Why Do We Need Church?


This may sound odd coming from a priest, but I can see why people don’t go to church. Yes, you read that right. I see why people choose not to go to church on Sunday morning. Shocking, I know! Before you snitch on me to the Bishop, hear me out.

I had this revelation just recently. It was at the end of a week of study leave. As part of that leave I also took the weekend off, which meant no church on Sunday. I always relish the occasional Sunday off, especially in the Spring of the year. It always feels like there is little break in the busyness of parish ministry from September to May. So once Easter is over, I look forward to a Sunday to myself.

I wouldn’t say that this was an “out of the blue” revelation for me though. This was not a Paul on the road to Damascus experience; no “Luke, I am your father” shocking plot twist. No, it’s something that has been building in me for quite some time. In fact, for the past few months I have been immersed in conversations about our current religious climate and the future of the church. I have recently read four books that focus on this:

Charles Taylor – A Secular Age

James Smith – How (Not) to be Secular

Brian McLaren – The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian

Dianna Butler Bass – Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution

I recently gave a talk at a St. Mark’s planned giving event on the future of the church, which subsequently became a blog post here. Our Bishop has been writing extensively about the future of the church and he just recently hosted a gathering of reps from the Anglican churches in the metro area. Talk of the future of the church seems to be all over social media as well as traditional forms of media. So it’s not by accident that my mind went where it went on that particular Sunday.

The Sunday started off as does every other day in our house. I am an early riser so I was the first one up. Over coffee, I did a little reading and caught up on the news. My wife got up next and went off to her running group followed by yoga. After she left I took our dog up through the forest trails behind our house in Airport Heights for a walk. I came back home and started making brunch for the family. Our two daughters and a friend joined us for brunch at 11:00 a.m., an early rise for them on a Sunday. As I drove to pick up my youngest daughter from her friend’s house where she had spent the night, I noticed there was a neighbourhood cleanup taking place. I saw a number of individuals and some young families picking up trash all around Airport Heights. I heard on the radio that the walk for MS was taking place and I was reminded that I had heard about this on Facebook from friends who were taking part. When we got home we ate together and chatted about what was going on in our lives at work and at school. The rest of the day unfolded as do most Sundays in our house with some chores, reading and a trip to Costco.

It was in the car on the way to pick up my daughter that my moment happened. It was as I drove through the community cleanup and the scattered jogger that it hit me. Why should people bother with church at all? Why would people give up Sunday morning (probably the only morning they have to themselves and their families) to go sit in church? Is it more spiritual to go to worship in church or to take part in cleaning up creation? Is it better to give your morning and weekly offering to the church and its daily running, or is it better to give that time and money to a great cause like the MS Walk, or the AIDS Walk or the Relay for Life? Is it more important to break bread in church or to break bread around the family table where you are too busy to hardly eat together anymore? Aren’t running, yoga and other forms of exercise types of spirituality, perhaps just as legitimate as what happens in churches, mosques and synagogues?

Something really clicked for me in that moment. I really got it. I understand why people choose not to go to church on Sunday morning, or Saturday evening for that matter. People don’t need to come to church to be religious, spiritual or good. People have all kinds of ways of expressing themselves spiritually today. The spiritual marketplace is vast and the church no longer has the market cornered on God.

But this awakening opened up another question for me. It’s a most troubling question, one that the church really needs to come to terms with: Why do we need church? It’s one that we need to answer quickly. The decline in church attendance and involvement is pretty obvious. The “nones” (those who are religiously unaffiliated, eschew institutional religion and describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, secular or unbelievers) are on the rise. We talk a lot of attracting young people to church, but why? Why do we really want them to come? Is it to stop the decline and to perpetuate our current models of the church? Why in God’s name would young people want to do that?

If you’re waiting for me to give you a grand or clever answer to these questions then you are about to be disappointed. It might be a tad disingenuous for someone like myself, who gets paid to go to church, to write a long schpeel about why church attendance is important. I have my reasons for why I go to church, why I have chosen this as my vocation. Even if I didn’t work for the church I would still feel the need to be part of a church. I would still worship on a regular basis.

