A few weeks ago, I came to Ayer’s Cliff with two members of the Partner Council of the United Church… these are people who come from outside the church and offer their perspective on the church and our ways of doing things. This Regional Council, which covers most of Quebec, was chosen as one of two across Canada to host members. The two people I was travelling with were from India and from the Middle East. When I put together the agenda for the tour, I wanted to give a fuller picture of what the United Church looks like. Having a rural church experience was important to me as I planned. I was grateful that folks at Beulah were willing to host them and share the joys and challenges of rural ministry.
It was one of the highlights of their visit and they spoke so highly of what they learned as part of their time with the folks of Beulah.
There are some significant differences between rural and urban ministry. I had the chance to serve in a rural congregation during my student ministry placement. It was a small town called Quyon about 45 minutes west of Gatineau on the north shore of the Ottawa River. I lived in a small town near Wakefield Quebec north of Ottawa for almost 18 years. A rural context is a place that is made for ministry.
When you live in a small town, you know your neighbours. You get to know them and you are, in some ways, required to deal with them. People in cities have a multitude of options to connect with people who are very much like they are… you can live in a bubble of like-minded people in the city. In a rural context, you have to live with people who are different from you and may see the world through a different lens.
In a world that is increasingly divided and painfully unable to have respectful conversation between people who may not see the world the same way… rural experience is valuable. Crazy Steven up the street may not agree with you on everything, but you still have to live with him. You still share an identity with Jennifer a few doors down because you live in the same town, shop at the same places and are likely to run into each other regularly and have conversation. Tolerance and respect are more easily accessed in rural settings where you know that the people around you are your people. They are like family that you may not always like, but you still love them. They are still a part of your life.
In the city, you can easily choose who to avoid. It’s not hard to find yourself surrounded by people who agree with you and to dismiss those who disagree. Your in-group is constructed by you, not by your surroundings.
I believe that the rural church has much to teach the world about what it means to be in community with one another. In an era of social media, in a world where isolation has been the pandemic long before COVID came to town, the ability to connect with one another and care for each other despite our differences is a model that we all need.
The other thing that is powerful in rural ministry is that the walls of the church are quite porous. There is a very faded line between church members and community members. When something affects the community, we reach out. We don’t only serve those who are members of the church, we serve the greater good of our communities without hesitation. City churches have to learn that… have to look carefully to determine who is their wider community.
Rural congregations immediately know when there is a new person who walks in the door. There is often an instinct to welcome and connect.
The United Church of Canada has embarked on a new strategic plan that leads with growth. This is a shock to most congregations who wonder what they’ve been drinking down there in Toronto! But the church has made a conscious decision to focus on growth… strengthening our existing congregations, beginning new ministries where there are gaps, and strengthening our invitation to those who don’t know us and what we have to offer.
The Regional Council approved a similar plan two days ago at its general meeting. A focus on growth. A change in the well-worn narrative of decline.
Which brings me to our scriptures this morning. Jesus is making a pretty stark comment in the gospel about what we are supposed to do. Note that Jesus isn’t saying this is how you must believe… he says this is what you must DO. So many of our church divisions are about belief – and who is right. This is true in society as well… the space for humility and a willingness to not have all the answers is a rare commodity. We focus on right belief rather than on right action. The Latin words for these two things are Orthodoxy (right belief) and Orthopraxy (right action). Jesus says very little about orthodoxy, but spends most of his ministry focused on orthopraxy. Both in what he says and in what he models.
When we focus on doing good things, the barriers to living well in community are much lower than when we’re focused on who is right in their beliefs or their worldview. Jesus is saying, over and over again… It doesn’t matter how you believe… follow my lead. It’s the human side of us that gets hung up on that… that will fight tooth and nail to prove that we were right and everyone else is wrong.
I think we have the opportunity to do something special in our churches… we have the ability to bring people together and find ways to talk to one another with respect. I know, the church is also full of human beings with the same weaknesses as those outside our churches… but what if we learned to welcome the stranger as Jesus suggests we do. What if we fed, clothed and gave water to those who needed it. What if we were meeting the needs of those around us instead of just trying to do what we’ve always done as churches?
Welcoming the stranger is going to be tough. We don’t like to invite others to church because we don’t want to be pushy. We don’t like to give people the sense that we’re imposing our beliefs on them. And in this province in particular, we have a real sense that we need to be secular in our interactions with others and keep the spiritual and faith matters to the private realm. Hard to invite someone to church if you can’t talk about it publicly. Yet 80% of people who make a choice to come to church have been invited by someone they know. If we’re too afraid to suggest it, there are a lot of people we could be reaching and are not.
But it’s more than just inviting people. What is it that we’re offering? Our church services can be foreign to those who have not been church-goers most of their lives (which is a significant majority in the communities around us these days). Sunday morning services may meet our needs, but is it meeting the needs of those around us? I dream of a day when people go to our churches and have such a profound experience or encounter with God that they tell all their friends… you have to go to church with me… it’s life-changing. I worry that we go through the motions of Sunday services and we crowd out God with all the busy-ness of worship. Are we leaving space for the divine to touch our hearts? Can we be more intentional about that?
We need to meet the needs of the world, just as Jesus asks us to do in the scripture today. It doesn’t mean we become a non-profit group and spend our time doing nothing but feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The church needs to act from its identity… a place that meets spiritual needs, even when it is meeting physical ones. We cannot forget who we are.
Poll after poll tells us that there is a spiritual hunger, particularly amongst younger people. That there is a need for connection on a deeper level that goes beyond conversation about the weather and sports. People are in urgent need of a group of people that care about them and support them in difficult times and celebrates with them in joyful times. And yet, they have chosen not to come to church because we don’t seem to be able to meet their needs with the services we offer.
We can and should be able to be that home, that family, that place of transformation and connection with each other and with God. It’s in our DNA, it’s an expressed need, and we need to find creative ways to do it.
And the rural church already knows this better than most… but there is always room to look around and see how we can meet the needs of our communities… feed them with spirit, clothe them with care, welcome them actively in ways that melt away their sense of isolation.
I think that if we do these things intentionally, if we work to meet their needs, our needs as a church will also be met. But we need to start from their perspective instead of ours. We need to be willing to be transformed by the stranger or the neighbour that doesn’t see the world exactly as we do.
Imagine ten years from now if people thought of our congregations as the place to truly connect with others, despite our differences. Imagine if they thought of the United Church as a place where they want to be because every time they spend time with us, they leave the experience feeling uplifted, strengthened and better connected to God.
What could we do now and in the coming months and years to make that reality possible?
I invite you to consider these things in your context. I invite you to meet with your Regional Council as they plan to share a meal with congregations across the region to better know them and see how we might offer what the world needs now.
I am convinced that God is not done with the United Church. There is too much spiritual hunger for us to ignore. With God’s help, we will find ways to feed the hungry and greet the stranger with arms open wide. Join with your Regional Council as we navigate how to be that church into the future.
- 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 congregations of Beulah United Church and St. Paul’s United Church (Ayer’s Cliff-Magog-Georgeville Pastoral Charge) on November 26, 2023.