I’ve been in pastoral ministry for nearly 7 months and it’s beginning to feel like a large part of that has been spent overseeing the end of things.
A wonderful voluntary service giving respite to carers closed at one of the churches because the existing volunteers were getting older and no new people were coming forward. A Churches Together group is scaling back its efforts because there is no-one to take over the places on its committee. We are facing the closure of our excellent nursery school because given the numbers of children attending and changes in the regulatory regime it is impossible to finance it. Christian Aid collections are more and more difficult to do. One of our Messy Churches can’t attract enough families (although the other thrives). The denomination is in financial deficit and is making cuts. There aren’t enough ministers to support our existing deployment pattern and we’re discussing how to make do with fewer.
It seems as if everywhere I turn I face decline and decay. I am a minister in an aging denomination, serving in aging churches; everywhere there are the signs and the memory of past glories and the reality of current weakness. At Westminster College the corridors are full of pictures of the staff and students of years gone by, when it was the centre for the training of ministers in the smaller of the two denominations that came together in 1972 to form the United Reformed Church. Each year there were more students in that place than there are now across the URC as a whole.
It would be easy to feel downhearted and demoralized by the evident reality that the URC is much smaller and less dynamic than it used to be itself and to an even greater extent than the institutions that went into its creation. At a national and a local level we are older than we were with all the ills that brings.
Like many older people, too, we are richer and more comfortable in some ways. Our assets (primarily property) must be valued in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Our congregations are mostly stable and reasonably prosperous. The members have know one another a long time and have a well-proven loyalty to their fellowships. While our buildings are often troublesome to varying degrees they house us adequately. There are established patterns of worship and communal life that support and extend the existence of our local churches.
Our ministers are paid nationally and while there are grumbles about the contributions each church makes to the national fund (“Ministry and Mission”) that covers their stipends there is rarely (in my experience) real worries about money in our congregations. We don’t have the constant and nagging struggle to cover the stipend and keep the show on the road, and correspondingly we don’t tend to speak much about stewardship and giving.
Nonetheless there is acute awareness of aging and mortality at the local and the denominational level. We know that pastorates have to be re-scoped and re-designed to cope with the declining roll of ministers (in line with decline in membership and hence funding). We know that the average size of our congregations is falling and their average age increasing. We know that more churches close than (exceptionally) open, year on year.
One response to this has been the attempt to reverse these trends, to get the URC to grow. I’m not against that, of course, and I’m please where a few of our churches manage it. But I’m not convinced this is a realistic answer (in fact I’m convinced it isn’t). Our churches are where they are, not necessarily where church growth is going to happen (which will be mostly about where the people likely to join actually are rather than where churches do effective evangelism, since both these things need to be present and there’s nothing the church can do about the former).
At the same time we are the denomination we are. The growth in the Church is mostly taking place among churches influenced by Pentecostal and charismatic tendencies and often of a conservative theological outlook. We have some such churches in the URC but they are a minority and they don’t set the tone and direction of our denomination. We are, on the whole, liberal theologically and conservative in our worship and practice, rather than conservative in theology and radical and experimental in worship and practice, as the growing churches are.
I don’t think it would make sense for us to chase growth by moving to where the growth is (mostly in the big cities) or by adopting the forms of church life that harness it. If we have something distinctive to contribute to the Church catholic it must come out of who we are and where we come from.
So am I gloomy and downhearted? No, I’m not (most of the time). There is nothing, for the Christian to fear in death. That applies as much to particular expressions and forms of the Church as it does to individual people. We believe that our lives are caught up in the great story of salvation and we have faith in God’s promise of resurrection life.
We have to be able to look squarely at our own deaths, the deaths of all those we love, the deaths of our institutions and our communities and to say that we hear, believe and trust God’s promise. If the URC dies, if its local churches mostly close at some point in the future this is neither the death of the Church nor evidence that God has walked away.
The Church continues to thrive. On a global level it grows in numbers year on year and there is evidence that in England, at least, the growth of new churches balances the decline of older ones to leave the Church overall holding its own. The Church of tomorrow will be different from the Church of today, but then today’s Church isn’t yesterday’s Church. The Church has never been the same from one generation to the next at any time in its history.
What I do think, though, is that we in the URC need to start taking our stewardship responsibilities to tomorrow’s Church much more seriously. We have inherited a huge amount, those properties for one thing but also traditions of Church life, of theological style, of a way of inhabiting the socio-political life of our country. If we allow ourselves to drift into decline and eventual death without planning less of these things will be preserved and handed on to the next Church than could be achieved if we were more active about organising the way in which our estate will be managed.
At Easter we should be able to think positively and faithfully about death and new life.