What I think would be more interesting is to hear from the people who do go to church as to why they feel the need to go. How would they answer the question, “Why do we need church?” Even more interesting might be to hear from those who choose not to go to church at all or only very, very infrequently. How would these people on the fringes answer that same question? So over the next little while that is exactly what we are going to do right here. We will hear from people, everyday people, not paid spokespeople, as they articulate an answer to the question, “Why do we need church?” There are no right or wrong answers, just people’s honest, authentic reflections. Not all of the things shared will be things we want to hear, but all their voices need to be heard.

So I invite you to stay tuned. Take some time to reflect on this question yourself. Share your own reflections and engage with those presented here.

Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s in St. John’s NL and adjunct professor at Queen’s College Faculty of Theology.


The Future of the Church

broken church

The following is a talk given by Rev. Robert at a Planned Giving event in April at St. Mark’s.

While the this talk is intended to be about the future you may notice that I spend more time talking about the past and the present than I actually spend on the future. But a big part of seeing into and preparing for the future is understanding where we have come from and where we are at the present time. In the interest of time, in our looking back we only look at the broad strokes. Our view of the present is only a snapshot, or to use more a more contemporary metaphor, a meme or a GIF. The discussion around the future is really where I want to draw your attention. It is there that I want us to linger, to focus, to dream.

Where we came from

Much of our understanding, practice and organization within the church became firmly established before the 1800’s. We were very heavily influenced by the European church and European culture. Here in Newfoundland we were influenced by the British understanding of the church, the local church, which was called the parish. The picturesque rolling hills and small villages gave us the idea of a small local church. This idea emigrated to Newfoundland in the 17th and 18th centuries and was firmly fixed in our religious understanding by the 19th century.

The church was mostly rural, close-knit, denominationally based and central to the life of the people and communities in which they were located. Your membership in a parish was based on where you lived not whether you liked the music or the minister’s sermons. You were born into your denominational church. You were either a cradle Anglican, Methodist or Roman Catholic. Your parish was also central to your survival. People not only prayed together, they fished together, hunted together, farmed together. In a world where death by starvation, disease and disaster was an ever present reality, you relied on each other for survival. Your parish identity was central to who you were, where you came from and who you would become. This was even true even in a city like St. John’s, which was for many years, and perhaps still remains today, the only real urban centre in Newfoundland. Where you lived in the city pretty much determined where you went to church.

The role of clergy in this close-knit community is that of a caretaker and caregiver. The role of the clergy is pastor or shepherd. The shepherd cares for the flock, spends time with the flock, and knows them intimately. The shepherd is there in all the ups and downs of the flock, the sadness and joy, the life and death. The shepherd cares for the wounded and hurting sheep. The shepherd feeds and waters the thirsty sheep. And as much as the shepherd is among the sheep, he (yes always he) is not the sheep. He is above them, in charge, often the only educated or even literate person in the community.

Even with the onset of the industrial revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries the parish remained the model of the local church. Even though our church buildings got bigger, we pretty much kept this rural, pastoral model of the parish. We added to it the methodology of the factory. The goal became making Christians, making Anglicans. We entered the age of the program. National church bodies turned out programs for teaching the flock how to be Christian, how to be Anglican. Denominations published curriculum on Baptism, confirmation, marriage, and bible studies. The role of the clergy shifted from just a shepherd to now the shepherd/teacher.

Shortly after the advent of the Industrial Revolution came the Information Age. First, there was radio and then television. People’s worlds began to open up. There was a shift from the village to the city. People became more educated and standards of living increased. Women entered the workforce and the idea of family began to change. Our world was becoming more diverse. We no longer all looked the same and sounded the same. Two world wars, the horrors of the holocaust, nuclear devastation and increasing political and religious scandals caused us to question everything we thought we knew about ourselves, the church and God. All of this and yet our understanding of our local church stays the same. A parish, whose members all look the same, hold the same beliefs, have a physical building and pay a clergy to take care of them, remains unchanged.

