I grew up in a struggling rural church. The Sunday school was small. By the time I got to high school, I was one of only a couple of nominally involved youth left. St. James’ Hanover was part of a two-point parish for its whole existence, which means it was never big enough to sustain one priest’s whole salary on its own. The stories of full-to-bursting Sunday schools reported to me by the bigger churches in which I later served—stories of confirmation classes of hundreds—these were so hard to believe that only the pictures of 400 smiling children assured me that this was not made up.
I didn’t go into ordained ministry thinking that it would be a full-time, lifelong career. One of the reasons why I struggled against that sense of call so desperately was that I wanted to work in a field that would be financially stable and viable—and even 25 years ago when I was just considering this horizon, the church didn’t look like it would tick those particular boxes. When I reoriented my path toward seminary—both compelled and reluctant—I was told at every juncture of discernment that, despite the large amounts of time and money that I was pouring into my theological education, there was no guarantee of a job at the end.
The decline of the church doesn’t surprise me. It formed me.
That being said, my 15 years of ordained ministry in this declining church have been full of surprises.
IN PASSION: Although it is tempting to long for the “golden days” of the church, when a leader (always male then, so these imaginings only take me so far) could look out on congregations that seemed eternally full and generative, the joy of ministering in congregations that consist of people who have made a very distinct choice to be there cannot be underestimated. People no longer come to church out of habit, to be part of a club or because it is in any way expected of them. They are choosing to be there rather than choosing to be hundreds of other places. The church may be declining, but so is the polite Anglicanism with which many of us grew up. Our spiritual hunger is being laid bare.
IN CONNECTION: I was odd among my high school friends for attending and being involved in my church. But as an ordained leader, I have had the opportunity to connect with countless people my age and younger who also want to step out of the mainstream and embrace the weirdness of our church. If there has been a consistent frustration in those years, it has been the never-ending litany of older people of the church telling me “what young people want” in the church. It turns out, strangely, that young people are just as diverse a group as I remember in the halls of high school. While I no longer particularly qualify as young in most circles, I am still heartened to find among people in their teens, twenties, thirties and forties those who, like me, find themselves able to follow Jesus because of the charisms of our Anglican church: because of our connection to the past and our reformed insistence that God is still working on us; because of our poetry and symbols and sacramentality, as well as the intellectual freedom we encourage.
IN FAITHFULNESS: The church is not the only seemingly staid institution of society that has been radically reimagined in the past decades. Those who work in music, journalism and even the funeral home business (what could have seemed like more of a guaranteed industry than that?) have had to reinvent themselves, often at a pace much faster than the church. The instability of our institutional life encourages a kind of radical faithfulness that is its own gift. As my friend Rob Hurkmans says, the only thing to do when you’re in over your head is to get on your knees. There simply is no option for setting budgets, offering programs, or opening the doors of our churches without resting in the promise of the God who does do more than we can ask or imagine. Every day in ministry is an opportunity to wade into the metaphorical waters of baptism again, to watch old ways die before our eyes and to participate in the new thing being born.
IN GROWTH: The biggest surprise for me in the declining church has been the experience of growth. I have gotten to be part of churches that have grown and flourished in ways that I couldn’t have imagined growing up in my struggling, rural church. I don’t believe that numerical growth is guaranteed into my future as a church leader. But I also don’t believe it is impossible. Researcher Dave Haskell offered a study several years ago on growing mainline churches. In a phone conversation with me after the study had wrapped up, he noted that the common denominators among these growing churches could be boiled down into this: growing churches expect God to act. There are a lot of ways that we need to define growth, and those who get trapped into thinking that numerical growth is the most important indicator will be in trouble in more ways than one (ironically, the so-called declining church still insists on measuring growth almost exclusively by numbers).
The thing about expecting God to act is that we can rarely anticipate what God’s activity is going to look like. But what my formation in the declining church has surely taught me is that Christ has built this Anglican church for all of these years because weird people like me are also valued disciples. It’s up to us to steward the gift that is this church, in whatever form it needs to take; it’s up to God to continue to provide a way for people like us to seek and serve Jesus.