Saturday, February 27, 2016

Why People Don’t Go to Church—and Maybe Never Will

I was at The Forks in Winnipeg one summer Sunday morning, enjoying brunch with out-of-town friends.

Normally, we would have been in church. But it was the only time they could meet.

As I ate, I watched all the people in the park enjoying not being at church—there were families and couples, old and young, all enjoying time outdoors and with each other.

What on earth, I wondered, could ever make them want to give that up to sit inside a church on such a glorious day and hear a sermon?

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one wondering that. That same question crossed Joel Thiessen’s mind. The difference is, he decided to find out.

 The book is based on interviews the sociology professor at Calgary’s Ambrose University conducted with people who don’t go to church. He wanted to know: Why not?

They gave him eight main reasons.

At the top of the list was the feeling that the church is too exclusive in its beliefs and practices—that it is out of step with a Canadian values of inclusivity and tolerance.

This would especially be true of things like not allowing women to be leaders, or not accepting or affirming people who are gay.

Next was life transitions; people today move a lot, and find it hard to put down roots in a church.

Teenage choice was third. Parents today increasingly let their teenage children decide whether they want to go to church or not. When that happens, Thiessen says, “most teens opt out at that point.”

Busyness was fourth. Most families have two working parents today, and their kids are involved in multiple extracurricular activities. They barely have time to do laundry and buy groceries. Who has time to go to church?

Sex scandals came in fifth, along with religiously-inspired violence. 

Sixth on the list was the inability to reconcile religious beliefs with science, or with evil in the world. 

A bad experience in a church was seventh. This can be anything from not feeling welcome in a church, to not feeling cared for. 

Last on the list was social ties: If friends and family frown upon involvement in a religious group, chances are people will stop going. 

Faced with a list like this, the traditional response of church leaders is to try to fix the things it can  that prevent people from going to church—be more friendly, have more intellectually-rigorous sermons, be more accepting.

But even if churches did that, it wouldn't make much difference, Thiessen says.

“Demand for greater involvement is not strong” in Canada, he says, noting that the church can’t fix things like busyness or how mobile people are today.

The fact is that “most of those who are not regularly involved are fairly content with their levels of involvement,” says Thiessen. “Any lip service paid to desiring greater involvement is just that—lip service.”

The central premise of his new book is that Canada is “becoming increasingly secular, and there’s no reason to believe these trends won’t continue . . . simply put, fewer Canadians identify with a religious tradition, or desire to attend worship services regularly.”

That certainly seemed to be the case for the people I saw at The Forks that fine summer Sunday morning.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Is the Future of Church Ministry Bi-Vocational?

Jamie Buhler is the pastor of a new church in Winnipeg's Osborne Village area, but it isn’t like most churches you’ve seen.

For one thing, it doesn't have a building, pews or sermons.

For another, it doesn’t have a Sunday morning service at all.

Called Rhythms Project and Community, the new ministry has “very little about it that would resemble a typical church,” says Buhler, a 37 year-old married father of a young child.

That includes how he gets paid—or doesn’t.

Buhler is what is called a bi-vocational pastor, working as a branch manager for a financial services company to earn a salary.

His wife, Felicia, who partners with him in the new ministry, runs a daycare out of her home.

Together they are trying to build a community of people who want to engage in ministry in the area, as well as support efforts to help people in the developing world.

So far, between 10-15 people “are journeying with us at various levels of engagement,” says Buhler, noting that one day he’d like to see it grow to 20-30 people.

In place of regular church services, people who are part of Rhythms gather for meals or coffee in homes or coffee shops, talking about ways they can be of service to others.

Buhler and his wife serve as mentors, looking for ways to grow in their faith and commitment to Jesus.

“The idea is to build a mentoring community of people who want to engage in mission together,” he says.

Last fall, the group held a lunch to help people affected by the war in Syria. Now they are considering ways to serve people who are poor or homeless in Winnipeg.

“We don’t want to duplicate what is already being done,” Buhler says. “We want to do what God is calling us to do.”

And the thing he feels God is calling them to do is to be part of the rhythm of life in their community—hence the name.

“We want to discover what it would look like if the people of God were part of their community,” he says, noting that “a lot of church experience is separate from ordinary life.”

Instead, Rhythms encourages “gathering in coffee shops, restaurants, homes, the places where [people] spend most of their lives.”

He isn’t critical of the traditional church model; he spent about 15 years working for churches. He knows it is meaningful for many. And he doesn’t rule out having regular Sunday worship services someday, if the community wants it.

But running a traditional church requires a lot of energy—something they'd rather put into other kinds of service. 

Buhler is just one of a growing number of people working in ministry today who are bi-vocational—working either full time or part time at other jobs while leading congregations.

Up until the 1950s and 1960s, such an arrangement wasn’t unusual; it was common for many pastors to have jobs outside the church, especially in rural areas. Since that time, however, most congregations have hired seminary-trained, full-time professional clergy.

But the decline in attendance and giving over the past decade or so is making it harder for many churches to hire or keep full-time pastors.

According to Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson, authors of the 2015 book A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada, in 2010 about 24 percent of all churches in Canada had no full-time clergy.

“If trends continue as they are now, we expect an increasing percentage of part-time and lay pastors,” they conclude.

While this may not bode well for those who feel called to full-time church ministry, it may be beneficial for the church.

As one bi-vocational pastor noted, clergy who go straight from high school to college to seminary to ministry can “struggle with being able to relate to anyone beyond that part of life.”

Being bi-vocational, said another, “can keep you grounded.”

Is the future of church ministry bi-vocational? It might be. For Buhler, it just makes sense for his new ministry.

“I don’t hold myself out as an expert,” he says. “I’m waiting to see where this goes. But I can’t imagine doing it any other way. It may not be for others, but it gives me life.”

Learn more about Rhythms at

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Thinking the Unthinkable: The End of the State of Israel?

Can you imagine a world without the state of Israel?

I can’t, but Ron Rosenbaum can—even if the American Jewish journalist and author hates to even think about the possibility.

In his December 14 essay in Tablet magazine titled “Thinking The Unthinkable: A Lamentation For The State Of Israel,” Rosenbaum writes that “I believe the state of Israel may not survive. That its days are numbered.”

This is an idea, he says, that “nobody wants to say it aloud. Not even whisper it.”

Yet, he fears it is a real possibility. “The entire world has essentially turned on the Jewish state,” he says.

For proof, he cites “the sewer of anti-Semitism that runs beneath the surface of social media,” the rise of ISIS, increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, calls from North America for a boycott of Israeli-produced products, and those who accuse Israel of genocide in Gaza “while ignoring the explicit call for genocide in the Hamas charter.”

For many, this is “no big deal,” he says—it’s been this way for 2,000 years. But things feel different for him now, for two main reasons.

The first one is the declaration of Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini last September that Israel will not exist in 25 years.

"I'd say (to Israel) that they will not see (the end) of these 25 years," Khameini stated in a report carried by CNN and other media in September, last year, referencing the length of some of the restrictions on his country in its new nuclear deal with western nations. 

"God willing, there will be no such thing as a Zionist regime in 25 years," he added. "Until then, struggling, heroic and jihadi morale will leave no moment of serenity for Zionists."

That was bad enough, but the other reason Rosebaum is alarmed is the so-called “stabbing intifada,” where Israelis are being wounded and killed by knife-wielding Palestinian attackers.

What makes the stabbing Intifada so particularly horrific, he says, is that it not warfare or insurgency, but the “ritual murder of Jews, which is an entirely new form of anti-Semitic horror-show. “

He went on to cite a news story that reported that 80 percent of Israeli children are afraid for the lives, and 64 percent are afraid to leave their homes.

“Talk about feeling precarious. . . . the possibility will haunt every walk in the street, every trip to the market, every stroll in a public place,” he wrote.

“All of Israel’s nuclear weapons cannot “deter these attacks, cannot wipe out the memories, restore the losses. There is no Iron Dome for internal defense of the soul.”

Does this all portend the end of the state of Israel? “I don’t know,” he says. “I do think it portends the end of optimism.”

After reading Rosenbaum’s essay, I asked Alan Green, Rabbi at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue here in Winnipeg, for his opinion. What did he think of what Rosenbaum had written?

“This is an article I could have written myself,” said Green, a passionate supporter of Israel. “The dark picture he paints is completely accurate.  And I would agree that the demise of Israel is a distinct possibility, but not necessarily a probability.”

Where he differs with the author is that Green is a person of faith, while Rosenbaum self-described as non-religious.

Green believes that the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 “is the fulfillment of Divine promises dating back to the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, and intimately tied up with the redemption of all humanity.”

He hopes the worst doesn’t come true, “but the fact that Israel is facing off against the Mullahs of Iran, Hezbollah, ISIS, Hamas, the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and a whole host of other evil-doers makes for an apocalyptic situation.”

While Green fears for the future of Israel, he isn’t worried about being a Jew in Winnipeg. “I think it's highly unlikely that anyone is going to attack a Jew simply for being Jewish in Winnipeg, or anywhere else in Canada,” he says.

While he thinks that Jews in Canada will continue to be safe into foreseeable future,  “Israel and Europe are an entirely different story.”

From the Feb. 6, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press.