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On New Year’s Day I received the following email letter from Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan monk, and one of the leading re-thinkers of Christianity in our day. It began: “Our religion is not working well. Another year has ended—a new year begins—in which suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, and meaninglessness still abound. This is not even close to the reign of God that Jesus taught. And we must be frank: in their behavior and impact upon the world, Christians are not much different than other people. The majority of Christians are not highly transformed people, but tend to reflect their own culture more than they operate as any kind of leaven within it. I speak especially of American Christians, because I am one. But if you are from another country, look at the Christians where you live and see if the same is true there. Let’s be honest: religion has probably never had such a bad name. Christianity is now seen as “irrelevant” by many and often as part of the problem more than any kind of solution. Some of us are almost embarrassed to say we are Christian because of the negative images that word conjures in others’ minds. Young people especially are turned off by how judgmental, exclusionary, impractical, and ineffective Christian culture seems to be.” (Rohr, 010117)

Recently, a McLean’s article (“It has Risen: Is this the key to growing Protestant churches?” November, 2016) based on a research project led by David Haskell, a journalism professor at Laurier University, suggested that the only Protestant congregations that are growing are those with a conservative theology. They entitled their article Theology Matters because, according to their conclusions, communities of faith that hold liberal or progressive theological positions are doomed to die. So much for us here at Wesley!

But before we call it quits and sell off our assets to some more conservative group, let’s look a little more closely at what that research really tells us!

In an article responding to this research project, Bradley Morrison, a professor of Church Growth at Huron University (Western) as well as a United Church minister in Sarnia, points out that all this research project did was reaffirm what similar research has been saying for 40 years about how conservative churches grow. It doesn’t tell us anything at all (either positive or negative) about progressive congregations.

What it does tell us is that conservative theology lends itself to a particular understanding about church membership. This has been called “the Strictness Thesis” and involves 3 characteristics that provide the conditions for growing congregations:

1) Allegiance to an authority (either scripture or a leader) (which leads to a strong sense of common identity and purpose;) 2) No ‘free riders’: high expectations about participation in congregational life and personal spiritual practices (which maximizes people and financial resources); 3) Active recruitment through evangelism (reaching out to “save” others) (which not only brings people in, but creates the personal transformation in them that strengthens their church participation.) 

“So where does that leave liberal Christians and liberal theology?” Morrison asks. “What if the Bible is authoritative for you, but not because you believe it is the ‘literal word of God’? What if your liberal convictions about individual freedom make you cautious about someone dictating how you should live and believe? What if the thought of (conservative-style) evangelism scares you?” Is it possible to be “evangelical” without being a conservative fundamentalist?

The truth is, liberal congregations decline in membership, NOT because of their theology, but because liberal Christians don’t recruit! The hard-sell, ‘We’re saved; you’re not!” approach of most of those we call “evangelical Christians” doesn’t fit with our beliefs. We’re more interested in social justice and making our world more like the ‘Kingdom of God’ that Jesus described. We work to be the “leaven in the loaf” that helps it rise and become the best bread possible without overwhelming or dominating its flavours. We want people to be persuaded by our Good News through how we live amongst them and make our communities more loving rather than by hellfire and brimstone scare tactics.

But just because we don’t believe in evangelism through fear and judgment does not mean we don’t need to share our Good News! Too many of us in liberal congregations still tend to live with an  “if you build it they will come” mentality (which was probably true for the first 25 years after WWII, when societies were rebuilding and mainline Protestant churches were part of that re-establishment of stability and culture. A gentle invitation and a weekly newspaper article were all it took to draw new members. Churches were at the centre of community building efforts.) It’s not that way any more!

If churches want to grow their memberships they have to have a clear sense of what it is they have to offer and a deliberate strategy about how to “market” themselves to the general public.

But recruitment has to have some higher purpose than merely ‘more bums in the pews!’ People need to experience transformation and a sense of higher purpose in order to become full-fledged participants in congregational life. Just being ‘welcoming’ or declaring ourselves ‘an affirming congregation’ or offering ‘hospitality’ won’t cut it! Most newcomers soon feel disappointed when such claims aren’t followed up with opportunities and expectations for other forms of involvement.

Also, despite our claims that social justice is our higher purpose and mission, it soon becomes apparent, says Morrison, that the REAL mission for many of us is to keep the church open long enough for the established members to have their funerals.  

Expectations that clergy can design worship experiences and sermons that will magically attract new members is an illusion. At best, that attracts more spectators, not participants. “Free Riders” don’t grow progressive congregations either!

So what do liberal churches need to do to grow? What can we learn from the research without coming to the same conclusion as the authors that what we believe is wrong?

 “Proclamation Ministry” is a church-growing strategy that works for congregations with a more progressive theology. It begins with getting a clear sense of what our mission and purpose is a community of faith. Finding a common purpose that unites us could happen by focusing on helping parishioners to be ‘the Church in the world,’ ‘the leaven in the loaf.’

1) Identifying Good News stories:  We need to learn how to recognize and celebrate where Christians are already busy making a difference in their community and how this activity is “Good News in Action.” Think of all the ways Wesley folk are involved in this community … (e.g. The Bridges, Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, Apple Café, Edna Light’s Soup Kitchen in South Africa, our monthly support of community groups like this month’s efforts for Lisaard House, not to mention the many you who are involved in service clubs, or coaching teams, or volunteering with Hospice or visiting the sick and elderly.) 2) Sharing these stories:  We need to encourage each other to tell our stories of being “Good News Agents” in the community. We should be celebrating good news events and accomplishments, proclaiming the ‘mighty acts’ being done through our members, the ways parishioners are making a difference in the world and in the lives of other people! We need to encourage our parishioners to open themselves to being humbled by the surprising ways God can act through us when we simply make ourselves available. 3) Supporting Good News makers: When people see their daily care and community service as “Good News” they develop a sense of ministry. And if they see their congregation as a resource and partner in their ministry, they will want it to thrive and be strong. We need to make the church into a training camp for “Good News Agents,” not a hiding place for “the Saved.” 4) Inviting more people to be part of our Good News story: Recruiting others into our congregation doesn’t happen so we can strengthen our congregation, but because we believe that being part of this congregation enriches and empowers our lives, and can do the same for them. People will trust the invitation to join our community if they see that our congregation is a resource to support their efforts to care for others and serve their community.

“What will make a difference to the future is awakening to a faith that fully communicates God’s love—a love that transforms how we believe, what we do, and who we are in the world.” —Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne: 2013), 37.

1) McLean’s article: Bethune, B. & Treble, O. (16 Nov., 2016) “It has Risen: Is this the key to growing Protestant churches?” 2) Haskell, D.M., Flatt, K.N. & Burgoyne. (2016) Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy. Review of Religious Research, (December, 2016) 3) Morrision, B.T. (2016) Already Missional: Congregations as Community Partners. Eugene OR: Resource Publications. Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Huron University College, London, & United Church minister in Sarnia. 4) Richard Rohr, “Making Christianity Relevant Again” January 01, 2017.

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Wesley is situated in the historic civic square in downtown Galt, adjacent to the Cambridge Farmer’s Market, the historic City Hall, and the new City Administration building.
Wesley is part of the United Church of Canada, the largest Protestant denomination in our country. The United Church of Canada prides itself on welcoming everyone the way Jesus did, regardless of age, race, class, gender, orientation, or physical ability.

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Wesley United Church

6 Cambridge St.
Cambridge, ON
N1R 3R6

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Beginning at 10:30am

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