The harvest is plenty, but the labourers few.
Since I began to fulfill my responsibilities as the Regional Executive Minister in January, I’ve become particularly worked up about the future of the church. We all know the stories: a church closes every week across Canada. Ministries are having to move to hiring part-time ministers because they can’t afford full-time ones. Some have decided to try to make it work without a minister, without a building or by sharing ministry with other churches both inside the United Church as well as with other denominations. The average person in the church pew is in their seventies or eighties. And there are more and more churches that have either run out of money or run out of people.
It’s bleak. And the stories aren’t false. The church is in serious decline. And we feel it even more acutely in Québec than in other parts of the country.
I won’t sugarcoat it. People on the streets out there have made a choice and they have voted with their feet. They see no value in being part of a Christian community. They come to the church and they aren’t finding what they need.
I know what you’re saying… who is this guy? Why is he here painting such a poor picture of the church right now? Why is he such a downer?!
Well… for those who know me, you’ll know that I’m generally a glass-half-full kind of guy… so hang in there… I’m not done yet.
While our churches are in a downward spiral, the world around us is filled with people who could use the church right now.
A crisis in mental health. Loneliness and isolation and disconnection from community in proportions that were a pandemic long before the pandemic. Poll after poll showing us that young people have a spiritual hunger that they can’t satisfy. New immigrants who arrive with their religion and are keen to find a faith community that can be a piece of familiarity in a foreign world. And yet, our church pews are empty on a Sunday morning.
What’s causing this gulf between what we offer and what is a clearly expressed need? Why are we failing to bridge this gap?
Jesus, in his own time, looks around at the people who are gathered, who have a spiritual hunger, and he says… “The harvest is plenty, but the labourers are few”.
Our churches have been so focused on how we’ve done church for the last century, that we failed to see how the ground has shifted. We’ve been assuming that what worked in the 1950s, when the United Church was opening a new church each week, will continue to work into the future.
The world doesn’t look much like it did in the 1950s when church attendance was a societal expectation. Opening your doors was all you needed to do. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, we assumed that what we needed to do was make it clear that our welcome was all-inclusive and people would just say ‘oh… this church really does welcome everyone! We should go there!’. And we continued to watch our numbers dwindle and the gulf between the world out there and the world in here get wider and wider.
And yet, the harvest is plenty… we are fewer and fewer. And while the fields are filled with more produce than we can imagine, we are sitting in the barn and pining for the old days.
In our scripture today, just after Jesus comments on the lack of labourers, he turns to those immediately gathered around them and he gives them a part to play. He names them disciples – a ragtag bunch of doubters, tax collectors, fisherman and even one who will eventually deliver him to the authorities to be crucified. None of them are even farmers! How are they supposed to be expected to look after the harvest. Yet, Jesus gives them authority and instruction.
We are the disciples who have inherited this ministry. We are the ones who have been handed the challenge of meeting the needs of the world around us… healing, casting out demons, letting people know that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. He never says “get the world around you to meet the needs of the church, so that you can pay your bills and do what you’ve always done”.
I do think, however, that people put their money where their heart is. When people’s needs are met, they respond with generosity. Does that generosity sustain what has always been? Or does it start to transform what is already there into something new and different?
But what I find most interesting about this particular part of Matthew’s gospel, is that Jesus also says where not to go. Did you notice that? Jesus says don’t go into Samaritan villages or take a road that leads you to the Gentiles. Go to the lost ones, the ones who don’t already have a spiritual home. Jesus is paving a path of reaching out to those who need it rather than trying to reform or correct those who have it.
If that’s true, we live in a society for which the harvest is plenty! Western society is a place where this kind of outreach is not only possible, it is deeply needed.
So when we, as the church, start talking about our new strategic plan, and we make a point of highlighting growth as the leading theme, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about. Evangelism in United Church ways looks like what Jesus called his disciples to do… to go out and meet people’s needs. Not to stay cooped up in our churches and wish people would come in.
Given the history of my own career, I’ve had the chance to dabble in a lot of different fields. When I worked in communications, one of the first things I learned was to be clear about your target audience. When you speak to everyone, you’re speaking to no one. And when you know who you’re speaking to, the task is much easier.
I believe that as a church, we’ve been talking to ourselves for so long that we’ve lost some of the skills needed to speak to those outside our four walls. We’re not even sure that we know to whom we should be speaking. And it’s tricky because the harvest is so plentiful, there are so many needs to meet, that we try and boil it down to something generic, something that is so universal that no one can hear what it is we are saying.
I have this crazy dream that when we look at the different congregations in this United Church, that we might imagine that they would each become specialists in meeting a particular need in our society. That they might become a centre for excellence in a particular field of work. Maybe one is exceptional in Christian meditation and spiritual practices, while another is the place to go for music ministry, another might embrace eco-theology and be a wild church, while another has a children’s programme that attracts young parents from a wide geographic region. Why should all churches try to do everything with some success when we can share the harvest in a way that is more intentional, where churches become the true experts in meeting a particular need.
If our churches were doing extraordinary work in specific styles of ministry, and that was going to meet the needs of a particular group of people, they will travel long distances and set aside their other tasks in order to have those spiritual needs met. In order to feel the presence of God in ways that speak to them.
For the most part, we think of ourselves as a social justice church, a church that gets engaged in justice issues in the places where we see need. We have the ability to identify needs out there. We’re passionate about it. I know it is possible. But we also need to be clear about our unique public witness in these tasks. If we do not bring a unique voice, perspective and action to the world that is rooted in our faith, then we would serve the world better by selling all our buildings, shutting down the church and giving all the money to the organizations that do the work of justice and mending the world far better than most of our congregations might. Otherwise, we might be doing precisely what Jesus is asking his disciples to avoid doing… to try to meet needs down certain roads that are already being met in other ways (and possibly better ways).
So then, it is up to our communities of faith to go a little deeper, to find what it is that God is calling them to offer that meets the needs of the world in a way that we are uniquely equipped to do. In the world of communications and marketing, we can actually narrow our focus to a particular person, a model of the people we are trying to serve. We call this type of effort ‘persona modeling’. We create a fictional person, with a specific age, a physical street address, a particular occupation and we list the things this person cares most about, their fears and their joys, we identify what sources of media and social media they use, we might even know what they had for breakfast. The more specific you are, the more you can figure out how you meet the needs of that person – and the many others like them.
There is no lack of harvest my friends. Congregations don’t have to worry about who might be tempted to go have their needs met elsewhere… there are plenty of people out there for whom our particular ministry is needed.
As your Regional Council does it’s work to prioritize and focus on what we will do throughout the region, please consider what unique aspects of ministry you are tailor-made by God to offer – what needs you are meeting that your intended audience might want to come to be part of. And of course, please pray for the church as it strategizes and navigates a new way forward. I’m increasingly convinced that God is not done with this church of ours. There is too much harvest for us to walk away now. Let’s work together to bridge that gap between the need and what we have to offer, with God’s help.
- Rev. Éric Hébert-Daly is the Regional Executive Minister of Conseil régional Nakonha:ka Regional Council, Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council and East Central Ontario Regional Council of The United Church of Canada. This reflection was shared with the congregation of Saint James United Church on June 18, 2023.