Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Presbyterian Church Moderator Set to Navigate Church in Scary, Changing Times

Story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada one of decline, but also points of excitement and bright lights

You might think that being nominated to lead a fast-changing and declining Canadian mainline denomination would not be considered an honour or opportunity. After all, who wants to captain a sinking ship?

Peter Bush, Senior Minister at Westwood Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, doesn’t see it that way.

(Although Bush is the sole nominee for the position, it is possible that someone else could be nominated from the floor and he could fail to win election. But, he says, "it has never happened.”)

When he assumes his new role following this summer’s convention, Bush, 55, does not plan to abandon ship.

“The story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada today is one of decline,” he acknowledges, “but there are also points of excitement, some bright lights.”

Like other mainline Canadian denominations, the Presbyterians have seen a fall in membership, from 202,566 in 1964 to 91,036 in 2015.

At the same time, congregations have become smaller, with most having fewer than 100 people at worship services on Sundays.

With statistics like that, Bush knows that, for many Presbyterians, this is a “scary time.” Some churches, he says, will close.

“The traditional model not working” for most churches, he says, noting that many congregations aren’t large enough to support a full-time pastor.

At the same time, he sees this as a time of opportunity and experimentation. He is especially excited by new house churches in different parts of Canada; in these cases, several “congregations” share a pastor, meeting in homes at various times of the week.

“We may need to launch more neighbourhood churches like these,” he says. “This could be a way to bring some people back to church, and reach new people.”

Bush is also encouraged by how immigrants to Canada are impacting the church.

“They are bringing energy and excitement,” he says. “Ethnic ministries are the brightest lights. Ethnic congregations in every province are growing.”

He also sees opportunity as denominations work together.

“Denominational lines are becoming less important to many people,” he says. “I think we will see more interdenominational cooperation in creating new churches.”

By way of example, he points to the Manitoba’s Pinawa Christian Fellowship, which is an amalgamation of four denominations: Mennonite, United, Anglican and Presbyterian.

In the future, he says, there may be more churches like this. “Denominational divisions will matter less. What will matter is our common faith in Christ.”

As for the role of the Presbyterian Church in this increasingly secular and post-Christendom age, he says that the church today “has become less influential” in society—and that’s OK.

“We need to stop hankering for the days when we had more influence,” he says of  those who might bemoan religion’s waning impact on Canadian life today.

Instead, he says, Christians should put their “focus on the community level, get our hands dirty”—not worry so much about whether the broader culture is paying attention to the church.

That said, he does believe the church has a role in holding governments to account, especially around issues such as poverty, refugees and climate change.

“Sometimes church and state can work together, as with the sponsoring or Syrian refugees,” he says. “But we always need to keep it [government] at arms length. Getting too close to political power is deadly for the church.”

He also believes in evangelism, but not the kind where people “shove the good news down people’s throats.”

For him, the best evangelism is “neighbours talking to neighbours, by being in relationship with people, and being open to when the spirit says to say something.”

Looking ahead, “God is faithful, the church will survive. It may not look like it is now, it may be very different. It may be something new and unexpected.”

Whatever it is, local congregations will be at the centre, he believes. That, he says, “is where the light and hope is . . . it will be found in our service in our neighbourhoods as we become intentionally engaged with people.”

“We worship a savior who died and was resurrected,” he concludes. “The church has again and again reached moments when it has died and found new birth. We need to tell stories about how the church is growing, adapting, changing.”

From the April 29 Winnipeg Free Press.

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