My friend and former colleague Dave Robinson was fond of saying that many church leaders suffer from “terminal nostalgia.” That is to say, they retain memories of a church long past and yearn for that same model of church to return. That terminal nostalgia clings to an assumption that if only we did things the way we used to in the 1960s and ’70s, the ministry and position of the Church would blossom once again. For example, there appears to be a very strong correlation in thinking by some that robust Sunday school attendance was a direct result of using the Prayer Book, or that church growth was connected to the messianic appeal of a particular priest.
Recently I was told the story of a church in our diocese that once boasted 400 students in its church school program. I was impressed – who wouldn’t be? But then I asked, “Where are they now?” The response was less than predictable: “Good question.” Sometimes I think it’s really easy to look to the past through rose-coloured glasses without acknowledging that things weren’t always as straightforward as we would have liked them to be. Times change, after all, and so must the Church.
Terminal nostalgia can be a form of inertia that prevents churches from responding to their new reality. Now that we are on the other side of the pandemic, I want to encourage you not to look back. I actually want to plead with you not to yearn for the way things were. Yes, cling to the relationships and the good memories of church life, but also recognize that so much has changed in three short years. During that time, we’ve made some impressive changes to the way we do church that we might not have gotten around to in another 10 years without the pandemic.
Hybrid worship, online events, electronic giving, virtual Bible study and enhanced website design are just some aspects of our new reality. And while I can appreciate that online worship might not have the same solemn appeal as in-person worship, it is a gateway for seekers, the housebound or even the sluggish to stay connected and engaged in it. Thanks to technology, we can share the Anglican journey with more people than ever before. Those who choose to avoid this engagement opportunity do so at their peril.
So too has the pandemic led to the proliferation of online giving. FaithWorks has seen a five-fold increase in the number of gifts via its website – prompted by either direct mail (traditional) or e-newsletter (recent). While newsprint is still an important way that we stay connected with one important demographic, email and social media allow us to connect with another. As more of our commerce becomes cashless, it is only a matter of time before tap-to-give kiosks replace the offertory plate itself.
I am heartened by the fact that the Anglican family remained steadfast in its generosity throughout the pandemic. For nearly 20 years with the diocese, I have had a front row seat on acts of generosity, and I never have to doubt that we will rise to any challenge and respond with enthusiasm and energy.
As we emerge from the testing experience of being disconnected from corporate worship, let us cling to those things that undoubtably define us: our music, common prayer, an abiding commitment to social justice and outreach, hospitality and inclusion. Let us also embrace those opportunities to cast the net wider through technology, engagement with young people, new leadership, the welcoming of seekers, and renewed conversations about mission and generosity.
With recent discussions about declining church membership and participation in faith communities, there is a temptation to allow fate to take its course and become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Contraction is taking place, but it need not be the final story. The lessons from the pandemic might be a lifeline that has forced us to innovate in ways that weren’t even on our radar screens. So, while there is pain in transition, there is always hope.