When it comes to creative solutions, the diocese of Central Newfoundland is looking beyond the church walls.
The diocese is the recipient of a $15,000 Anglican Foundation of Canada grant for a rural ministry project that will look to local businesses for ideas about how to revitalize area parishes.
Parts of the diocese are experiencing a population decline, and some churches are considering closing or moving to part-time ministries, says the Rev. Joanne Mercer, rector of the parish of Twillingate.
It’s not only churches that are experiencing a slump. Newfoundland and Labrador have what a recent population project by Memorial University’s Harris Centre calls “the most rapidly aging population in the country,” a result of youth out-migration, declining birth rates, and more and more people moving from rural areas to urban centres.
However, in the town of Bonavista, the last several years have seen a boom in new businesses.
Commercial realty group Bonavista Creative has bought several heritage buildings in the town of 3,400, which they restored and sold as space for upstart businesses, mostly owned by young, socially-conscious entrepreneurs. These young people are part of “a growing minority that are dissatisfied with their life in…urban environments,” and enjoy the lifestyle and “authenticity” of Bonavista, John Norman, mayor of Bonavista and founder of Bonavista Creative Group, told the CBC last October.
“It sort of occurred to me, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” says Mercer. “We’re looking at this place with a sense of loss and decrease, and these people are looking at this place with a sense of hope and doing something new.”
With the help of an Anglican Foundation of Canada grant, Mercer is now embarking on a two-year project aimed at cultivating new ideas for revitalizing her diocese’s rural parishes. The first year will be spent conducting research by meeting and making connections with entrepreneurs, discovering what the church can learn from their ideas and experiences.
In the second year of the project, she says, they are hoping to gather a group of parish leaders who may have their own ideas for revitalizing their parishes, and provide space and support for these new projects and ministries. They also hope to host events to share what they are learning with the diocese at large.
The project is about “looking at these communities of people who are active, who are vibrant—who may not go to church—with the intention of seeing how the Holy Spirit is working in their lives…seeing how we can go out there in the world with them and become part of something that God is doing,” says Diocese of Central Newfoundland Bishop John Watton.
The diocese has been intentionally refocusing to become more “missional” over the past few years, he says. Each parish in the diocese has been asked to undergo a process of assessing their sustainability and potential for reaching out to their communities.
Mercer says it is important for them to find ways to address revitalization and mission in a rural diocese. Many of the resources available on the topic, she says, are from the urban point of view, and what works in a city may not be helpful. “We’re not likely going to open a soup kitchen here or do the kinds of outreach ministries that you can do when you have a large population in a very small area; it’s quite different when you have a small population in a very large area.”
The Diocese of Central Newfoundland does not contain any cities, and still has many multi-point parishes where priests may serve as many as seven or eight churches, says Watton. Churches in this rural setting face challenges like distance, travel and competition for limited government resources; if a church closes, the deconsecrated building can become a liability that the diocese is unable to sell.
Adding to these challenges is the new and unfamiliar territory of ministering to a generation of people who were not raised in church.
“One of the biggest challenges that we have is trying to help our leaders realize we have to stop trying to answer questions that no one’s asking anymore,” he says. Watton says a growing number of young people to claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” longing to find meaning themselves rather than hear a church’s prescribed answers. For the church, it’s “a big shift…From having answers to helping people find answers.”
Watton is excited about the revitalization project and how it looks to the success of entrepreneurs outside the church. God is moving in the world, he says, and part of the future of the church is to “come out” of the church building.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love church buildings, and here in Newfoundland we have absolutely beautiful buildings, but they’re empty.”
In John 3:16, he says, the Greek word translated as “world” is cosmos. “The literal translation of that is that God so loved the world, with all of its politics, with all of its muck, with all of its mire, with all of its diverse opinions…God so loved this crazy world we live in, he sent his son. We know that Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, I send you.’ So, we have to go.”
Mercer says she hopes to find new ways to go out into the world.
“We’ve trained people to minister to a congregation that exists, not to create new ways of being church, not to find folk who haven’t normally come to church,” says Mercer, who adds that the way evangelism has been done in the past may no longer work. “What does evangelism even look like now? I’m not sure. I’m hoping to learn more.”