Throughout the Easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the development of the church. It’s a story of the apostles journeying to new and unfamiliar places, to bring good news of Jesus Christ to the people throughout the Mediterranean region. We will hear stories of Peter and Paul adapting the way they spoke, to accommodate local customs and worship practices. The story continues, after years of persecution of Christians by various Emperors, with Constantine’s adoption of the faith, and its spread throughout the Roman empire, including to the British Isles. As congregations grew too numerous to meet in people’s houses (and there was no fear of persecution) cathedrals and church buildings developed, serving as both worship centre, and local market and meeting place, and with them the diocesan and parish system with which we are familiar. The faith was handed down faithfully through the generations by bishops and clergy, parents and godparents, with congregations steady until after WW1. Since WW2 congregations have been declining steadily, but in recent years the decline has been much greater. The graph below shows current rate of decline, and if you draw a line through the points and extend it you will discover that it reaches zero at about 2040, in 23 years time.
We could of course ignore the statistics and assume that because numbers may be holding up in our own individual church it’s someone else’s problem, or hope that if we ignore it and carry on exactly as before somehow it will change. (My favourite definition of madness is repeating the same actions and expecting a different result). But bishops and clergy cannot simply ignore the problem.
From the ordination service “Bishops are called to serve and care for the flock of Christ. Mindful of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, they are to love and pray for those committed to their charge, knowing their people and being known by them. As principal ministers of word and sacrament, stewards of the mysteries of God, they are to preside at the Lord’s table and to lead the offering of prayer and praise.
They are to feed God’s pilgrim people, and so build up the Body of Christ.” Priests and deacons are called to assist the bishop in the care of the flock. This duty of care for the whole flock may be why bishops and clergy appear to be more in favour of change to the structures than laity. We are more aware of the impact of one or two people disappearing from each congregation every couple of years across the whole denomination. In 20 years time it is the bishops and (few remaining) clergy who will be asked how could you sit back and watch this happen. The culture which surrounds us today is very different from the culture which has supported the church for centuries. Like Peter and Paul we need to find new ways to adapt to enable the good news of Jesus Christ to reach people of today’s culture. Mission Areas offer us the best possible structure within the confines of the Constitution of the Church in Wales to do this, making collaboration and partnership between churches in the area easier.