Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to follow Jesus in the early days? If the book of Acts is any indication, starting from the day of Pentecost, things must have been wild. Miracles at every turn. Imprisonment and persecution. Passion and terror. Nothing like my experience of church and following Jesus.
For me, being Christian has pretty much always been safe, routine, acceptable. Oh, there have been a couple of times that I have chosen to step out of the crowd and make a statement or clearly identify with Jesus, but even then, no one chased me down or threw stones at me. Safe, routine, acceptable.
In fact, as a White male English Canadian raised in the closing years of Christendom, it was riskier to not associate with the church. So many of us were raised with the expectation that participation in the church was a necessary part of good citizenship. Looking back, though, I wonder how much that expectation led to many of the challenges that churches face today.
Church and society in those years were so intertwined that we lost the passion, the risk, the excitement of making a conscious choice to follow the Way of Jesus. When I was growing up in the United Church years ago, being baptized, attending Sunday school and youth group, and being confirmed in Grade 8 was what it seemed everyone else was doing. There was nothing special about it.
As a denomination, the United Church was “safe.” We were “normal.” We were “nice.” United Church congregations didn’t really have to do anything to invite people in – at least the people who were just like us. They just showed up. Canadian culture and public institutions not only reinforced what the church was about, but actually did much of the work of basic Christian teaching. We lost a lot of the skill set that’s needed to make disciples.
All of this means that today we have a problem.
I see it all the time in my work as Community of Faith Stewardship Lead at the General Council Office. So many communities of faith are made up of mostly older, generous people, who are giving more and more because they love their church and want it to continue but who are aging and dying. It means that the number of participants is shrinking, and when you pair that with increasing expenses, I understand their anxiety about the future and their nostalgia for what was.
Many of these churches don’t actually have a stewardship problem, though. They have an evangelism problem. They have forgotten how to invite people in and train them up as disciples. How to teach generosity as a key spiritual practice, rather than reducing stewardship to running fundraisers and paying bills. How to tell the stories of what they think of as just ordinary church work, but what are actually the amazing ways they are changing lives – and the world. It’s why I’m so excited to watch communities of faith taking part in the Called to Be the Church: The Journey Modules. They start to regain some of that early church energy and discover that, when they are willing to relearn those forgotten skills, they do have a future. And yes, that includes actually teaching generosity and giving people a place to practise it as a response to the gospel rather than just as an obligation to pay the bills.
Maybe the season of Pentecost can be a new beginning for you? Get in touch. We’d love to be part of it. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rev. Dave Jagger is the Community of Faith Stewardship Lead within the Philanthropy Unit of the General Council and is proud of how long ago he was raised in The United Church of Canada.
The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.