Sunday, May 19, 2013

"That all may be none?!"

Text: Acts 2 1-21 (the day of Pentecost)

Pentecost Sunday is often called the birthday of the church. It marks the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples just a few days after Jesus has finally left them. Empowered by the Spirit, Peter and the other disciples preach, heal, and convert many people to the Way of the Cross; and from their initial efforts in Jerusalem, the worldwide church is born.

This year, however, we celebrate the church's birthday in the shadow of what might look like its impending death. The 2011 Canadian census figures, released two weeks ago, tell part of the tale. In its survey of religion, the census shows that the fastest growing group in Canada is people with no religion. It now includes 25% of us, up from 12% in 1991. Meanwhile, all mainline churches, including the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, the United Church of Canada, continue to shrink.

Around two million Canadians still claim adherence to the United Church; but only about 200,000 people show up in United Church sanctuaries on any given Sunday. Three quarter of Canadians still claim allegiance to one religion or another, but only about 10% of us attend worship on a regular basis.

Given these facts, what is there for us to celebrate this Pentecost? The United Church struggles with budget shortfalls, cutbacks, and the ageing of the people who keep our congregations running.

40 people from Chinook Presbytery discussed this situation at a workshop in Moose Jaw on May 10 and 11. We began by celebrating the things we love about our local churches. Then each person got a chance to name a lament they had about the state of the church. One woman at my table began to cry as she talked about generations of young people who do not know the Lord. Many of us shared her sadness.

The mood shifted on Saturday morning. We heard a presentation from Meewasin Valley United Church in Saskatoon. Like most churches, Meewasin has declined in numbers and resources over the last decades. So in 2012, they sold their church to a Seventh Day Adventist congregation; and today they worship in a lounge at St. Andrew's College at the University of Saskatchewan with a new sense of energy.

The people from Meewasin shared ideas about progressive theology and social justice. But I focused on their decision to sell their building. I think many congregations could be inspired by their decision to sell their church building while continuing as a distinct pastoral charge.

I suggested to the gathering that the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church consider a 10-year campaign in which every congregation sells its building. During that period, many of our churches would be forced to sell anyway, which is always a painful experience. Perhaps selling our properties as part of a province-wide campaign might take some of the sting out of this difficult step.

Together, we could then help each other to find new places in which to worship and serve, places such as community centres, seniors homes, drop-ins, living rooms, or ecumenical worship centres. We could share ways to remember and celebrate the sacred events that had occurred in our former sanctuaries. We could learn how to make any space feel like a sacred one in which to gather.

I repeat this idea here not to suggest that our boards move to immediately sell our properties, but to remind us that the problems we face are not unique. They are shared by virtually every other United Church congregation in Canada and by a large percentage of all faith communities in the country.

Nor do I raise the issue of the decline of the church to discourage us on Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit. I raise it because of the recent census report, the Presbytery workshop in Moose Jaw, and the United Church's three-year Comprehensive Review process. I hope that you will receive the radical suggestions I make today as brainstorming and as a way to stimulate all of our thoughts ahead of our conversation on June 4 with a Comprehensive Review facilitator.

The decline of the church has positive as well as negative effects, I believe. For instance, in the history of the church of the last 2,000 years, the longest period is also the one that troubles me the most: the church of empire. From the early 300s until the 20th Century, the Christian Church was the established state religion of the Roman Empire and its successor European empires.

The link between empire and church allowed Christianity to spread around the world. But it also implicated the church in all the negative features of empire: war, conquest, and oppression of all kinds.

In the last 30 years, the United Church has made great strides in coming to grips with its role in the destruction of First Nations culture in Canada's residential school system, and I am pleased that we have done so. But this process just scratches the surface, I believe, of the crimes committed in the name of our church over more than 1500 years. Thank God that those days are largely over.

This is not to say that empire has disappeared from the earth. Instead, it reflects the fact that today's empires no longer rely on the church as a key prop. Many scholars argue that this change occurred with the end of World War I, almost 100 years ago -- long before most of us were even born.

The war was a disaster for European civilization; and many churches were stripped of their official status as part of the attempt to cleanse Europe of its shame. This occurred at the same time that many of Europe's monarchies were also swept away. When the reign of the czars in Russia and of the kaisers in Germany and Austria came to an end, so did the official status of church in country after country.

After World War I, Canadians didn't immediately see the shift away from church,  perhaps because Canada was on the "winning" side of the war. The effects only become evident after 1960; and since then, the power of church has quickly waned.

