By Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott
Allow me to start this month’s article by throwing out an argument for us to consider; one that, whether your agree with it or not, is likely one of the most significant challenges facing Anglicans at this particular time in the life of our Church. Okay, here it is: Anglicans (at least, Anglicans in Huron) are losing our capacity to foster new relationships. Do you agree?
This past weekend Anglicans from across Huron gathered virtually for the Bishop of Huron’s Prayer Conference hosted by the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer. Immediately prior to the conference, participants were invited to fill out a questionnaire to provide a glimpse as to who they were and how they perceived the vitality of the congregations they call home. Roughly half of the attendees were AFP representatives, the remaining were divided up between clergy, lay leaders and parishioners.
Perhaps reflecting the average age of Anglicans in the pews in our diocese (my research estimates 71 years), 88% of the participants of the conference were over the age of 60. Roughly half have been attending their home congregation for more than 20 years. Newbies to their congregation (less than three years) only accounted for 16% of attendees.
When asked about the relational vitality of their home congregation (the patterns of incoming new relationships vs. membership loss) 14% reported that they were seeing growth (new members) in their faith community. The remaining participants shared a mixture of experiences from sharp decline to “holding our own”.
The final questions put to the conference attendees were regarding their perception of congregational motivation around growth. In response to the question: “does your congregation ever talk about a desire to grow?”, 45% shared – “all the time!”, 41% said “sometimes” and 14% admitted “rarely.”
Returning to my opening argument, throughout the conference I laid out some of the challenging statistics of our diocese that reveal that the vast majority of our congregations have not been seeing the same levels of membership growth and ministry vitality that had been experienced in past decades. There are different responses to this reality: congregations can choose to see it as a challenge requiring engagement, adaptation and a new approaches to ministry, or they can choose to lament these trends in a much more passive way.
My proposal for those congregations deliberately seeking to foster new relationships is to begin praying for this change regularly! We pray to God when we are sick. We pray when we are dying. We pray when we come together in worship and thanksgiving. Why is it that more congregations don’t pray to discern growth in their communities?
Not only does prayer bring us into a closer relationship with God and with those whom we are praying for, but prayer also has the power to shape and change us.
If we are praying to God for more bums in the pews and dollars in our bank account, then we are far more inclined to see new members only for what they can provide for us (the Church of generations past). However, if we pray to God to invite others into our faith communities to be served by us, embraced by us and celebrated, then our prayers will become a reorientation away from the fear of losing things that are familiar to an embracing of the diversity and vibrancy that comes from each and every new relationship.
I think that prayer is the starting place for relational growth. I also think that many (most) of our congregations struggle with finding new ways to meaningfully connect with non-members. If we, as a diocese, are truly called to be an invitational, diverse Church, perhaps now is the time for us to begin praying together for that change and transformation to take place.
Where to start? Here are new prayers to consider including within your primary worship services.
Prepare us, O God, to welcome the guests that You are inviting to be embraced, served and loved by Your Church. Help us to appreciate the gifts of diversity that each guest will bless us with. May we place the needs of others before our own in order to foster new relationships in You. This we pray in the name of Jesus who summons all people to Himself. Amen.
God of Mission and Renewal, may the faith that sustains us and the love that You have shared with us spill out beyond the walls of this sacred space. Equip and enable us to speak of our relationship with Your Son to others and to invite them to “Come and See” for themselves. This we pray in the power of Your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains. firstname.lastname@example.org
(Illustration: Ravi Roshan/Unsplash)