In the fall, the Council of General Synod and the House of Bishops heard the Rev. Neil Elliot’s statistical report. The stark decline seen in that report was sobering but hardly a surprise to anyone in the church. We know that we have fewer people in the pews, aging congregations, fewer young people and church buildings that are closing. There is a profound sense of grief for many people at the changes and losses in the church in their lifetime.
It would be easy to despair! However, the numbers are simply a description—a snapshot in time of the life of the church and a possible future—if nothing changes. They are a mirror of our condition and a wake-up call if we are listening.
The statistics, however, do not tell the whole story. Our primary purpose is not to fill the pews of every church. Our call is to tell the Good News in word and action and invite others to join us in the adventure of faith in the God of all creation. Our call is to live the Five Marks of Mission daily in our generation. The statistics are the mirror that tells us that others do not see or hear in us good news for their lives. They do not believe we are a community of hope for what they face daily. The church has become irrelevant to many. There are many possible causes for that shift in trust in the church, and we could be distracted by a desire to understand them all first. However, we who follow Jesus know the power of the gospel to offer hope and give meaning and joy in our lives as we live the way of our Creator. That is our starting place.
Through most of the years of my ministry I have experienced this rapid decline in numbers. It has been deeply discouraging, leading to painful self-examination and fear for the future. It was at times paralyzing, as no program to fix the decline could be found. Over these years I came to realize that I needed to reframe the whole situation. There is no simple or single “fix.” We are simply challenged to set out on a journey with God to explore sharing the faith in the new ways. Like the Israelites in the exodus, we are being sent out not knowing our destination. We are being sent out of the comfort and plenty we once knew into discovering a new resiliency.
We will need to be willing to take risks and wrong turns. We will need to be flexible and responsive. We will need perseverance and patience. We will need to look with new, open eyes at our world, to be curious about its needs and be neighbours to all. Our temptation will be to succumb to fear or retreat and resist any changes. Our challenge will be increasing our capacity to both be and tell good news, in the particular communities in which we have been placed, in ways that may be heard and that are filled with the hope and courage of the gospel.
At the heart of all we do to face the challenge, we will need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. As we celebrate the revelation of Jesus to magi, we are called—like prophets and fishermen before us—to see Jesus afresh and ask how we will point the way to him for those who have not met him. That is our most important challenge!