Recently, I have heard many clergy pose the following question in one way or another: Will they come back? Usually, this question is accompanied with a sense of dread, fear, and helplessness. The question rarely generates a sense of energy and opportunity.
Over the past two years, many congregations experienced an upswing in the number of views on their online platforms – services are now being seen by people far from the home building. This was, and in some cases, continues to be exciting. The numbers returning to the church building, however, are not strong. Anecdotally, it appears that congregations across the denominational spectrum are seeing approximately 40% of their people return. Where are the remaining 60%? Some are still attending online; some have dropped off, and some – well, no one really knows. What is known is that families with children appear to be among the least likely to return. For those responsible for leading the church in this time, and those who care deeply for their faith communities, these statistics are hard news.
Pressing questions impose themselves on congregational leaders: How do we build a sense of community and belonging among those who connect online only? What about our Children’s Sunday School – can it live again? Will we live again? What does it mean to thrive today? And – perhaps most poignant of all – how do clergy survive the burnout so many are feeling after two years of online worship and now, with decreased attendance numbers?
Of course, there are glory stories – some congregations that have grown in numbers; some have confidently reoriented themselves to the online space. The glory stories, however, are not the majority. The church, especially in Canada, was in decline long before the pandemic. Covid-19, it appears, has hastened a dynamic already in full swing before 2020.
What does it mean to be the church today?
There are practical things that the church can do. At Credence, we talk about the “Characteristics of Thriving Churches in an Age of Anxiety.” These characteristics – there are 10 of them – matter. They are connected to the longings of our time and the various ways churches can speak to these longings. How leaders show up on Sundays and all the days in between influences whether or how congregations thrive. The ways congregations build community, develop an attentive listening stance, talk about faith – all of this is critical.
For this article, however, I would like to frame some of these characteristics in new ways to reflect the realities that are coming into stark relief in our post-Covid landscape. To thrive in our current time, we are invited to enter silence, to take an intentional journey of listening and being present to the deeper Wisdom that wants to be known in the current moment. Let us be present for a moment to the stirrings in our souls. In silence we encounter our inner voice more clearly than when we are busy. What is your inner voice telling you? How are you really doing?
Entering silence is not easy. Present to our interior condition, we may discover a dirge in our souls, a lament or a weeping for all that we have lost – and for all that we fear losing. Did we hitch our wagon to the wrong horse? Will we be asked to preside over the end of the church?
There is much to lament: Our exhaustion, our fears, our failures. Our diminished communities of faith. The public disregard for the church. Accusations of exclusion, misconduct and irrelevance laid at the feet of the church – some of which are true.
It is difficult to face accusations and decline. It is hard to see beloved members say: I don’t think it’s important for me or my children to be here any longer. It is hard to know that many of the people in one’s pews are ashamed to say they are a part of the church. A recent study by the Angus Reid Institute offered that while 68% of Canadians report a religious affiliation (including Christianity, Hindu, Islam, Judaism, etc.), 19% identify as non-believers and 46% identify as spiritually uncertain. In other words, many who report a religious affiliation also identify as spiritually uncertain. Among non-religious Canadians, 39% believe religion contributes “more harm than good to society.”
There is much to lament.
We are invited to be present to our lament because we cannot transform that which we have not accepted. Lament allows us to look into the face of our pain, to name the truth of our experience, and our complicity in harm. Lament allows us to release ourselves, our guilt, and our pain into God’s care.
Embraced in God’s care, we are invited to listen deeply for what it means to be faithful in this moment in time. Success, if there is such thing, cannot be measured in numbers (even for congregations that report larger attendance numbers). While numbers can be meaningful (there is wisdom in understanding who is coming, who has left, and why people have made the choices they have made), defining success by numbers can be misleading, causing a performance approach to worship rather than listening for what faithfulness means today.
If we listen deeply, what will we hear?
We may hear that the way up always involves going down first. This is the wisdom of the Christian tradition: cross comes before resurrection. The long season of decline in which we find ourselves can – and must – transform the church in meaningful and important ways. At the foot of the cross, our understanding of what faith means may be rocked off its moorings. While this is not easy, being rocked off our moorings seems crucial if are to allow a deeper Wisdom to speak into our lives and communities. One thing is sure: This deeper Wisdom will ask us to listen, to listen hard to and for the needs in our larger culture. While the church may be in pain, our society is as well. The needs in our larger community are plentiful – too many to count. For the church, the journey from cross to resurrection includes both an inner and an outer transformation. We are asked to speak in new ways into the needs of our time. As we listen, what will we learn about how we are meant to be present to this pain?
Will our listening bring our people back? Maybe.
Will we feel successful? Maybe.
Will our congregations “live” into the next generation? Again, maybe.
We need not be afraid of the ambiguity associated with the outcome of our listening. Our goal is not to live forever. Our goal is to live faithfully. Let us lament and listen, and in so doing, find our way.
Thanks to Mark McAlister of the Free Methodist Church in Canada for this statistic.
Link to study: https://angusreid.org/canada-religion-interfaith-holy-week/. Link to article about the study: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/nearly-half-of-canadians-say-religion-contributes-both-good-and-bad-to-society-survey-1.5867548. See also https://globalnews.ca/news/8759564/canada-religion-society-perceptions/