There was a headline that caught my eye on the front of the last Anglican Journal. It was a statement that the Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand made about her Cathedral and what has happened to her diocese in the months since a devastating earthquake rocked Christchurch and has rendered so many church buildings, home and other buildings unusable. And that got me to thinking about some of the Church buildings that I have known in my own life.
The building in which I was baptised was torn down for a parking lot. The building where I came to faith, was confirmed, learned to do services and to serve at the altar is now in a museum static display. The building where I learned to preach, was vacated by the congregation because they could not keep going financially. In my first summer in full time ministry as a student, I participated in the closure of a building and the sale of that building to private interests. In the five years that I served the congregation where I was ordained priest, I had the deep privilege of burying about half of the active congregation in the church’s cemetery. The interesting and most important thing to me wasn’t the buildings and whether they remained standing and in good shape or not. It was the community and whether they we’re vibrant and alive or not.
So If I go back to that list of places I have been in my spiritual journey and identify them for you, it might make a bit more of an impression upon you. I was baptised at St. Matthew’s, Abbotsford, BC. They were on their third and biggest building when I visited them about 20 years ago. I was confirmed at St. Clement’s, Houston, here in the Diocese of Caledonia. They have a much bigger and very pretty building than when I was there as a teen. I preached my very first public sermons at St. Christopher’s, Downsview, ON. that is now home to a vibrant Chinese congregation that was planted there after my time. I had the chance to go back and share with them and preach. And last but not least, St. Peter’s Church, Westport, White Bay, Newfoundland where I was ordained priest. In my time there, the parish closed three buildings to go from seven churches to four. The Sunday attendance went up and so did the finances. We worked hard to bring our buildings back up to snuff and still maintain a self supported parish with a full time priest.
What was the difference? Why did we grow? We claimed ownership and stewardship of our local mission. The focus of all the work on all these church communities was primarily on the community; on the people rather than on the buildings. We learned to pray as a community and we took the time to study the scriptures together. We had to learn to genuinely seek out Christ in our neighbours and to think of others ahead of ourselves. We did this because we discovered that in most cases what we had was not a financial problem but rather a spiritual predicament. We had been trying to husband very small fires which around which only a few could gather rather than lighting and carrying torches to go and find those who are sick, broken, in need and the dying both physically and spiritually. And in the process of lighting the way for others to come into our communities, we found some light for ourselves too.
How do we build our Church communities across this vast diocese? We draw people in by sharing with them ourselves and our lives. We need to focus on reaching people and caring for them. People are not going to care about fine sounding vision and mission statements. The world around us is waiting to see if God is still here and present in his Church and if God and his Church still care enough to do the deed and speak the word that needs to be spoken. We need to find new ways of being who we really are through rediscovering our enthusiasm for mission, to seek out the least, the last and the lost of our world and draw them in. In doing so we build for the time when there will be no buildings to worship in. The Church – the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church – is here because God has made it so. We, in turn, are here for the world because God his here for this world and to participate in it. Or as retired bishop and theologian N.T. Wright might put it, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world.” We are called and drawn to help others be ready for the new city, the new life and the world that is about to come. This is the time for planting for dreaming and for reaching out. It is time to think and to live mission, not to build monuments or write our epitaphs.