By Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott
Last month, I argued that fear of congregational decline, fear of losing our denominational structures and fear of change because of the possibility of closure is neither a healthy nor sustainable motivation for seeking membership growth.
If this is in fact true, then the question that follows up this statement is: if not fear, then what? Where should churches turn to for their motivation? Or, here’s another way of asking the question: what motivates congregations that are fostering new relationships and, as a result of their actions, welcoming new members?
This question, in a nutshell, has been what I have dedicated my research to over the last four years. Many in the Church might respond in frustration to such a question. Isn’t it assumed that Jesus Christ, our belief in God and the Kingdom, and our calling to be Christians in the Anglican tradition is motivation enough? Isn’t sharing our faith with others the central reason why we would ever desire to foster new relationships? I wish this were so, but my personal experience in the Church, furthered by my research suggests that most Anglican congregations are actually quite uncomfortable talking about their faith outside of their Sunday liturgy. Likewise, talking about Jesus is rarely what motivates the items for business found on most parish council meeting agendas.
Another truth that I have discovered over time is the fact that Anglican congregations all have their own unique personalities, their own localized faith beliefs and their own particular motivations/agendas. I learned this the hard way when I proposed the very first Regional Ministry plan in the Diocese of Huron which sought to have three rural congregations enter into a new ministry relationship with one another. The negotiations of that relationship were very challenging at times because each community had a very different experience of what it meant to be Anglican. Each held very different congregational beliefs and motivations. If a sense of ‘Anglican commonality’ or ‘uniformity’ of local beliefs ever existed, my experience has been that this is, more often than not, no longer the case.
If such a thing as a secret to successful ministry exists in our Anglican faith tradition, I now believe that it is found in understanding what is called local theologies.
The term local theologies was coined in the 1980s by a Roman Catholic missiologist (the study of missional motivation in the ministry of the Church) named Robert Schreiter. It refers to how local communities reflect on what they hold to be meaningful within their unique experience of being Church. Local theology refers to how a community expresses its own beliefs (through its own testimony, stories, history and actions) in terms of three areas of reflection: Gospel, Church and Culture. Another way of saying this is: local theology is how a local faith community expresses their beliefs, values and motivation in their own words and ways.
My first observation, having conducted a study of a thousand Anglicans over dozens of growing congregations within two immensely different dioceses, is that localized beliefs among congregations are, in fact, incredibly diverse. Individual congregations respond to the Gospel in different ways, live out their role as Church with different interpretations and conduct their ministry among different cultures and in unique contexts.
However, despite the diversity among Anglican congregations (at least in the dioceses of Huron and Toronto) my research has led me to a central conclusion: there is a direct correlation between the presence of some local theologies and how these beliefs can motivate practices of evangelism, outreach and membership growth.
From this point forward in this column I am going to let local theologies speak for themselves; I’m going to let other Anglicans do all the talking. About what motivates them to seek out new relationships and how their locally held faith beliefs are causing their congregations to thrive and grow.
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