongside of my 75% IIM Placement. This will run through into early next year, when I will move into the full time role as Presbytery Minister—Wellbeing in the Canberra Region.
I was asked to offer some reflections on the theme for the May meeting of Presbytery, when we will be considering what it means to be discovering new futures and letting go of the old. So, here goes …..
From time to time I hear people reminiscing about “the ways things used to be”. Often, the narrative is one of “things just aren’t as good now as they used to be”. You might know the script; it goes something like: “not enough people ‘come to church’ on Sunday mornings … we have no Sunday School … there is no Youth Group … the Women’s Fellowship has closed … the rosters have empty spaces … nobody wants to do the flowers … there aren’t enough greeters.”
I hear these things. I listen. I nod and make empathic noises.
I start to talk about how things are, indeed, different now. How the church is in a different place in society. How society itself is different, now, from 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 60 years ago. How people are looking for different things, now. How the Sunday morning four-hymn sandwich, sitting quietly and listening to a 20 minute monologue, is not what “younger people” accept as valuable, any more. (And some “older people”, too!)
I might push back a little more. What does this congregation offer, to people who are looking for a place to connect with their faith? How do we welcome people? How do we disciple people? How do we connect with people in the ways that they best appreciate and look for? What are we doing to grow our own sense of what it is that people in the community around us are hungering for?
I wonder whether this is the right line to take. I wonder whether this just reinforces the resistance and strengthens the frustrations of those who express these things to me.
So, could there be a different line of approach to take? From time to time, I mull over a different kind of response. One that goes something like this, instead:
The challenge that faces the church as our numbers decline, is in fact a wonderful opportunity. It is an opportunity for us to renew ourselves. It is an opportunity to become deeply incarnational. It is an opportunity for us to contextualise the way we express and live out our faith. It is an opportunity to discover new futures.
To be incarnational, means to enter fully into the reality of human life that we find all around us. It means to “take on the flesh” of the society of which we are a part.
(Don’t freak out—that is entirely biblical. That is what, we say, Jesus did, when he “became human” and “pitched his tent in our midst”—to paraphrase John 1:14.)
To be incarnational, means to live in this world, amongst our fellow human beings, as one of them, bringing into this situation a sense of the “more than” that the Gospel offers; a sense of the “dimension beyond” the immediate that we proclaim.
To be incarnational is to be contextual. To be immersed in the context. To be part of the community that lives, sleeps, eats, shops, works, plays, and relaxes, within the very neighbourhood where the church is.
Instead of yearning for more people to come to church on Sunday morning, perhaps we should become more active in engaging with people out there in the parks, the shopping centres, the gathering places, in our local community. These are the new futures waiting for us to discover them.
Instead of lamenting decline, perhaps we need to be seizing the day, grasping the opportunity, becoming deeply incarnational, ensuring that we are thoroughly contextual, as we discover the new futures that God has in store for us.
The church, in many places, has lost contact with people in the wider community. Long ago, the church was at the centre of society. Every local church was a community hub. People from the community, with minimal or no religious commitment, were regularly in the church, on the premises, interacting with church people.
Over time, the church lost those connections. We gradually moved closer to the edges. We lost this strong central position, this robust community engagement. Slowly, but surely.
So now, the challenge is to recapture that central position, to re-engage with the community, to reconnect with people across the spectrum of society, to be incarnate within the community, to let go of the old and discover our new futures.
The challenge of the moment is the incarnational opportunity. Can we hear the call, to let go of the old, and discover new futures? Let’s seize it with enthusiasm!