It was into this environment that St. Mark’s was born. A growing city. The need for an Anglican presence in the north eastern part of the city. There was a priest, Charles Hiscock. The identified need for a building. It all sounds pretty traditional. But if you look closer there was something different happening. I learned this by working with our archives committee on our 40th anniversary celebrations. The people who worked to plant St. Mark’s, many of whom are here this evening, were seeking to grow something different. The language that was used for what was being formed was different. There was talk of a worship centre, not a church building. The fledgling group referred to themselves as a community of faith which while common today, was rare and innovative for its time. There was an intentional aversion to the traditional and a desire to embrace new ways of being the church. Originally, two other denominations were approached to share in a common building for worship and ministry but there was no interest from them. There was a sense that the church, the building and its people were meant to serve the community. These founding values of innovation, inclusion and community partnerships are still evident at St. Mark’s today. They are a part of the spiritual DNA of this parish.

Where we are now

A couple of weeks ago during Holy Week, CBC Radio aired an episode of the noontime talk show Cross Talk that focused on spirituality. I think the airing of this particular episode gave us great insight into where we are as a society here in Newfoundland when it comes to faith and religion. I think this for several reasons.

First, pay attention to the topic that the show was dealing with: spirituality. Not religion, not faith, but spirituality. The show was on in Holy Week and there was no talk of worship, Good Friday or Easter Day. Indeed we live in a world where terms like religion and faith do not evoke the positive feelings that they once did. We all know someone or several people who refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. There is an ambiguity to that word spirituality and I think that’s no accident. I challenge anyone to give me a concrete definition of what we mean by spirituality. But there is a freedom and individuality that comes with spirituality and I think that is part of its draw. Religion and faith, on the other hand, are too scandal-ridden, too narrow. They evoke a sense of judgment, exclusion and dry tradition to be attractive to today’s seeker.

The second telling thing about the show was who was in studio in the role of “expert”. It was not a priest or pastor. It was not a bishop or archbishop. The person in studio was a friend of mine, Sean McGrath. Sean is a former monk who left his order for the academic world. Sean is the head of the philosophy department at MUN. He does teach theology at Queen’s but he is not connected with any faith community. He refers to himself as a secular Christian. He is a deeply spiritual person, knowledgeable of both Christian and other religious traditions. On the show he had keen insights into the spiritual and moral landscape of the 21st century. But it just goes to show how we have shifted as a culture here in Newfoundland that we could have a radio call-in show on spirituality that does not include representation from one or more of the major Christian denominations. The church no longer has exclusive rights to spirituality. Clergy are no longer the go-to experts when it comes to spirituality.

Another noteworthy thing about the show was the people who called in and what made up their sense of spirituality. The minority of callers, only three in an hour long show, claimed to be regular church goers. Almost all got their sense of spirituality from nature, exercise, yoga, meditation and personal study. All looked to acts of kindness and charity as examples of a healthy spirituality, but not necessarily through a church. Hardly any of them made mention of community or fellowship as part of their spirituality.

My final reflection on the show was who was absent from the conversation. There was only one young person who called into the show. He was a MUN student doing a PhD in psychology looking into whether spirituality adds value to people’s lives. That’s it – one person. Now we might deduce from this that young people don’t care about spirituality. It would be easy to make that assumption. They don’t go to church. They don’t give to the church. Their morality seems questionable at best. Millennials tend to get described as selfish, flaky, consumer driven and somewhat ignorant of the ways of the world. I believe that is a very unfair characterization of this generation. Just in our own parish we have seen young people start a charity like One Step Shoe Recycling, do an internship with NASA, study neuro-biology, be the first woman in the province to write a prestigious math exam, play in the Scott Tournament of Hearts, serve on extended aid trips to Central America and do amazing volunteer service with groups like Shallaway, the Janeway, the CNIB and the Autism Society (just to name a few). Don’t doubt for a second that spirituality, morality and charity are not important to the next generation. Think of your own children and grandchildren. Think of their lives and accomplishments. They may not participate in traditional forms of spirituality or media but they are engaged nonetheless. Their spirituality is lived out not in churches or volunteer organizations, but through social media, charitable organizations, in the community, in yoga studios, on the East Coast Trail and on pilgrimages to India and other spiritual hubs. Nature is their cathedral and its care is often their religion. Their conversations on theology, philosophy and morality aren’t happening in church bible studies or worship services, but in classes at MUN, at coffee shops and pubs and around informal tables with friends. Their patterns of beliefs, practice and giving are dramatically different from previous generations. The church needs to stop bemoaning this fact and start adapting to this reality.

