While I am incredibly proud of how all our parishes have innovated and persevered through COVID-19, I am also hearing a common refrain about how, “We’re still not back to our pre-COVID-19 numbers.” I am aware that there is a certain amount of anxiety in the system about the future.
In Facing Decline, Finding Hope: New Possibilities for Faithful Christians, Jeffrey D. Jones posits that when churches look at the issues of decline that are ubiquitous in our era, we are asking the wrong questions.
We ask, How do we bring them in?
When in fact we should be asking, How do we send them out?
We ask, What should the clergy do?
When in fact we should be asking, What is our congregation’s shared ministry?
We ask, What’s our vison and how do we implement it?
When in fact we should be asking, What’s God up to and how do we get on board?
We ask, How do we survive?
When really we should be asking, How do we serve?
We ask, What are we doing to save people?
When really we should be asking, What are we doing to make the reign of God more present in this place?
While these might not be the definitive questions we should be asking, I am sure that Jones is onto something here. For instance, so often I hear congregations ask, How do we get more kids in Sunday school? Perhaps we should instead be asking, How do we meet the needs of the children in our community? So many of our questions are focused on institutional maintenance and survival instead of on transformative love and service in the world.
The church is facing many perceived problems right now. In your parish, I invite you to step back for a moment and make sure your community is framing the issue in the right way — asking the right questions — for our answers and solutions are only as good as our questions.
Maybe the question isn’t how do we get more kids in Sunday school but what new thing is God calling us to do now that Sunday school is not taking up so much of our time, resources and physical space? Maybe the question is…
What are the needs of the children of this neighbourhood?
Are they going to school hungry?
Do they need a safe place to be after school?
Do they need the joy of being part of a multi-generational community?
Do they need surrogate family?
Sunday school was birthed as a way to teach children who were working in factories to read. They were missing out on school during the week, so the church tried to make up for it on Sundays. The world, thankfully, has changed, and we need to change too.
As we begin a new church year, let us make sure we are asking the right questions. Let us be awake to what God is doing in our midst, what new opportunities and challenges are before us, and how we are called to faithfully respond.