By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
Last month I hosted a class on congregational growth and evangelism that included thirty one students from three different dioceses and four different time zones.
If lemonade is to be made from the fruits of our pandemic, then one of our newfound blessings is the ability for Anglicans to come together over great distances via Zoom to learn from each other.
Represented among the students in the class were both large and small Anglican congregations, both urban and rural. While the contexts of ministry in Canada are sometimes very different: a cathedral church in Kingston, Ontario vs. a family-style church in Dawson City, Yukon – many of the challenges facing Anglicans today were expressed as being remarkably similar.
Throughout the class a number of concerns were raised by the participants: our congregation isn’t open to trying new things; we haven’t been seeing any new members in the last few years; our volunteers are too old to carry on like in the past; we don’t feel like there is enough of us to make an impact in ministry.
If some of these responses sound familiar to you, it is likely because you’ve probably heard the same refrains in your own congregation. I certainly have, and for this reason I sought to prepare counter-arguments to each one of them before starting the course.
Have you noticed that there is one element in common with each of the concerns expressed above? That each statement begins with an emphasis on “our” or “we”? The reason for this, I believe, is that Anglicans, whether we recognize it or not, are deeply entrenched in a form of Church tribalism.
What I mean by this, is that we often find it difficult to visualize possibilities that are beyond what is already familiar to our membership. While Anglicans may often lament the trends of decline experienced in the majority of congregations in Huron, we aren’t overly enthusiastic about reaching beyond what is known and comfortable to us in efforts to evangelize, to grow or to innovate.
“Our congregation isn’t open to trying new things.” Okay. It’s one thing to be able to name a challenge, but another thing entirely to let yourself be conquered by it. Growing congregations have a tendency of seeking diversity in their ministry activities. In trying new things sometimes they fail, but in their commitment to trying out unfamiliar practices sometimes they also succeed. The fruits of these labours is often the formation of new relationships.
“We haven’t seen new members in years.” Well, maybe you’ve run out Anglicans in your particular neighbourhood and they aren’t walking through the door anymore. It’s time to start making new ones! When the only options for growth lay beyond our tribe (beyond self-identifying Anglicans) it’s time to get to know the people in your neighbourhood who aren’t interested in darkening your door on Sunday. Where is God already at work with them? How might you care for them, serve them, pray for them and learn from them?
“Our volunteers are too old.” Here’s a new idea! With age comes experience. Where might you share your experience with others beyond your tribe? The example of an aging Anglican Church Women’s group inviting local school children to learn how to make jams comes to mind. In partnering with the school students, there were many hands to make light work for their annual fundraiser. The ACW members enjoyed sharing their experience for the benefit of a younger generation and both groups shared the proceeds of the event.
“We don’t feel like there is enough of us to make an impact.” It only takes one person to make another person feel welcomed. If smaller congregations are truly open to the idea of growth, they need to also be willing to embrace change. Each new person that enters a small church changes the dna of that community. Sometimes this change can be perceived as a threat to our tribe – to the old way of doing things. The truth is, it is far easier to grow a small congregation than it is to grow a larger one, but unless we make room for the change that each new member inevitably brings, unless we embrace diversity within our tribe, then newcomers won’t truly feel welcomed and they will leave.
At the end of our class together, each of the students had two or three new ideas that they were excited to bring back to their respective congregations. Their enthusiasm to explore the diversity of new practices and relationships was incredibly hopeful to me and, I would argue, to our entire Anglican tribe.
May God bless their leadership, their ministries and their willingness to learn new ways of relating to those beyond their doors.
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains.