Religious life in Canada continues to change dramatically from previous generations. A new Forum Research Poll recently commissioned for the National Post indicates that two-thirds of Canadians say they are spiritual, but only half say they are religious. Among younger-age groups, fewer are attending church or engaging in religious practices.
As a church, we have long assumed that our congregations need to be “attractional.” If our church has an engaging pastor, a nice facility, meaningful services, spiritual vibrancy, good community life and quality programs for young and old, then people will be attracted to our church community and want to connect with the faith. While all of these components are important for a healthy faith community, they are doing very little to attract the person on the street into connecting with a local congregation.
It is time that the church recognizes that it can no longer expect to attract people by the quality of its congregational life. Quality is great for people who already connect to the church, but it will do little in our current social context to entice people on the streets to walk through our doors. The distance and courage it takes to cross that threshold is becoming greater and greater for the average person.
If the church really wants to engage the average Canadian and do more than circle the wagons inside our closed doors, then we need to reorient how we think about church. In our increasingly secular society, I believe that God is challenging us to “take the church to the streets.” This is more than just engaging in service to our neighbourhood and community. It means actively building relationships with the people in our neighbourhoods and communities, and bringing the practices, spirituality and good news of the coming kingdom into the streets. Whether over the fence, in the park, hockey rink and town hall, or through the promotion of justice and peace, the church is being called to visibly embody the spirit of Jesus on the streets of our communities. It is only by sharing real-life relationships with people on the streets that we can begin to invite them to consider the benefits of engaging in a relationship with a faith community and the Christ who inspires it.
It is a lot safer and easier being an “attractional church” than a church that actively engages its secular neighbours by embodying the peace of Jesus Christ. It will take courage to step out beyond our comfort zones. If we hide in the safety of our church buildings and communities, we will end up only “playing church” and deprive ourselves of the exhilaration of being a church that is connecting with God’s mission in the world. Let’s open ourselves to the prodding of the Spirit and allow her to take us out into the streets.
David Martin is executive minister of Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.