By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
This past week I received an unusual telephone call. It was from a mother inquiring about the possibility of having her entire family baptized.
At first I was excited by this news, but something in the back of my mind had me asking: why? What was the motivation behind this family seeking baptism? Had they heard something positive about our congregation and were drawn to explore the community more fully? Were they seeking to take a deeper step in their lives of faith, one in which they would be welcomed into the family of Jesus Christ that we call the Church?
I invited the mother to come and meet with me (socially distanced) to learn more about the motivation behind her request. My excitement for her family quickly turned to dread when she related the background story for her inquiry. It went like this: the sudden Covid-19 pandemic had caused her to begin reflecting on what might happen if someone in her family were to become sick and die. Who would care for her family if something happened to her or her husband? When this women approached her mother with this conversation, an added element of concern was brought to her attention. What would happen to her soul if she were to die? Her mother’s answer to this question filled her with fear: she was told that since they weren’t baptized, she, and her family, would go to Hell. Fear had driven her to seek me out and do whatever was required for her family to gain God’s salvation.
Under normal circumstances I am delighted to welcome another into the Christian faith through the sacrament of baptism, but my personal belief is that fear should not be the primary rationale to come to Christ. In fact, throughout the Gospel Jesus counters the motivation of fear again and again through calming words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12.32-40).
In similar fashion to this young family driven to seek out baptism as the ‘fix’ to their existential crisis, fear can be one of the most powerful, motivating factors in the decision-making processes of church congregations. “We need to grow or die,” is a common whisper among churches throughout our country. Fear is often the knee-jerk reaction to congregations experiencing declining membership trends. It causes us to make rash decisions that tend to lean more towards the motivation of self-interest and self-preservation than the direction of the mission of God or even the will of God in our lives.
If there is one sermon that I hope to never hear preached again at a church deconsecration service, it is the sermon that has been delivered by Bishop Terry Dance (no offense +Terry!) time after time that concludes with this message: Nowhere in the Bible do you ever hear Jesus tell his followers: “Go out and build me hundreds of church buildings, where you will then dedicate the rest of your lives to hosting Christmas bazaars, pot luck dinners, ACW fundraisers and community canvasses for fear that you will run out of money to keep a roof over your heads or replace the old red carpet or survive any other threat that looms over your existence.”
I remember the disestablishment of one such congregation that was so afraid of accessibility concerns that might be raised by potential newcomers that they spent their last endowment dollars on installing a new elevator. “How many times was the elevator used before you closed?” I asked. The answer: twelve times! Ironically, investing in a new elevator was far less threatening for the congregation in their final years of ministry than actually going out to engage with the neighbourhood around them.
Fear of self-preservation can certainly cause change to happen in our Church, but I would argue that this is a type of motivation that is not founded on Kingdom or Gospel values. Instead of enabling and inspiring us to share our faith with others, the motivation of fear causes us cling to church growth as our salvation from looming expenses and vacant pews. For this reason, I strongly believe that now is the time that the Anglican Church needs relinquish our fear of survival and, instead, seek out forms of theological motivation that reorient us to foster new Gospel relationships. Next month, I plan to share some of these theologies with you and to point where they can be found in growing congregations within our own Diocese.
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.