So just for a moment I want you to hold those two images together in contrast. The traditional parish and the snapshot of our current spiritual environment. Hold that thought for a moment as we transition to look at the future.

Where are we headed?

The church should always be in discernment, always asking questions like “who are we?”; “what are we supposed to be doing?”; “where is God calling us?” This is true today more than ever. This part of this talk is a little more difficult. I have no crystal ball and I do not trust my powers of prediction, but I do want to share with you some broad stroke ideas of where the church needs to go.

Hope – All this talk of change can be very anxiety inducing. We’re afraid of what we will lose, what will die. Brian McLaren addresses this anxiety in his latest book:

The primary concern for many of us Christians is our churches. We see how they’re wrinkling and shrinking, how they’re aging and experiencing numerical decline. We know how important church has been in our lives and we want to save our churches from going the way of the phone booth, cassette tape, or landline. But whenever I find myself in conversation about “saving the church,” I can’t help but recall Jesus’ words if you want to save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. Jesus’ words make me wonder: could our desire to save our precious religious institutions and tradition actually hasten their demise? Could it be that the Spirit of God is calling the church to stop trying to save itself, and instead to join God in saving the world? Could pouring out itself for the good of the world be the only way for the church to save its own soul?

The foundation of our Christian story is death and rebirth. We like to call ourselves an Easter people, a people of the resurrection, new life. But do we believe it? The Easter message and, in fact, the Gospel message is one of hope. The divine message in the New Testament over and over again is “Fear not”. God is with us, and is calling us to take part in healing and renewing the world. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even death. The good news is exhilarating and should flood us and our church with new life. If the church is not a place of hope, what hope is there?

The Earth – In Genesis God created all we see and said that it is good, yes very good. In the same story God also bestows the responsibility of stewardship, caretaking of the earth to us human beings. For too long the church has treated the earth as a temporary stop-over on the one way trip to heavenly bliss. We treated the gospel like a get out of hell free card or a divine insurance policy. You could say that this downplaying of the importance of this fragile earth, our island home, has led to the rampant corporatist, capitalist environmental degradation that we now live with. We find ourselves in the throes of environmental crisis. What is the role of the church in such crisis? There are many, but I think two are vital. One is to be a prophetic voice calling all people, not just all believers, to strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation and respect, sustain, and renew the life of the earth. Second, we should lead by example. The church should speak out against the empty consumerism that is driving us into debt, despair and clogging up landfills with our unwanted stuff. That means giving voice to creation care in our liturgy, in prayers, sermon and song. It means planting gardens, installing solar panels, organizing community cleanups, starting recycling/composting programs, switching to environmentally friendly cleaning products and getting our congregations out into nature to simply enjoy it.

The Vulnerable – Perhaps the first question that any parish or congregation should ask itself when trying to reimagine their purpose in the world today is, who are the most vulnerable among us and what can we do for them? Our example for this is none other than Jesus. Jesus’ entire life was oriented towards those on the margins of society, the disenfranchised, the forgotten and ignored. He healed the sick, and ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. As disciples, literally apprentices, of Jesus we are called to learn from and mimic Jesus. We do what Jesus has done.

