Every 500 years or so, the church has a giant garage sale, getting rid of the stuff it no longer needs. That’s what author Phyllis Tickle said in 2008 in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.
During this garage sale, she told me, “the institutionalized church throws off things that are restricting its growth,” breaking open “the incrustations of an overly established Christianity.”
For Western Christianity, the first garage sale was when Pope Gregory the Great helped bring the church out of the dark ages. The second was the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. The third was the Protestant Reformation, about 500 years ago.
And the next one, she said, is happening now.
“Every religion is subject to becoming encrusted and institutionalized over time,” she noted. When people “rebel and seek reform,” then “new and vigorous expressions of faith break out, breaking the molds that have held them and scattering the pieces.”
Thoughts about a great emergence and garage sales came to mind when I got the news that Mennonite Church Canada suddenly laid off five staff Nov. 27.
The reason for the cut was financial; as of the end of October, the denomination had a shortfall of about $300,000.
The layoffs, while sudden, were not unexpected. A task force that had been asked to review the future of the denomination had already recommended staff and program reductions.
In this, MC Canada is not alone. Other Canadian denominations are also experiencing declining attendance and shortfalls. The United Church of Canada, for example, has to cut $11 million from its $30 million budget.
While cutbacks are an obvious solution, the task force is proposing something unique and visionary: Eliminate the national office of MC Canada. In its place, a new entity will be created that will be led by area churches across the country. This new entity will do what the national office used to do — supporting, resourcing and equipping congregations.
A key principle behind the recommendation is that congregations are increasingly becoming the center of missional activity; members are voting with their donations by keeping them closer at home to support local ministry.
For some — especially for those who have lost jobs — this is a difficult and disquieting experience. It isn’t easy to see an organization created by a previous generation hitting such hard times.
Others, however, are energized. They ask: What new thing is God doing? And how can we be part of it?
Right now, it looks like MC Canada is going through a garage sale. Members have taken a look at the “stuff” they own and decided that they don’t need it anymore. It’s a hard thing for many to accept. But I compliment denominational leadership for recognizing the change, and for taking a proactive position to get in front of it — even if there is pain, and as yet many unanswered questions.
Other denominations might want to watch this process carefully. Who knows? One day they may need to have a garage sale of their own, too.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.