In conversation with a member of the congregation yesterday, I went off on a bit of a rant about what churches are doing and could be doing in response to changes in society and technology.
The Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, in her message on May 13, mentioned a group / cluster of congregations in Northern Ontario who had trouble calling clergy and meeting a variety of challenges. They identified worship and developing connections as among their priorities and chose to use the net to assist them in meeting both goals. They have live worship leadership in one location and use streaming and monitors to deliver the service in the other locations. I believe the connection is 2-way allowing people in each location to contribute to the worship service. After the worship service, there is time in each location for people to connect with each other. One interesting result is that these congregations are growing.
A colleague from Alsask, who became recognized as a Lay Pastoral Ministry, asked us in a message at either conference or a presbytery gathering to lower the silo walls. He saw great potential value if congregations would share their leadership resources, allowing the special gifts of each leader, clergy and lay, to benefit other congregations.
Imagine a world in which this happens. While officially affiliated with one pastoral charge, a minister with special gifts for pastoral care would lead workshops in pastoral care and provide guidance to several other congregations. A lay member with a doctorate in theology leading workshops on the Bible in different settings. A team of a minister from one pastoral charge and a lay member from another leading confirmation classes in several congregations. A webmaster for one pastoral charge assisting other pastoral charges and faith communities with their web pages. Imagine the possibilities when new technology is available and some of the sharing could be with dozens or even hundreds of faith communities.
Unfortunately, there are several obstacles to this happening. The first is the tendency of clergy to develop a sense of “ownership” of a particular pastoral charge or faith community and the tendency of members of congregations to develop a sense of “ownership” of their clergy. Many clergy and congregations are operating out of a survival mode and do not trust others enough to do this kind of sharing. Old habits resist dying and we have very old habits about the relationships between clergy and congregations.
At this point, I am adopting an approach similar to Harari in Home Deus. There are many possible scenarios for the future of the United Church and other churches. One predicted for the last 40 years is that the UCC will decline into non-existence as a denomination — we have already exceeded our expected life span in those old predictions. We could become a tent-maker church with no paid clergy. We could become a mostly electronic church with live worship in one or more large city churches and everyone else watching monitors in group or individual settings. We could centralize in the larger cities in one or more mega churches and rural churches become almost like a separate denomination using a variety of strategies to keep alive. We could decentralize like Tim Hortons or McDonalds and provide church experiences in many settings as house or store-front community churches, probably using electronics as a support. One of my crazy dreams is that, while maintaining congregations similar to what we have today, we could develop an online community easily found by seekers linked to opportunities to meet small groups of that community in person in ways safe for everyone.
Whatever the future may be, those possibilities will need clergy with different skills, attitudes and beliefs than what was needed 10 years ago or even now. We will develop lay and paid leadership capable to mapping out and leading successful change strategies, or change will happen to us and we will come to an end.
Whatever happens it will be the result of our collective choices. My hope is that we will choose to serve mission, to live and prosper.