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If We Give Ourselves the Freedom

The church must become flexible says former associate secretary.


Gordon Haynes

When the Life and Mission Agency amalgamated Canada Ministries with another department last year, Rev. Gordon Haynes stepped out of the position he’d held for 14 years and plunged into a new one. As the former associate secretary of Canada Ministries, he was tasked with examining what has happened in the church over the last 50 years, what it might look like in 10 years and how the LMA should respond in the midst of a changing church. He submitted his research report to the LMA in mid-June and retired on July 1.

The Record sat down with Haynes at the end of May.

On the future of ministries in Canada:
I see the mission field becoming more diverse. The idea that we build the same model in various places is long gone. We need to find new ways of doing ministry.

I think we’re going to see less church building-centred worshipping communities and more house churches and churches in other settings.

I went down to the United States for new church development stuff for a couple of years and I talked to people who had started ministries. Some were baristas in a Starbucks and they had started a little worshipping community. They started off by meeting together in one far corner in a coffee shop. To me that’s great. That’s a different style of ministry. I think that might happen more often if we allow ourselves to be free to do it, or if we give ourselves the freedom to allow that to happen.

Maybe [there will be more] lay ministry and lay ministers. I think in a lot of smaller rural settings, that’s the only way they [the churches] can survive. But also, I think in some cases, lay ministry may be the ministry that has to happen.

On changes in the Canadian mission field:
In the last two or three years, I’ve noticed more unwillingness to take the risk of doing mission. Presbyteries weren’t willing to start new churches. Some presbyteries and synods seemed to give up having mission committees.

I don’t think it was a lack of desire to do anything. I’m not sure how to put it; at one point I said “despondent” but I think that’s overreaching it. They lost a certain amount of hope of doing the work—of taking the chance to do it. They were too busy.

There were presbyteries that tried starting something and it hadn’t worked out; they were hesitant to try it again.

On what is holding us back:
We have to be more flexible in the way we do things. When I was talking to presbyteries for this report I’ve been writing [about the future of the Life and Mission Agency], they kept saying, ‘Well, we can’t do it that way. There’s a rule against that.’

And I’d challenge them. I’d say, ‘Where’s the rule?’ There is no rule. But they’ve got this perception that someone is going to say, ‘That’s the wrong way of doing it.’
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To a certain extent, they self-censor. They never try to find out if someone is going to say no. They just don’t do it. And if you don’t allow yourself to think about trying something, it’s not going to happen.
Some places are going to fail. And sometimes a glorious failure is a good thing. If we try hard, if we try everything we can and it still doesn’t go… Well at least you gave it a good try and you learned a whole bunch of things about what you should and shouldn’t do for a future try.

I think we’ve become afraid of failure. Unless we’ve got an absolute, 100 per cent guarantee that this is going to work, we’re not going to do it.

Eventually you just sit there waiting for that 100 per cent. And I don’t remember anything else in life ever coming with a 100 per cent guarantee that it was going to succeed.

On the future of the church’s structures:
The problem with all structures is they were set up during ‘the good times’ or the ‘golden age’ (which wasn’t golden, believe me). They’ve been tweaked since then, but basically they’re all still [based on] the assumptions of the 1960s. I know we’ve been through a [national] restructuring but we’ve changed the chairs and the names; basically we’re still [based on] the same assumptions. We’re not going to be able to pay for it. And even if we could pay for it, it may not be the structure we need to be able to care for this new church.

If people start churches that are meeting in houses and have lay people leading them, all of a sudden our presbyteries need to say: How do we have any kind of oversight over these? Are they really ours? How do we make sure that what’s being preached is what’s supposed to be preached? And my goodness, how do we get a congregational number for statistical returns? And so a lot of the structural things are on shaky ground.

Just in terms of size, as we get smaller can we continue to function? The last time we did [national] restructuring was 1991. It was 21 years ago. We have incredibly fewer people now than we had at that time.
If you’re on a diet and you get smaller, at some point you’re going to have to buy smaller clothes, or else you’re going to look like a clown. So you take in your clothes to fit you as you are now rather than what you were in the past or what you hope to be in the future.

The church I think, in many ways, is going to have to do that same thing. That means yes, at some point we’re going to have to look at our structures and say: ‘Do these really serve us?’

Think about what the church would be like if there hadn’t been a Reformation. For the people who went through that, terrible things were happening. But out of it comes a much stronger church and I can see a certain beauty in that.

I don’t see the changes going on in the church as negatives. They are positives. But they are changes. There are some people that are caught looking at the old ways and saying, ‘why can’t we go back’ rather than enjoying the new church that’s developing. I think it could be a very exciting church.
I think the church in the future is not going to be the church in the past. I think we have to celebrate what we’ve done, but we have to say, ‘Where is God leading us now?’

About the author

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Connie Wardle is the Presbyterian Record's senior writer and online editor.

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