Along the way in my M.Div studies and discernment of a priestly vocation I faced the question that is asked of every applicant and postulant to the priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada: “why are our pews empty and what are you going to do to change it?”
The answer that I gave was one that often made the questioner uncomfortable as it points out that the comfortable “religion club” filled with people just like us has been and continues to be the problem.
These are who Jesus calls us to be in fellowship with. The stranger and the alien are who, as church, we are horrible at welcoming and yet these are who should be filling our pews.
Hospitality – we are brutal at it! I recall attending a weekday communion at a Toronto Church that was heavily involved in Natural Church Development – a process that focuses on the characteristics of a health growing church (empowering leadership, gift oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships) sadly the missing characteristic that NCD doesn’t foster is hospitality…I arrived and was faced with a flurry of consternation from the congregation because as the sidesperson said, “we only ever put out 8 chairs for a weekday service…oh my, I don’t know what to do! Ok, you can sit there because I think X might be sick, but if she arrives you will just have to stand at the back, or come another time…”
At another church in a different diocese I was refused a service leaflet because “we only print them for the congregation.” I have many other stories like this. I am a tall, well dressed, polite, white cis male and do not look overly strange or alien… what would my reception been if I looked like someone on the margins, one of the least, the lost, the lonely…
I wonder why our pews are empty?
I recognize that outside the doors of our churches the world is changing. Canadian society is secularized. We are in a dangerous place, this post-Christendom world. It is so easy to become paralyzed by fear, to become enmeshed in nostalgia. Where once the twin pillars of the Church and the State held aloft Christendom we are now adrift. How can we move forward? How can we adjust to an uncertain future? How do we carry out our mission as baptized Christians? How do we answer declining attendance? My answer is in Jesus’ call to “feed my sheep.”
Enacting the Missio Dei must begin inside our buildings before we can take it outside. In my experience, when one is faced with a restaurant that is going under the answer is rarely anything “sexy” or radical. The answer is always basic: food, service, and hospitality. Feed my sheep. This is easy to forget. Let us look around us and see those we are called to serve, first in our pews, encourage those who do come to share their experience and bring a friend. Celebrate our Liturgies with care and joy so those we only see occasionally at Christmas and Easter may come more often. Inviting people to be who they were made to be – people made by Love for love. Look for every opportunity to refract our baptismal covenant to each other.
Then we look downstairs and outside and make those we find there welcome, “feed my sheep.” It has been my experience that we don’t do a tremendous job in that area. In all of the hundreds of AA meetings that I have attended in church basements across Toronto I have never seen a member of ordained clergy from the host church (of any denomination) at an Open Meeting reaching out a hand to invite the members upstairs. Nor, sadly, are “Out of the Cold” guests invited and truly welcomed on Sunday mornings. This is what we are called to do. “Feed my sheep.” Now, the broken and the poor make us uncomfortable but this is where we see the face of Christ. Even though it is hard, this is where the Body of Christ is, in the places that make us feel uncomfortable.
I don’t know if this is the solution to what the Anglican Church faces in dwindling attendance, but I suspect that this might be a new beginning, a grassroots, in my backyard approach to offering hospitality, dignity and shelter to the disenfranchised. “Feed my sheep”… “Welcome”, “Hello, welcome home”, “What’s your name? Mine is…” This is where I will start. In AA we say “do the do things,” Do what we do inside the doors of our church with true hospitality, with love, care, joy and welcome. Do this so that we will be able to remember our baptisms and bring the outcast and find the lost. This is a time of opportunity for all Christians. “Feed my sheep.”
This post-Christendom Canada is a place of great humility. Without the armour of our privileged place in society, as Christians we are gifted with the prospect of encountering our Lord, as He was, vulnerable, humble and compassionate. Will we be able to free our arms to take up our cross and follow Jesus? This is, I feel, what our ministry is calling us to do. All baptized Christians are called to include not exclude, to bring the outcast, and to feed His sheep.
We Christians have the chance to reconnect with the revolutionary aspects of our faith, and we are not doing a good job at it at all.