Options despite decline in pastoral care, congregations

The Church needs fewer committees and more mission, writes Ron Gilder. 

I was having a shower the other day when all of a sudden a large spider fell from the shower curtain. For a moment we stood there looking at each other, then it decided it had better get out of the situation so it ran around in ever-decreasing circles until it ran down the drain.

As I was showering I had been thinking about the Church and my concerns about the future life of the Church. My thoughts shifted to a minister I met visiting Dunedin who told me the congregation he once had in Dunedin was  about  250 to 300. When he returned he was saddened to find it about 40 at worship. What is the answer to revive the church my fellow retired colleague said. "I don’t know," was my reply.

A fellow elder in my home parish in Christchurch many years ago was adamant when he said to me he felt the Church had to die and be reborn into something new. He could very well be right.

For a number of years I worked at Dunedin Hospital prepping men for mainly heart surgery; when they found I was a minister I had some interesting discussions about the Church. Here are some of the things they said: "We were members and when my wife was sick our minister never came to give her communion when asked."

"When my father died the minister said he was too busy to visit me."

"I would get on better in the church if I gave more money."

"When my wife died no-one came back to see how I was getting on after the funeral."

"My daughter couldn’t get married in our church because she didn’t belong to us."

"My wife and I went to mass every Sunday and didn’t have a visit from the priest in  15 years so we gave up."

"Went to church one Sunday and no-one spoke to me and was told it was my fault."

"The minister wouldn’t  baptise my grandchild because he didn’t belong to ‘us’."

The church needs to understand its role and responsibility for what is happening. The church used to have so many weddings  it  petitioned the government to have marriage celebrants, meaning a loss of contact with young couples. In the area of funerals, a large number use funeral celebrants and the pastoral care is given by funeral homes and other counsellors in private practice; another loss to the church in bereavement care. I am saddened for whatever reason, children being refused baptism.

Many of the most precious times of my ministry have been being with families at those three occasions. Weddings, funerals and baptisms. There is a huge number of situations where a minister of the church should be available.

I also am sad that ministers on their pew sheets say  they have "office hours" and if needed urgently they are available on their cellphone. That to me sends a message: "Don’t bother me unless you really have to."

Having given up so much in pastoral care, and dwindling congregations there is a huge opportunity for mission. Mission is what Jesus did. Jesus put on his sandals called some followers and went on a mission. In that mission he called people to faith in God and His Kingdom, he offered forgiveness, healing, compassion, hope, love and much more.

I like reading the "Faith and reason" column; a lot do. One writer said "the university will find the answer". Will it? Another said "The first-century church had the right idea in their worship". This the 21st century! Someone suggested "throw out the creeds". I like that. Another stated "we have a responsibility to each other". That’s excellent. There’s some good stuff in this column.

Too often we talk about mission but say we are too busy to actually do it.

People didn’t come to Jesus until he first made the move.

Will theologians revive the Church? I don’t really think so. My feeling is that the Church needs to look to the God within, the life God gave at the beginning. It’s in each of us. As God called Jesus, to show love forgiveness, healing, compassion, we too are called to mission to show the same.

The Church needs to look at the cross again and see that it is empty. Jesus is alive, the gospels tell us. It is the 21st century,  what are going to do to show Jesus is alive? My thoughts are:  fewer committees and more mission.

Put  on our sandals as Jesus did and go out to our communities with the good news of God’s Kingdom.

Will the Church survive or will it be like the spider in the shower?

- Ron Gilder is a retired Presbyterian minister in Dunedin.


It would be interesting to know which denominations refuse marriage and baptism for some.