A church of simplicity and service

Progressively bigger stacks of coins grow plant shoots.
 on June 20, 2022

It has been widely reported that the Anglican Church of Canada will be gone by 2040. Given the change in demographics, the aging of our congregations, the societal transition through post-Christendom, and the fiscal challenges that many churches face, this prediction is not far off the mark. The Anglican Church of Canada is trending toward an age of transformation.

I do not believe the Church as a community of believers will be gone, but it will certainly be different, marked by smaller congregations, fewer buildings and a reduced stipendiary clergy. This is a viable way forward for all mainline Christian denominations in Canada, with less focus on survival and more on being the body of Christ in the world. The age of transformation will see more gathered communities without imposing properties ± or if the buildings do remain, they will have been repurposed to include low-rental housing, outreach ministry and multi-use functionality.

Our demographic circumstance is not something that was just sprung upon us. It has been in the works since the 1970s. Anglican Church membership in Canada peaked in 1968, a result of social and societal dominance, elevated levels of post-war immigration from Commonwealth countries, a strong birth rate, active church school programming and successful generational torch-passing. As immigration transitioned to less Anglican-centric countries, and societal norms regarding Sunday activities and worship changed, normative patterns of church engagement began to decline.

Church growth plateaued through the 1970s and ’80s, and the construction of new churches ended. Apart from ethno-centric congregations, there have been only a handful of new churches founded in the diocese in more than 30 years.

The decline in church membership has accelerated through the new millennium. Since 2001, more than 80 congregations have closed, amalgamated or merged in the Diocese of Toronto ± a rate of about four per year. The contraction has resulted in fewer full-time clergy, deferred maintenance of church buildings, reduced financial stewardship and increased giving pressure on those who are regular participants. Even with the most optimistic metrics, it is likely that we will be reduced to less than 125 churches within a decade.

There is hope. As I have noted on many occasions in these pages, 31 per cent of pre-pandemic parishes in the diocese are numerically growing. The pattern is evidenced from our own annual churchwarden and incumbent returns. These ™healthy∫ churches are on a growth trajectory because they are making specific aspects of ministry a priority: disciple-making, Fresh Expression engagement and missional activity with the community. They are cognizant of societal change, connect with young people and have a renewed emphasis on preaching, teaching and faith formation. Amid an overall decline in church membership, there is an undercurrent of growth. In addition, the growth of diaspora congregations will help mitigate urban decline. These churches give me hope that as we enter the age of transformation, we may yet sustain and spread the Good News.

A renewed emphasis on faith formation is essential to ensure adherent engagement and to secure generational commitment to faith practice. Our inability to pass the faith on to subsequent generations has led to an accelerated decline in many churches. The challenges of the future present opportunities for increased faith formation, disciple-making, preaching, teaching and liturgical participation. Numeric decline may be inevitable, but it may birth a renewed emergence of lay leadership and vocation. A Church in transformation can place more emphasis on simplicity and service and unite us in practice more authentically with that of the first Christians. 


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