From Church Times cartoonist Dave Walker
Back to Church Sunday this year has been cancelled. I’m not complaining. Laudable though its aims may be, its title is a turn-off, as well as a serious challenge which many parishes are not equipped to deal with.
Turn-off? Because going “back” to church isn’t an option for those who were never there to begin with.
Serious challenge? Because even if people did come back to a church which they left years ago, would they be able to relate to what they encountered during the worship? Would they even recognize the institution “church” which encouraged them to come back and try again?
To achieve its aims, the Back to Church campaign would need to connect the lapsed to worship that many of them would find either too contemporary (“I left when they got rid of the BCP”) or too old-fashioned and sombre (“why can’t we sing modern songs and enjoy our worship?”)
A Back to Church campaign will not work, unless coming back to church is a positive experience for those who’ve been persuaded to take the risk. And there’s our church’s challenge.
A more kingdom-building focus would be a Back to the Community campaign - the church returning to the High Street, where it always should be.
“Back to Church” sounds like the slogan of a maintenance culture. “Back to the Community” locates the church in the context of its mission.
The five elements of the 1986 and 1990 ACC Mission Statement (proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, teaching, baptizing and nurturing new believers, responding to human need by loving service, transforming unjust structures, safeguarding the integrity of creation) all have an outward thrust – from the community of faith, out into God’s multi-cultural, multi-faith, angst-ridden, but still hopeful world.
A church that is not visible in these transformative works of faith, is not going to be the place where people want to come back to. Unless the church is visible, tangible and real out in the community, it shrinks into a worship club.
In a curious but powerful way, the Canterbury earthquakes have challenged the churches to re-assess how they see their mission to their local communities.
In times of natural disaster, do people react by streaming “back” to the churches? In my experience, no they don’t – but they are more likely to consider doing so, or engaging with at least some aspects of church life, if the church in their locality has taken a step or two in their direction.
Some Christchurch parishes have been busily taking such steps: providing meals, supplies of water, donating funds, food, heaters, clothing and furniture. In these practical ways, Christ’s love is being made known in hurting and anxious neighbourhoods.
Once the sense of immediate crisis is over – as it seems to be now – what will happen to all this generous energy? In Kaiapoi, the most destructive quake happened a year ago (4 September).
Crisis has given way in the town to weariness, prolonged anxiety, and day-to-day struggle. Householders battle with cold, leaky and damaged homes, and have to continue waiting for final certainty about the future of their land and houses.
Over 700 homes are due to be demolished, and many will almost certainly have to be rebuilt on a different site, in another part of town. The temporary housing village in the Kaiapoi Domain has received few tenants. At the time of writing, only 5 houses out of 22 have been occupied, though this may change when the red zones are finally announced.
The council is charging market rates for the rental, not wishing to undercut the local rental economy. But this may stop these houses being an option for some families, especially those still struggling to pay a mortgage of their damaged homes.
Identity and mission
How can churches continue to reach out to the community in the longer-term? For if they do not, their lack of action may reinforce a popular perception that the church is anachronistic, ineffective and irrelevant.
This perception challenges the churches to reappraise both their identity and their mission. The Kaiapoi churches have, in some aspects, worked to co-ordinate their response.
After the June earthquakes, for some weeks there was a roster of drop-in centres hosted by the local churches, where refreshments were provided and people called in to seek company and talk about the latest problems. Most churches are also providing volunteers, so that when the Waimakarariri District Council needs to send out door-knockers to assess local needs and pass on the latest earthquake-related information, the churches come to the party.
This visiting programme is being organised by Rev. Ken Light, whose retirement has now taken a new direction! Anglicans provide the greatest number of door-knockers, just as they came to the fore, from all over North Canterbury, during the weeks of crisis after September 4.
Local people have seen an on-going Christian presence in their midst. A huge amount of visiting is being done.
Transport is provided for those without; food still flows into the local foodbank, community meetings have a visible church representation, and churches work to connect struggling people to the district council, social welfare services, counselling, the foodbank, childcare centres, and other places where the community meets for mutual energizing and support. And of course a good deal of prayer is being offered, around the needs and hopes of local people.
It has taken a series of earthquakes to achieve this community-facing focus. But the connections we are making between church and community may fade, as people become more tired, and increasingly concerned with their own particular anxieties.
We will have to look not only at our community-facing ministry, but at the suitability of our church buildings for the needs of the 21st and 22nd centuries. A debate is already brewing up on the future use and shape of the cathedral, in whatever permanent form it may take, once the “cardboard cathedral” has fulfilled its purpose.
Should parts of the cathedral be available for ecumenical worship or other use? For parishes that will have to rebuild their churches and halls and offices, this discussion is of huge relevance.
Many halls were designed for a vanished age of parish dances and concerts. Many churches were designed for formal worship, without too much concern for adequate comfort, light, warmth, or flexible space.
What sort of churches will people want to come “back” to?
The opportunity has been thrust upon us, to re-design our worship and hospitality space, to support the main hopes behind the “Back to Church” initiative. But it’s clear that the initiative, if it is to grow our shrinking church, needs also to step purposefully towards the community.
The Rev Dr Geoff Haworth is Vicar of Kaiapoi.
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