To see some of the positive effects of growing secularization, we need only look at parts of the world where religion still influences public policy. In sub-Saharan Africa, conservative churches push governments to keep women as second class citizens and to punish homosexuality with death. In countries like Syria and Iraq, civil conflicts often follow the divisions between the Sunni and the Shia wings of Islam, in much the same way that Europe was torn apart by wars between Catholics and Protestants 400 years ago. In Burma, people from the majority Buddhist community often attack minority Muslims with horrible violence. The list could go on.

In Canada today where society is built upon free enquiry and scientific research, many of us resent attempts by conservative Christian or Muslim leaders to oppose science or to legislate morality on the basis of the Bible and the Koran.

Many of us look forward to the calming effect of secularization on volatile regions in Africa and the Middle East and to the continuing marginalization of those who want to legislate morality here in Canada based upon fundamentalism.

But given the irrelevance of church to most young Canadians, what are we to do as a pastoral charge or as a denomination? Even if we were to sell our buildings in order to lessen our financial burden, how can we continue to follow the path of Jesus with our ageing members and shrinking numbers?

Part of the answer, I think, might involve putting our denominational identity behind us. The United Church began when Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches joined forces 88 years ago. But for the last 50 years, we have not had success in uniting with other denominations since we became more liberal than the others. We were the first church in Canada to embrace equality for women and gay people, and the one that was most open to science and to non-church groups who tackle social problems like poverty or pollution.

I wonder if we might now be able to unite with Christians from any number of denominations -- Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Alliance -- in our mutual decline. If there is to be any Christian presence in small towns like ours 20 years from now, it can only come from combining our forces, I believe.

Worship might be a problem. I, for one, would feel uncomfortable to worship with conservative Christians who preached hellfire and damnation and second class status for women, gays and lesbians. So in a post-denominational church, we might need to have several worship streams: liberal, conservative, and so on.

But there remains much that I think we could do together: create ecumenical worship spaces, provide outreach to the poor, support community funerals, organize study and meditation groups, and so on.

One thing that might help facilitate working with people from different traditions, I think, would be to dissolve the United Church! In 2025, the United Church will celebrate its centennial. I would be happy if the Comprehensive Review group considered a recommendation to General Council in 2015 that we schedule a huge celebration of our centennial in 2025 -- and then dissolve in favour of something looser and less structured.

This radical decision would gain us a brief burst of media coverage, as well as scorn from both our secular and fundamentalist critics. But since the dissolution of the United Church seems inevitable over the next few decades anyway, the idea would be to get in front of the curve. At the least, I believe that talking about the end of the United Church and the beginning of something new could be useful.

Christianity is built upon death, endings and new beginnings. It was only when Jesus was killed that the dream of a new King of the Jews also died. Jesus' death cleared the way for his followers to better experience the God who is Love in Jesus' resurrection. 40 years later, the burning of Jerusalem and its Temple spurred the early church to move beyond its Palestinian roots into the rest of the Roman empire.

Today, the church faces a rapidly changing world. Like the first Christians, we are being forced to make drastic changes in how we follow Jesus. This fact does not mean that the Holy Spirit no longer touches our hearts and minds as it did Peter and the disciples at Pentecost 2000 years ago. It means that the Spirit might prompt us to try things that are different from our past.

I also believe there is nothing that any of us have to do. One option is to let the future take care of the future. Many here today have poured great time and energy into the mission of Jesus. What such people most deserve, I think, is celebration and thanks for long and faithful service, and perhaps a release from future obligations.

Nor do I believe that the fear expressed in Moose Jaw about today's youth need oppress us. God is much bigger than the church. True, many of today's youth are not learning Bible stories or adopting a life of worship and service in the church. But I trust that despite that, they are in touch with the living God.

The Spirit of Love calls us to work for God in Christ and not for our church. If the Spirit moves us towards something that no longer looks like church, we can follow that impulse with confidence even though we might also feel sadness.

Of course, my ideas of selling our buildings, dissolving the United Church into something post-denominational, and working with Christians from other traditions might not be good ones. But whatever changes come in the next years, we can trust that we will continue to be empowered and inspired by God's Holy Spirit.

No matter where we end up as individuals, as towns, or as a church, we know that our work will be informed and empowered by God's Love. As in the days of the first Pentecost, we trust that the Spirit will always lead us home to God.

Church may change. The Holy Spirit might bypass it completely in the future. But God's Love will always guide us, support us, and save us.

Thanks be to God. 


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