So who are the most vulnerable among us? Here at St. Mark’s we have identified that new Canadians and refugees, hungry children at Virginia Park elementary, elderly in institutional care and single parent families struggling to make ends meet are vulnerable. So we have acted to feed, clothe, visit and befriend these vulnerable people. We have also partnered with the local community centre as it seeks to serve the vulnerable in the community who struggle with poverty, addictions, education and unemployment. But there is much more to be done, more who are vulnerable. In particular there is much more to be done with seniors. As our population continues to age our seniors will need more care, more advocacy and more presence. What is God calling us to do for these vulnerable people in our midst?

The Spirit – We live in a spiritual age. The spiritual marketplace is flooded with multiple options for spiritual expression. In fact, spirituality is big business – just witness the success of authors and speakers like Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer and Tony Robbins. Yoga, exercise (especially cross training and running), meditation, mindfulness, healthy eating, naturopathy/homeopathy, fair trade and buy local movements all tap into a form of spirituality. Yet what we hear about religion almost exclusively focuses on decline, controversy, scandal and exclusion. Why, in this age of spiritual awakening, is there such an aversion to traditional forms of religion? What are we to make of these spiritual but not religious folk? First, we have to acknowledge that the church doesn’t have the market cornered on God anymore. People do not feel that they have to come to church to get access to God. Second, I think we show that it’s not an either or choice between religion and spirituality, but that you can be both spiritual and religious. Third, we need to do a better job of presenting a healthy, more loving (and dare I say more positive) spirituality. Fourth, we need to remind the spiritually-minded that we do not seek alone, but that we are at our best spiritually when we seek together. What the church has to offer to the conversation and practice of spirituality is community. Finally, we need to do better at tapping into the rich Christian tradition of spiritual practice and recover ancient ways of prayer, fasting, meditation and sacred reading of scripture. Our spirituality cannot be limited to Sunday alone. We cannot sustain ourselves if our only spiritual meal is the Eucharistic meal once a week. We need daily nourishment from the deep well that is God.

Leadership – There is much more I could say about the future such as community partnerships (i.e. government, business and non-profits), ecumenism and multi-faith dialogue and cooperation, social media presence, youth ministry and catechesis, evangelism, advocacy and peacemaking, and evolving our theological perspectives to speak to the current scientific-technological world we live in. But I feel a word needs to be said about leadership. Who will lead us into the future, into this new church? Most of the clergy we have today are not trained to lead in this current climate let alone into the future one. First of all we need better programs at our theological schools to better equip clergy to minister in the 21st century. Second, we need to move away from the pastoral model of parish ministry described above. Priests can no longer just be shepherds of the flock. They must also be skilled communicators (both inside and outside the church), social workers, collaborators, marketers, teachers, entrepreneurs, spiritual directors, advocates and public theologians. Third, the current economic status of most parishes tell us that there will be fewer full-time priests and more part-time, two-career and non-stipendiary priests, which means that lay people will increasingly have to take the lead in ministry. The church has been talking about and promoting the ministry of the laity for years now, and yes some big progress has been made. I would hold up St. Mark’s as an example of great lay ministry, but there is much more to be done in this area. Oftentimes one of the biggest hindrances to this is not the people themselves, but the clergy and dioceses who are too territorial over who does what in the church.

Finally, I think one of the greatest ways the people can lead into the future is to believe that a new way of being church is possible and to give themselves to it. That means letting go of some things in the church that are currently on life support. Don’t get me wrong – this is not an argument for wholesale change right now. We are really now a church in between two times. We are in transition. In our rush for what is new we cannot ride roughshod over the people for whom the church as it stands now still carries great meaning. There is a great piece of work to be done in the church that resembles palliative care – dying with dignity. But part of this care is the resurrection belief that there is life after death; that something new and different will emerge once our old models and institutions die. Even in the midst of dying we work toward the new life of Easter morning. That means giving of our time and resources now for the future. Planned giving will play a huge role in this future. The faithful, faith-filled people who have worked so hard and given so much to the church – they have carried it and been carried by it. Now we need you to help us plant the seeds of what will grow into a beautiful, loving and caring community of faith.