We’re All in the Same Boat

I went to the Canadian Council of Churches’ Church Leaders meeting last week, an overnight at the Presbyterian Retreat Centre in Crieff Hills. It seemed like an appropriate time to have such a gathering, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, no?

The CCC is one of the most ecumenical councils in the world since it includes not only the usual suspects—United, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran—but also the Catholics as full members, not just as observers (including the Apostolic Catholic Church), and seven Orthodox denominations (who knew?), and, to my surprise, Baptists, Mennonites, the Salvation Army, and the Reformed Church of Canada. And then, to my even greater surprise, I discovered that the Pentecostal Assembly and the Christian and Missionary Alliance come to the biannual board meetings as observers. Now that’s ecumenical!

At this gathering we spent a lot of time in worship, and there were discussions about our shared concerns about climate change and right relations with First Nations peoples, all of which was helpful and expected.

What caught me by surprise was that we all share the same struggles and challenges as we look to the future. I knew that the United Church was not the only denomination facing declining numbers, an aging membership, and dwindling finances. But I confess that I had thought it was primarily a problem facing the “mainline, liberal Protestant” traditions. Not so—it’s everyone, including the Mennonites, Baptists, Salvation Army, and Reformed Church! The times they are a-changing, with secularization, distrust of institutions, spiritual-but-not-religious people, and a social-media-interconnected generation that just doesn’t show up on Sunday.

I realized that what separated and made us distinctive was becoming far less important than what we shared in common. We had a good discussion about how “denominations” are becoming less and less significant.

And I discovered that the United Church is not unique in being in the midst of a Comprehensive Review, where structures and just about everything else are on the table. So are the Lutherans and the Mennonites. The Reformed Church is about to bring such a report to their June national meeting. And the Anglican Primate couldn’t be part of this leaders’ meeting because his church’s restructuring task group was having its first meeting that very week.

So we talked about needing to change our structures so they might better support congregations. But everyone agreed that what’s happening on the ground is changing, and fast. No one really knows what “congregations” are going to look like in the future, so how do you organize your structures?

Willard Metzger, head of the Mennonite Church of Canada, described his sense of what was happening by imagining the church leadership as being in a boat, trying to go forward but being surrounded by fog. You can’t see what the future church looks like or even where it’s going to be found. But you keep peering ahead, watching carefully, trying to read the currents, hoping you won’t hit the rocks. Always staring ahead, trying to discern what’s out there. Then the fog clears for a moment, and you catch a glimpse of the “new church”…but it isn’t anything like what you thought it would be. And then, just as you reset the tiller, the fog closes in again, and you’re forced to steer by faith once more.

There was talk about this being God’s work—that what is happening to the churches, to all of us, is the movement of the Spirit, similar in many ways to Jeremiah’s understanding of the exile of Israel into Babylon. We are not being called to “fix it” but to discover new ways of being, to discover where God is already doing a new thing and join in. That is both scary and reassuring.

So, some of us decided that it makes sense to have a special gathering in the very near future of those denominations (leaders and key staff) that are engaged in this revisioning/restructuring work (the Reformed Church leader, William, with a wry grin, hoped it could happen before their report is tabled in June! :-)).

We’re all in the same boat, and maybe we’re all headed into a “new creation.” Do you think?

15 thoughts on “We’re All in the Same Boat

  1. I agree with the imagery, but I find myself wondering what kind of boat we are in, and what kind is best for the journey ahead. A freighter? A sailboat? a canoe? or a raft?

  2. Our congregation is just exploring the coordinates toward which we’d like to set our bow, too. It is a challenging and exhilarating moment we find ourselves in and I am glad that the various denominations are able to come together to discuss and explore options.
    Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the conversation could shift from structural possibilities to include those other things that also land us in the same boat and that might draw us toward a distant horizon we might glimpse with more accurate vision? I mean the challenge to live with justice and compassion, to honour context but always push toward right relationship, to lead with love instead of doctrine. These foundational values with which the slats of our individual boats have ever been pitched, are what will, if anything, finally draw us beyond the beliefs that divide and into a common boat. At least, I would prefer we chart our course in that direction than by falling numbers and dwindling interest. The communities in which we live and work, the world and its continuing challenges, and our own hearts need places that model and visionaries that teach these values. May we be guided by that compelling calling.

  3. In the communities I serve, the ministerial has identified one of them as being particularly “Spiritually dark” with people shrinking back at the mention of anything spiritual or of church. So there has been a request for the ministry folk to gather for a time of prayer specifically for that community. I’m bothered a bit by the request because it seems to me framed in fundamentalist terminology and the implicit judgmental attitude toward the community (are they more spiritually dark than any other?) It seems to me that the observation that we share the same concerns might serve to re-frame the question in more liberal terms of the mission of our churches to give a new vision of how to be God’s people today.

  4. Last week I attended Epiphany Explorations in Victoria – including the workshop with Cameron Trimble “Effective Congregations in a Rapidly Changing World”.
    This week I attended a meeting of an environmental group (local land trust) to talk about its future.
    The language was remarkably similar … “We are in the business of transformation.” This, not from the church meeting, but from the environmental meeting! And from both an admonishment that in order to reach (a new audience) we need to engage their hearts.
    As long as we are in the business of selling doctrine we are doomed. When we invite people to share our (lived) values there is hope.

