A quantifiable angst hangs in the church air these days. Mennonite Church Canada is in decline. There are exceptions and bright spots, but the trend has long been unmistakable.
The numbers, whether in dollars or heads, are likely a bit smaller this year than last. Donations to MC Canada were down by about $38,000 for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2015. Costs were trimmed by about the same amount. That counts as good news.
Executive director Willard Metzger says of the numbers, “This is positive as we continue to navigate through this extended period of uncertainty.”
The real issue, of course, is not in the numbers. It is broader and deeper:
- How do we stop the drift of young people?
- How do we compete for people's energies?
- How do we connect Christian belief to changing mindsets?
- How do we keep same-sex controversy from tearing us apart?
- And, to be frank, how do we evoke passion about something other than men having sex with each other?
The hope for the generically named BFC is that it will draw unity from a well of polarization, not by finding theological unanimity but by creating latitude for varying views. The hope is to prevent more departures on either end of the sexuality issue spectrum. BFC is in its seventh year.
Future Directions focusses on money and structures. It was struck two years ago after an 18-month consultation period. Decisions are expected at the 2016 national assembly. The question at hand, according to the MC Canada website, is “how to financially sustain ministry” for the national and area churches.
The 10-member task force recently released a 17-page report entitled, “God, mission and a people: A draft for conversation and testing.” The report covers everything from who created the world and out-sourcing support services to the balance between congregations and area churches.
The crux, though, is a six-page outline of two organizational options:
- One puts greater weight on a national umbrella organization that supports regional “centres of energy.”
- The other gives primacy to three regional offices.
Presumably, both would trim costs mainly by trimming staff.
The task force was given a tough job and it has worked hard. Unfortunately, the report—also available in a six-page overview form—will be largely undecipherable to most church goers, as it was to me. The church jargon is thick and the organizational material requires multiple readings. It sends the wrong message to people with one eye already on the door. That is less a critique than a plea for common sense: When planning the future of the church, please communicate like regular people.
Despite the complex report, the process may feel familiar. We Mennonites have inherited a discomfort with power and with church structures, which are essentially a form of divvying up power. Our administrators grapple with that by periodically swinging our institutions on a pendulum between centralization and decentralization. But most of us remain on the sidelines.
I’m probably not going to pass up a Sunday afternoon of pond hockey with my boys in order to discuss the “integrated national conference/church with dispersed staff and centres of energy” model versus the “regional conferences/churches working as one on national agenda” model.
Is that because I belong to an elusive, passionless generation? No. I’d show up if the question were, “What are you most passionate about?” or, "What pain do you carry that the faith community might address?” Or if the agenda were family day at the rink.
I believe most people carry within them a passion or pain that would compel them to participate wholly in church if they knew there would be space for that passion to find expression or that pain to be touched. That’s the raw material of church and the task of church in any age. I expect the Future Directions members would say their process will help facilitate such expression, but the signal they have sent is hardly one of connecting with people where they are at.
I’m being too hard on the task force. It’s just that in a world of such pain and possibility, it’s hard see so much institutional energy directed towards a process that will leave too many behind. It's hard to see a process doomed to miss the tremendous care and creativity that lie further toward the fringes of church than an insider process can reach.
Canadian Mennonite recently ran an article about why young people leave the church. In it, Danielle Morton, a Canadian Mennonite University student, is quoted as saying, “Nothing is going to attract people more than to truly be who you are.”
That’s common sense I connect with.