Does our language help or hinder our mission?

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on October 31, 2022

“We’re not speaking the language of the younger generation.”

Archbishop Ted Scott’s comment continues to percolate through my mind more than 35 years after he said it to me. I still remember the look of intense concern on his face. We were rushing down a hotel hallway towards a diocesan Synod where Archbishop Scott, then Primate of the national church, was slated to speak. We’d had only a short time to chat about the state of the Church and shared a mutual unease about its future in the face of declining numbers.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to further explore Archbishop Scott’s remarks.

Since our brief chat, church trends have underscored the challenges we face. Statistics Canada shows that only 68 per cent of Canadians 15 or older say they have a religious affiliation. While 10.4 per cent of all Canadians were Anglican in 1986, only 3.8 per cent were Anglicans in 2019. Other denominations are facing similar challenges around declining membership. The United Church of Canada, for example, is closing one church every week, on average.

I keep thinking about Archbishop Scott’s comment because it may offer some insights into how our Church could connect more effectively with people in our society who are seeking spiritual meaning but are not relating to our Anglican message, or for that matter, the message of other Christian denominations. Some of these folks have been dubbed the “SBNRs” — spiritual but not religious.

We need to think about why people who are searching for God might not seek out an Anglican faith community. Some of our Anglican terms present barriers to people unfamiliar with them. For example, when I hear the term “warden,” my mind immediately thinks about prison. And it took me years after becoming an Anglican to understand what “narthex” means, a word I’d never heard of before. Same with “rector.” Language also includes the language of song, and here too we face challenges. Most of the music played and sung in our parishes is not music that younger people would listen to on their own.

Much of our Anglican worship language and hymns is beautiful, and I wouldn’t want to lose this rich element of our Church. The challenge of speaking to different audiences is somewhat similar to the challenge of scripture itself. Eugene Peterson’s The Message, a contemporary language version of the New Testament, certainly makes the words of Jesus and his message accessible in a fresh way, and thus serves an important goal. However, in my view and in the view of many Christians, it lacks the majesty and richness found in traditional versions of the bible.

However, I believe that Archbishop Scott was delving into a deeper issue during our brief chat, one much broader than the use of particular terms. He was talking about a new narrative for the Church, one that requires new and different expressions of ministry. And perhaps taking some bold steps. These might involve new ways to reach out to people who might never venture inside a church. Or who used to attend a parish but stopped going. Perhaps reaching out to some of these former Anglicans might offer fresh insights about how to reconnect with them, and how to reimagine our Church for today’s society.

By no means do I want to downplay the efforts currently underway through our diocese’s Congregational Development department to revitalize parishes. Many of our parishes are reaching out into their communities through creative initiatives to engage with people in ways that go beyond church walls. To cite just one example, the parish of Epiphany and St. Mark in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood provides worship and meal preparation space to The Dale Ministries, a church and community organization with a special focus on marginalized people that operates without a church building.

There are no easy answers to the challenges we face. Many factors have contributed to declining church involvement during recent decades, including shifts in our culture. Looking forward, perhaps by making a concerted effort to listen to as wide a cross-section of our communities as possible about their issues and beliefs with a focus on younger people, we will be able to put new wine into new wineskins.


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