Christmas is over, but its memories and lessons linger. I’ve swept up the pine needles and placed the drying Manitoba Spruce tree into a snow drift outside our living room window as a reminder of celebration and green in the outdoor winterscape.
Winter is definitely NOT over in Winnipeg. We know the days are lengthening, but can’t really believe it. Our spirits have been groaning, and our bodies and houses creaking, under the grip of an extra cold Polar Vortex that is hovering over most of North America. Living through record lows with wind chills that keep us inside, we thank God and the electric grid for warmth inside our homes and work places. Today the polar vortex is easing its grip and we hope for some relief.
The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual, (2009, Ford and Waibel)which has been my winter greenhouse gardening guide. helpfully breaks winter into three seasons. Late September to mid November is not just fall but diminishing season, because of the rapidly diminishing daylight hours. This is followed by solstice season, where everything seems to stop, which yields to expansion season from mid January to late March.
During the solstice season plant growth in my sun-room almost stopped. Even while I tried to trick my plants with fluorescent grow lights and keeping the room warm, they still seemed to know the season they were in.
Oh, there was some growth, and we greatly enjoyed the occasional sugar snap pea, sprig of broccoli, peppermint and lettuce, but the rate of growth slowed right down. The plants seeded on October 15th grew much more slowly than the ones seeded on September 1st.
Even so, sitting in this lovely, sunny, and sheltered spot to enjoy the morning sunshine is providing a powerful antidote to winter blues. This morning it prompts me to philosophize about winter growing seasons for the church.
Many proclaim and site statistics that Christianity is in its own diminishing season. Others fight against that trend much like I fight against winter cold and darkness in my sun-room with headlines like this one: Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend, Amber Hildebrandt, CBC News Posted: Jan 08, 2014 5:00 AM ET.
However, as is the case with my grow lights and greenhouse plants, there’s another message that has to do with diminishing church life these days, as this quote from it reveals:“An upsurge in new churches in Canada’s urban centres is heralded by some as a sign that religion is far from dead, a fear often cited with the rise of secularism throughout the western world. But others aren’t convinced — and recent figures from around the world, including Canada, suggest that the number of people who don’t identify with a religion has risen to unprecedented levels and shows no sign of abating.”
So what do western Christians do when signs of church growth are as slow as that of the plants in my greenhouse? Can we buck the trend with better programming? The article suggests doing Sunday morning church in ways that will keep young families and their children wanting to come back. This seems wise but includes its own pitfalls. Is that the essential nutrient for growing in diminishing season?
Ken Warkentin, Executive Director of Mennonite Church Manitoba recently wrote an article called “Avoiding Meaninglessness” in our periodical paper, Canadian Mennonite (Dec. 16, 2013). He asks the question, “Will it continue to be important to organize our churches into denominational bodies or is there another way for God’s people to come together?” It is just one of the questions our Future Directions Task Force is asking as they seek to chart a course toward a leaner, more effective denominational structure.
To stay with my greenhouse metaphor, denominations are faced with deciding what ‘gardening’ practices and nutrients are essential, and what results are to be expected in diminishing season.
I wonder and worry as well. I wonder if I will have to shut down my ministry department when I’d much rather mentor someone else to take over when I retire. I worry how we will be able to offer faith resources from our Anabaptist perspective if our publishing house becomes unsustainable. I wonder which biblical texts will provide the most appropriate nutrients for God’s people during this diminishing season.
These are fairly new thoughts for me, since I grew up alongside of burgeoning church institutions like camps, schools, universities and denominational offices. For most of my life I assumed these forms of being the church would continue to grow and thrive, but the last decade’s budget statistics alongside the rise of secularism have thoroughly challenged that assumption. The FTE of my employment as staff of Mennonite Church Canada has been reduced twice because of this, which has helped me ponder these things.
And so, like Mary, who bore our Saviour in a diminishing season of her people, I will ponder these things in my heart, and wait for new understandings of God’s reign among us, on earth as in heaven, to emerge. Expect more blog posts on this topic as my understanding grows.