“We’re not getting any younger…..” Is probably one of the phrases I hear most in church congregations locally. The Church of England feels very wobbly at the moment. Congregations are ageing and not seeing where the new generation of believers will come from. Grandparents feel sad because their adult children no longer attend church, despite them having grown up within a loving congregation. So grandchildren are being brought up experiencing church as a tradition just for older people, and to mark key life events.
All this weighs us down and we do not look to the future with confidence or expectation.
From the diocese the message we hear is that the money is running out. We are given targets for reducing the number of paid clergy in each area. Clergy, already feeling thinly spread and tired, will be spread still thinner on the ground. The hierarchy put a lot of energy into telling us that growth is important. Initiatives abound. It’s easy to feel that this is prompted by anxiety, even panic, about what the future holds and the need to “Save the Day”, somehow.
An anxious congregation says “What we have here is precious, we cannot bear to lose it.” We feel threatened and we cling to what we know. Feeling under pressure, we circle the wagons, and dig ourselves in, to preserve what we have. We resist anything that makes us feel even more insecure.
An anxious hierarchy says, “Business as usual is Not Enough” They exhort us to do something more, do something different. We need to Grow: more boldness, more vision, more initiatives, missional thinking and intentional evangelism. The key word that comes again and again is “Grow”. The underlining financial message is that there is very little money left, so we need new members in order to keep the lights on.
Clergy, in my experience, feel caught between the two, pulled in both directions. And, no surprise, that’s an uncomfortable place to be.
We do not need new initiatives. We do not need Bishops in Mission. We do not need Diocesan Vision Statements. We do not need programmes, or conferences, or new types of missional leadership. All those things may be good, in themselves, but not when the energy comes from anxiety.
What we need is to stop worrying. What we need is to remember that our foundations are secure. It is not our job to burn ourselves out, trying to prop up a dilapidated institution.
The church belongs to God and not to us, so it is not our job to struggle to keep it from falling apart. That responsibility is not ours. God loves us, and is more than big enough to look after the big picture stuff. That our world is precious in his sight, and God will not let the Good News get lost or drowned out. The church as we know it may live or die, may change beyond all recognition. But we are not helping anyone when we take that responsibility on ourselves, and give way to worry.
Anxiety saps our energy and our joy. It makes us react to gifts as if they are burdens, to opportunities as if they are threats, to unique individuals as if they are means to an end.
Is it possible to serve God not as those weighed down by the responsibility, but with confidence and gladness. Surely it is! How might that change what we did, and the way in which we did it? That is something I would really like to try.
To look at the question more widely for a moment: is anxiety particularly prevalent in the church, or is it just as much a significant force in our wider society? If anxiety is all around us, that makes it even more important that as a church we find a different way of responding when we are tempted to give way to fear.
So, are there practical things we can do that would help us to throw off the anxiety and regain some joy? Answers on a postcard please!