This past weekend, I was invited to one of our small rural congregations to help it discern the future. The concern, as expressed by the congregation, is that if the status quo remains, the church will have to close its doors in a couple of years. Some options were presented: cut pastoral time from the current half-time, go until the reserve fund is dried up, or transplant the congregation to a larger population centre in the hope of inviting new people.
In my visit with each member, there was sadness and lament at the thought of having to let go, and an underlying current that somehow closing means failure.
Last fall, I attended a workshop in Montreal put on by the New Leaf Network, a Canadian-based church-planting group, that helped provide context for the dramatic changes taking place within Canadian society. It was helpful to hear that what we are experiencing in rural Saskatchewan is shared across the Canadian expression of the church.
Being in a nearly 200-year-old church in downtown Montreal served as a reminder that, during the 1960s, the Quiet Revolution swept across Quebec as Québécois turned away from the church en masse. There were no fights, no splits. People simply walked away. And as the movement away from Christendom spread further across the nation, those of us who remain are left bewildered. Where do we go from here?
Under Christendom, one of the functions of the church was to help maintain societal order. Now that we have lost that role, we are left wandering through the wilderness, wondering: where are we going? Where is Moses leading us? And, like the Israelites, our desire, our temptation, is to go back. We believe that God has simply brought us out here to die.
Wilderness journeys are usually unwanted and uninvited. Yet, throughout the history of God’s people, they have played a significant role in shaping our identity and calling. The Israelites had them. Jesus did too. And then recently it dawned on me that wilderness experiences eventually come to an end!
For the Israelites, it meant entering into the Promised Land. For Jesus, it meant a clearer understanding of his call and mandate. When Jesus left the wilderness, according to the Gospel of Luke, he went to the synagogue, as was the custom, and when the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, he read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
I don’t know how long our current wilderness journey is going to be. The Israelites experienced 40 years; Jesus, 40 days. But my hope and trust is that one day this wilderness journey will come to an end. And as we make our way there together, by God’s grace and guidance, we will receive a clearer understanding of who we are called to be.
Ryan Siemens is executive minister of Mennonite Church Saskatchewan.