What is your instinctive response to this image of the church? If you lived in Vancouver, chances are that it wouldn’t be positive. Which makes what happened this past Sunday quite remarkable. Eight wonderful souls decided to join our congregation. Five were by reaffirmation of baptismal vows, three were by adult baptism, and one was by transfer of faith. I mention this because there was a time, not so long ago, when virtually all new members would be by transfer. Adult baptisms would come along once in a blue moon. I sense a shift in the land, a sign, and a welcome one, signifying that the culture of Christendom has been defeated by modernist secularism. It’s a relief to know that those who are joining the church are doing so consciously and after very careful consideration.
When I say “joined the church”, I need to be a bit careful. Of the eight, only two were doing so because of any kind of denominational loyalty or affiliation. This, too, is new. In fact, most who attend membership classes these days are surprised to hear that they are joining the larger church. They are not interested in “The United Church of Canada.” Period. They are joining this congregation. I suspect that this is a trend that is already well established. Denominationalism is over. These people want to know what this particular group of people is up to and if they like it, they’ll jump in. Central funds like The Mission and Service Fund of the United Church of Canada are going to be in serious trouble if they expect these new people to pony up. As these central funds dwindle, we can expect ever more desperate efforts from national bodies to promote them. But the writing is on the wall, for good or ill.
Which is to say, institutional loyalty is pretty much gone on the west coast of Canada. There’s no point fighting it. “Church” and “Christian” are dirty words in Vancouver. I should qualify. For anybody functioning from a modernist and post-modernist worldview, they are dirty words. It’s just too difficult to get beyond associations with fundamentalism, biblical literalism, and how in an era of colonialism, the church too often carried out the imperial agenda. I’m serious about starting a group in the fall called
“Hurt By Church?” Every time I run a membership class, the conversation quickly turns to negative experiences of church. Two of the three women who were baptized took literally years to make their decision to join. The interesting thing is that increasingly people are showing up at Canadian Memorial who have transcended the post-modernist suspicion of “religion” and “the Bible”, and are able to articulate their need to go deep within a religious tradition. This is a small, but growing, demographic. In fact, I suspect that this will increasingly be the niche we serve.
An increasingly common question that comes up in these classes is “If I join the church, does it mean that I necessarily have to call myself a Christian?” This label sticks in the craw. We have atheists, Buddhists, secular humanists, actively participating in our congregation, (and contributing financially) and who want to be voting members, but currently there is no way to attain this status without a confession of faith. How are we going to deal with this as a church?
All eight new members were women. This is another trend. I don’t know what’s happening to men in our culture. It’s true that we have deeply spiritual and committed men, but increasingly church is a culture of women. Men function, in fact, to draw our best, single, women away from the church. Occasionally it works the other way, where they will drag their men to church, but the norm is that our brightest and best quietly disappear. These days, my first assumption when this happens is that they’ve found a man—a man who is not the least bit interested in “church”.
Finally, I learned that these people are interested in theology. Of course, theology goes hand in hand with community, spiritual practice, compassionate service, etc. But each of these people are particularly interested in a coherent and relevant theology that helps them to make sense of their lives and the world. It is rather unique for a congregation to have theology and practice as their core mission. Canadian Memorial’s core purpose is to “teach and practice evolutionary Christian spirituality”. While this is just one theology among many, it does have the advantage of regarding science as public, evidence-based, revelation. I think that we’ve soft-pedaled theology for the last few decades, but that there is a real appetite for it among those who are showing up, not because it’s the thing to do, but rather in spite of the fact that it’s most decidedly not the thing to do.
I’m looking forward this fall to launching the curriculum for our Learning Institute for Evolutionary Christianity (tentative name). I’ll be letting you know more about this in future blogs.