Why do we carry on with church at all?
It was October 19th. 10pm. I was in Ontario, watching the election results trickle in, but twitter told me something of great importance was happening elsewhere, simultaneously.
Curious, I waded in to the questions. And as I waded through questions and answers, my mind cycled through moments over the past decade when I have wrestled with them, wondering if anyone remembers why we are Church in the first place.
As I was finishing my final year of seminary, I was hired by an inner-city church in Parkdale, the Toronto neighbourhood I called home.
The physical structure was itself impressive. Built in 1886, the sanctuary of Parkdale Presbyterian Church could hold well over 1000 without feeling cramped. It was an impressive space. Vaulted ceilings. Beautiful pipe organ. Wrap-around balcony in exquisite wood.
In the 1980s, sparked by a vision – or perhaps desperation – the declining church mobilized and built a seniors’ residence on their property. The construction led to increased community space, the creation of offices, a big kitchen and a large multi-purpose space for meals and other gatherings. The church was a short walk to a bustling and vibrant section of Queen St. West.
The neighbourhood had changed drastically since 1886. An area of town once marked by wealth and power had shifted significantly over time, its economic decline becoming most noticeable during economic hard-times brought about by the second world war.
Large Edwardian homes once populated by the industrialists operating the factories east of Dufferin Street fell into disrepair. They were sold, demolished, or converted into rooming houses for newly arrived immigrants, refugees, and those who had been released during the deinstitutionalization of the Queen Street Mental Health centre.
The church had borne witness to all of these changes, and so many more. Time had taken its toll.
Once a church of wealthy industrialists, the pews used to be incredibly full. Long-time members of the congregation still talked about the glory days of the 400-person Sunday school. The glory days that hung like a millstone around the neck of a congregation whose Sunday attendance rarely climbed north of 50, and whose leaking one hundred year old slate roof was in desperate need of repair.
It’s a depressing thing, looking out into a room that seats over 1000, only to observe 40 or 50 people clustered in small islands of humanity separated by vast oceans of empty pew. But it was my local church. And that was a phase of my life where I had committed to living locally.
The weekly farmer’s market was 10 minutes away on the bus. Other necessities were available on the bustling main streets. Small galleries had popped up, and there was even a wine bar whose proprietor was committed to making wine an accessible drink in a neighbourhood of beer drinkers.
It’s a depressing thing, looking out on a room that seats over 1000, only to observe the clear lines that divided the congregation. On one side of the sanctuary, the older, Scottish Presbyterians who had been there for decades, whose roots were firmly planted in the story before the church’s decline. On the other side sat the Caribbean set who had migrated to Canada much more recently, whose families had been evangelized by Canadian Presbyterian missionaries in places like Trinidad and Guyana.
If I learned one thing in that church, it’s that Egg Salad and Goat Roti don’t mix.
I started attending the church because it was in my neighbourhood. Over time, I got to know the pastor, and was eventually invited on staff. The church didn’t have much money, but they did have an endowment for outreach. A bequest of a couple hundred thousand bucks for local mission and outreach. They had no vision for the money, or how to use it. After a budget meeting in which I asked a few questions about this line item, and what we were planning to do with the funds, I was brought on staff to help re-connect the church to the neighbourhood.
That’ll teach me to speak up.
And yet, I was brought on staff with the hopes that this young soon-to-be seminary graduate could bring in the youth, young adults and young families.
There were not-so-subtle hints from some of the older members that I might help this church return to the glory days, when the seats were packed, and the Sunday School was overflowing. All on 15 hours a week.
But what was undergirding this hope? What was it that they were seeking? Why were we building this church at all?
If you’d asked anyone WHY it was important to bring new families into the church, there might have been a vaguely religious justification. Scratch the surface, though, and the real motivation became clear:
Who would pay the skyrocketing bills?