In biblical times, God sent plagues to get human attention. Today, God "sends statistics."
That’s what former United Church of Canada moderator Gary Paterson told me five years ago when his denomination was grappling with challenging news about decline.
That comment came back to me when I read the recent report that there may be no members left in the Anglican Church of Canada by 2040.
The Anglicans aren’t alone in getting that stark message. Other denominations in Canada are in a similar situation, including the United Church of Canada. According to Rev. Neil Elliot, who authored the Anglican report, that denomination is also facing a "zero-member date" in 20 years.
Other groups in a similar situation, Elliot said, are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the Lutheran Church in Canada, although their declines are happening more slowly.
Along with Paterson’s comment, another quote came to my mind. Sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, it addresses the question of how we measure success or failure: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
While the number of people in pews on a Sunday morning is important, that quote reminds us to be careful when taking stock of things like denominational vitality — numbers, whether a church or denomination is doing poorly or well, aren’t the only way to judge spiritual health.
That’s also the way two Anglican clergy friends see it, as they reminded me after I wrote about the challenges facing their denomination.
Jamie Howison, rector at St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg, acknowledges the situation facing the Anglican Church is serious. But, he said, there are "vibrant and robust exceptions."
One of those exceptions is his own church, which meets Sunday evenings and features a folk-roots musical style coupled with traditional Anglican worship. About 150 people, including many young adults, attend weekly.
While he and others are doing their best to reach out and serve the community, something that keeps Howison going through all the challenges are the words of former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
"The church is not ours to save," he recalls Williams as saying. "We are only called to be good stewards of what we have been given. God will do what God will do."
Laura Marie Piotrowicz, rector at St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg, N.S., feels similarly. "There’s much more to the report than merely a stark analysis of the statistics," she said.
Basing an analysis of church vitality "solely on numbers of people, giving and buildings does not recognize the gift of the Spirit to move through the church," she added.
At the same time, the Bible "regularly reminds us that God is always doing something new, and that we are invited to be part of it."
Then there is a blog post by Jenny Andison, a suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Toronto.
In the post, she offered some suggestions for how her denomination could respond. This includes a new commitment to outreach.
"If someone is maturing in their Christian faith, it will naturally lead to loving, culturally sensitive and effective evangelism," she wrote.
There is also a need to support families in Anglican churches. "There has never been a more critical time to be equipping Christian parents to form living faith at home with their children," she said.
Prayer is also important. "If every ounce of energy that we spend fretting about institutional decline was spent instead on our knees, I wonder where we would find ourselves," she asked.
She also saw benefits in the report’s warning about declining giving. "As resources become scarcer, we are being pushed into local and national ecumenical collaboration and dialogue in a fresh way," she said. "Surely this delights God."
Finally, she wrote, if the report causes Anglicans to become "missionaries to our culture," to re-imagine ministry "in fresh and creative ways" and "come to God in great humility and repentance," then "bring on the bracing statistics!"
As for me, I don’t think the Anglican Church will disappear in Canada. It will change — no doubt about that. But so will all other denominations as they facing declining attendance, membership and giving.
Or, as I sometimes like to put it: there are only two kind of denominations in Canada today — those that are in trouble, and those that will be.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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