  5. I agree, about being in the same boat. I was at the Banff Men’s Conf. and wanted to suggest you (Gary Parterson) read “Sun Rise” by RIck George (past CEO of Suncor). You will be surprised at what strides they have made on the environmental front. Also go to the Kitimat town web site and read there bussiness plan.
    David Galbraith

  6. It is apparent that there is a great longing and search for spiritual meaning in our society particularly among young people. It is equally clear that our church structures and liturgies do not speak to this reality. It seems that we ask “the unchurched” to join us and try to be welcoming but do not recognize the actions of God already among them from which we might well learn new ways of faithfulness. In other words, we expect those not with us now will soon come to their senses, see our light, and fundamentally change. And , because we are “flexible” we will be be happy to make minor adjustments.To some extent toying with structures strikes me as that kind of half-hearted response .It’s deck chairs on the Titanic.

    We are, indeed, in a fog. And we neither acknowledge that God is doing a new thing nor do we really want it to be true. The good news is that our opinions really don’t matter much in this. We need to trust that God will lead us to a new promised land whether we like it or not!

  7. Change is certainly coming. There may only be a few of us in a large room. Maybe it’s God’s problem? I know where i stand.
    I do disagree with the comment that you hear alot of ” spirtual but not religious ” I believe that statement just makes non church people feel good and perhaps superior to these rather naive groups. The world has always had its temptations . Alot of people today are only concerned about ” now ” and themselves. There is nothing wrong with that. But it involve perhaps people that give less, volunteer less and God just doesn’t come into it

  8. Thank you for the reflection and the images. We are not the first to be in a fog. The early immigrants who came to Canada did not know what was before them, but they brought their faith with them, which has evolved in many ways. This weeks lessons are about wisdom to know how we are called to live.
    Perhaps the important thing is to teach our children to live in right relationships with each other and with creation, both in their own community and in the world around them, knowing that we do not walk alone.
    How exciting to be in dialogue with so many other denominations – now to extend that conversation to other faith traditions – for there are many paths up the mountain. Who knows what our churches will look like in the future, but they are still truly spirit filled

  9. Seeing the world through a “Christian” lens has to be recognized for what it is – a minority position nowadays.

    People in most of Europe and North America can freely choose which aspects of culture they prefer and are not as likely to be forced to accept “received tradition”. Christianity must realize that it is no longer the dominant or normative religious tradition in hardly any parts of the planet.

    So the various Christian denominations are indeed in the same boat with regards to selling their product to the market. I know this sounds crass but this is a reality which no denomination is willing to face. People tell me – all the time – that young people will come back to the Church. Wishful thinking will not make it so.

    Personally, I have found that even the most liberal, progressive and enlightened pockets within the United Church are far to caught up in institutional survival strategies to adequately deal with change of any sort.

    The great ship of the Church will continue to sail forward for another century or two, strictly on the momentum of history and tradition. Let us hope that some within this tradition can preserve what is best of the Christian “Way”, jettison the bulk of its dogma as so much useless baggage, and be a positive force in the next two thousand years of human history.

    A church, as opposed to The Church, will always have a chance to live on if it it exists as a caring community dedicated to selfless action. Unfortunately, many people find this type of community outside of The Church nowadays.

  10. Pingback: Stop Complaining… We’re All In The Same Boat :: Maritime Preacher

  11. Perhaps we need to get out of the boat! It may be the very thing that is boxing us in. Let’s do some deep listening and engage with the people and communities. Then we may be able to see what God is about!

  12. I am mindful of another time, another place and another boat. The waters then, as now, were troubled and those in the boat feared for their future. 

    Then a surprise appearance, drawing near from the far shore. A person approaching on the water, ambiguous and inexplicable. Those in the boat raise the anxious question: “What can this be?” Then a word is heard: “Do not be anxious or afraid. It is I.” By the pronunciation and the hearing of this word, the agreement of the approaching one and the imperiled many, remedy is revealed (Epiphany). A new outlook is established.

    Martin Buber notices that in the time when institutional norms and standards are compromised by the entanglements of an age corrupted by the divisive politics of profit and power we are called to personal responsibility and accountability.

    I suspect this is in view where the Evangelist presents Jesus asking those gathered to him what popular opinion has to say about his appearing and activity. We notice that the penultimate questions set up the primary concern. This primary concern is located in the ultimate question: “Who do you say that I am.

    Institutional solvency is waning. The day of personal decision and commitment is dawning. This move to the personal is magnified not by reconfiguration of institutional norms and standards but by resort to faithful covenants grounded in love of God and love of neighbour.


  13. Maybe we are using the boat for protection, a way of holding on to what we have. Something has to die in order to be born to something new. Are we brave enough to “move out into the deep and let the shorelines go”?

  14. Years ago I spent a silent retreat at Crief Hills. The spiritual director asked me in one of my sessions, “Which eye do you think I see from best?” When we parted for the last time, he returned to the theme. “When you really believe I see best from my blinded eye, you will better understand your calling.” He had assigned for my prayerful meditation Isaiah 42: I have set you as a light to the nations…” which through me is at best a dim and distorted reflection of the Light of the World Jesus Christ (1 Cor 13). If he’s in the boat, he will calm us. If he is walking on the water, he will call us. If he is on the shore, he will direct us to cast our nets on the other side. And when we make landfall, he will be waiting with the Holy Meal prepared for us to join. His is the boat; his the sea; his the fog; his the hoped-for shore. If the Church is lost in this time, what of the worlds in which the church lives?

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