There is no news in knowing that church membership is at an all time low, and in the Church of Scotland there are on-going discussions about how we can challenge the picture of decline. With only four months to go before the birthday that pushes me into the older part of the chart bracket, I have noticed the changing scenery of the congregation in front of me. The scenery is predominantly white haired and retired.
I am also part of the age group that are probably the clearest indicator of when church membership and belonging changed. Away from my friends who happen to be ministers, there are very few of my friends from school or previous employment who have a regular church connection, and very few who ever did. Instead churches were somewhere to visit for rites of passage. Another generation on and that same group of people have produced a group of young people who have no connection and no understanding with what church is or does.
In May the General Assembly instructed Kirk Sessions to meet in conference to think about the future of the church, and meanwhile the Council of Assembly were to form a radical plan of action. And by 2019 a possible new landscape will appear on the horizon.
What appears to have happened since the General Assembly is a mad frenzy of activity as Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries have taken up the call to action. Conferences have been held and some feel an impetus to change, while others bemoan the lack of speed with which we move. Edicts come from “central” committees urging the need for being prudent, and not spending until future plans are decided. So now we are in a confusing scenario where we are frantically talking about a future, but not supposed to spend on the future other than to ensure we are all wind and watertight.
Like others I’m struggling with all that is happening. I don’t like review, partly because in the past it has been a congregation that I have been minister of that bore the brunt of change. Review brings suspicion and uncertainty to everyone. This week I heard that there is an “A list” of churches that won’t be touched by any new plans, which came as a surprise because I belong to a church where all are equal. I recognise that I may be minister of one of those congregations that is still on the right side of any tipping point, but even I can see the changing horizon drawing ever closer.
I have all kinds of concerns about where we are at the moment. It may take a long time to work through all of them.
Recently though I have found myself more vocal than ever at Presbytery meetings, to the extent that I almost always feel in opposition to at least one of the committees within Presbytery. Its not healthy, I don’t like conflict, and I’m hoping that we are all big enough to recognise that we need differing opinions to discern Christ’s voice.
This week in one of the minister’s discussion groups I follow someone made a comment about dancing on the edge of the grave, and the image resonated with me. It caught me because it took me to thoughts that I know that I have said to those who have been training with me certainly in the past five years. My feeling for a number of years has been that my role in ministry most recently has been to keep telling the story of Christ in new and vibrant ways where change is possible, but to also be the nursemaid of the dying church. Its not a comfortable place to be. In some ways for a number of years now I have suspected that the church that I know and love is dying and I may even live to see that happen.
The question then is in the frenzy of activity that we have set about are we trying to protecting the name of the organisation of which we are, or do we thank that any radical change can actually prevent death?
Even the gospels tell us that death is inevitable. Lazarus dies. Jairus’ daughter dies. Jesus dies. But the hope, the joy, the amusement of the Gospel is that resurrection is possible, and a new thing can and will happen.
It’s a scary thought to think that death has to happen. It’s a scary thought to think that hundreds of church buildings may have to close their doors, and congregations will have to sell buildings. Its a scary thought to think that as a minister I may have to find a job that would allow me time to keep telling the Gospel story in other parts of my life. It’s a scary thought to think that denomination of which I am part may no longer exist.
And yet ringing in my head and heart, I hear myself saying “I believe in resurrection.
Does that mean I am taking a fatalistic view of the future of the church? My concern at the moment is that we are becoming protectionist. Even in the trying to talk to the neighbouring churches round about us, there is still an element of clinging to the vestiges of what has been.
The landscape of the world has changed. The understanding of community has changed. How connect to each other has changed. And I actually think that the church has changed, reformed, time and time again over the centuries. But it has moved from the nimble mouth to mouth, ear to ear, hand to hand engagement of others, to find itself encased in stone, tradition and expectation.
This is possibly too honest, but it is a laying down of thoughts (not fully fledged) for this day so that I can focus on the tasks for tomorrow.