By Michael P. Knowles
You don’t have to go far to find people who will tell you that today’s church is in serious trouble. Aging memberships, declining congregations, and the ever-increasing cost of maintaining church property has leaders wringing their hands in frustration. One wag has gone so far as to suggest that for some churches — some denominations! — their only growth industry will be funerals. To be honest, I belong to such a denomination. Every year the number of faithful dwindles, and those who remain are increasingly discouraged. OK, I admit that I too find the situation discouraging.
Then there’s True City. It’s not that I’ve exactly avoided previous True City conferences: just that I didn’t think they were for me. But I’ve changed my mind on that one. Most gatherings in my corner of the ecclesiastical vineyard are dominated by folks who are at least middle-aged if not elderly. So being in a lively crowd of five hundred plus, the majority in their 20’s and 30’s, is a refreshing change. Of course, any nightclub could claim as much, so that’s not the heart of the matter. These were people — of all ages, actually — who had gathered for the purpose of worshipping Jesus together, exploring practical ways of living out their faith here in Hamilton.
But that’s not really it either, so let me try again. Three things come to mind. I’ve been to many conferences led by inspiring speakers who filled my head with new ideas. This conference took a different approach, exploring ways in which Jesus mentors his followers by actually demonstrating how he works, then inviting us to join him. The keynote speakers talked about their own apprenticeship to Christ; workshop leaders helped us to practice discipleship in various forms of hospitality, contemplation, creativity, prayer, witness, and service. In the main sessions, while others spoke or led worship, two carpenters, a teacher and an inexperienced beginner, together built a communion table out of old wood on the stage in front of us.
In contrast to the self-absorption (spiritual narcissism?) that sometimes bedevils us, it became clear that True City is about serving the city of Hamilton, ministering to people on the margins. It may just be cynicism, but in my experience, concern for social justice too often seems to take the place of devotion to Jesus. Somewhat to my surprise, that was not at all the case here.
True City is explicitly post-denominational, not in the sense of over-riding or minimizing differences in theology and polity, but in the sense of recognizing that what divides is less important than the One who unites us. These are people intent on moving beyond the usual denominational rivalry — factionalism might be a better word — for the sake of honouring Christ. So the conference ended with delegates from a range of different backgrounds sharing the Eucharist together, a strangely rare phenomenon in today’s church.
I came away hopeful. If this is the church of the future — if this is what Christ is doing across the whole of our beleaguered old church — then discouragement is in serious trouble.
Dr. Michael P. Knowles is the Professor of Preaching and the George F. Hurlburt Chair of Preaching. He has taught at McMaster Divinity College since 1997, offering courses in pastoral theology, homiletics, and biblical studies in a way that seeks to integrate sound biblical exegesis, Christian spirituality, and practical application for the life and ministry of the Christian community.
To find out more about True City, you can visit their website at www.truecityhamilton.ca.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*