[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]
For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario. Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse. The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished. There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before. Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled. In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home. We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.
Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children. These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly. We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.
I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith. Over the course of our visiting his story came out. He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic. In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord. He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church. He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.
During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication. One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness. The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question. Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”
I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church. The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour. I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren. The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.
His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada. I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”
Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.” I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of. Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister. I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives. There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.
The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children. The minister too died suddenly some years ago. His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.
The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying. One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents. Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church. Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations. Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.
Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical. People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one. Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason. What is the answer?