I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that sums up some of the most serious issues facing what I’ll call the “mainstream” Protestant churches quite as well as what Bob Giuliano wrote in his Dec. 10 Letters of Hope column.
Dwindling congregations with few young people and huge, aging buildings to maintain is practically a recipe for the slow but almost certain decline of the old, established churches. By the time scant resources of energy, spirit, and, yes, money are used up to just keep the bricks and mortar more or less operational, there’s nothing much left for creative thinking about ways to attract a new generation of believers. Convincing people the 2,000-year-old Christian message is more relevant and meaningful than ever in the modern world where so many are struggling with personal problems is the big challenge. What words, what actions, what attitude do people of faith use as they go out into the broader community to help people through difficult times, to offer them hope for a new and better life?
Charles Monroe Sheldon, an American pastor whose book, In His Steps, became one of the most popular books ever, asked more than 100 years ago, “What would Jesus do?” He practiced a social ministry that eventually made him world-famous for a while and took him on speaking tours around the world, including to Canada.
I’m not sure Sheldon answered his own question very well. With all due respect to the man, he had a naïve, simplistic view of the world and how its problems could be solved. But it’s still a good question for Christians to ask themselves as they search for ways to breath “new life” into their church and faith, do good works in the broader community, and spread the Christian message of love, forgiveness, and redemption.
Some people who consider themselves devout Christians of the born-again, so-called fundamentalist approach to the faith might say it’s not really that hard: simply accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, trust the Holy Bible as the literal word of God, and bear witness to that in the world. More than one beloved member of my family has found personal salvation and spiritual joy in that approach, so who am I to pass judgment on them, and their church? It’s full every Sunday, and certainly full of a lot of very demonstrative demonstrations of the rejoicing spirit, with lots of arm-waving, shouts of “hallelujah” and a whole lot of upbeat, rhythmic hymns of praise. So be it. To each his own, so long as no harm is done. Who can argue with lives dramatically changed for the better?
But rightly or wrongly, not everyone is comfortable with that approach, myself included. It may be my fault after all, that I can’t join in, surrender myself heart and soul to the idea that there is only one, true path to spiritual goodness and salvation; otherwise, hell awaits. There are a lot of good people in the world, and they’re not all Christians.
As a young boy living on a farm near Streetsville in the late 40s and early 50s I attended a United Church. I fondly remember enjoying Sunday School and singing in Christmas concerts. As an adult I attended various churches off and on, and toyed with the idea of becoming a Roman Catholic. I found a home in a small-town Anglican Church and even got baptized. But I lapsed again and, some might say, went astray.
Now I’m back, seeking and finding spiritual nourishment and consolation, at First United Church in Owen Sound. My partner and I like the welcoming, inclusive, cheerful atmosphere, and the sense the sizable congregation, which includes people of all ages, is actively engaged in the community, that it has a social ministry that focuses on doing good works as an expression of Christian faith.
Being the age I am, I was raised in predominantly Christian culture. I said the Lord’s Prayer every morning at school. I learned and still remember the Bible stories like the Good Samaritan, my favorite. And now, today, the path I have chosen to take, after all, is Christian. I believe we all have a wonderful opportunity to renew our lives, with the help of the divine gifts of forgiveness and redemption, because we’re worth it.
If I had been raised a Bhuddist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, or in one of many other worthy faiths, I might have found my path in a renewed appreciation of them; or I might even have chosen to take one of those paths. The great world religions have much in common, including tragic misinterpretations of their doctrines, leading to terrible injustices and atrocities over the centuries, right up to the present day.
The church, in the broadest sense, religion in general, needs to ask for forgiveness as a first step towards “new life.” But it’s essential that it survive because the world is in desperate need of spiritual help and consolation.
So, I think it’s wonderful, as Bob Giuliano, told us in his column, that the Knox and Division Street United Church congregations are looking at how they can “shed the burden of too many bricks and mortar, so that they may get on with something that has the freshness of new life in it.”
It’s good to have a place to pray, and sing, and learn as a community of faith. But the real church is the broader community, where there is much good work to do, and where there are many, many people who deserve to be told the good news that they are loved, and their lives are worth living.
That’s what Jesus would do.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.