Wednesday, March 26, 2014

There Needs To Be A "We" In Community

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 19, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

There was a double baptism at church a couple of Sundays ago, a baby and a toddler. With them were their two older sisters. It’s remarkable how the presence of four children, their energy and noise and smiles, can alter the sanctuary profoundly.
They make a notable difference in the entire service because they are such a rarity. 
Many rural congregations are suffering from a loss in attendance affecting both the choir loft and the nursery. The older generation is hanging on but there are no younger members sharing the work. 
If we take churches as a specific example of the general decline in rural Nova Scotia, churches are the canary-in-the-coal-mine. Putting religion aside, churches have featured as the centre of communities for hundreds of years. When the spirit of a community disappears, it doesn’t take long for the physical frame to follow. 
For the past year, I have been attending church again but the irony is that I returned to fill a void: a pastoral charge currently does not have a minister so as a lay worship leader, I am helping three rural churches. There are several of us providing worship each Sunday, week after week, month after month, to the dozen or so faithful who insist on showing up. 
Who persist. Who aren’t giving up. Who are clinging to the ways of the past. Aren’t these the very qualities that keep so much of rural Nova Scotia chugging along no matter how many reports over the years have announced it’s time to change or die? 
Yet without the consistency provided by a regular minister, how can any cluster of churches in any denomination continue to survive, let alone thrive? 
Dwindling membership is forcing tough decisions and the need for creative solutions but having a minister won’t translate into larger congregations because, as the communities around these churches know, our rural populations are shrinking. In Cumberland County, the number of people under the age of 50 has dropped 21%. Our rural communities are no longer filled with people in their thirties and forties, many of whom have young children, and that is reflected in the church pews (and in the readership of this paper and in the attendees of the recent International Women’s Day event). Whether we’re talking a community or a church, every death is another step closer to emptiness.
Yet in the past year, I have witnessed an amazing example of what the “those old and out-of-touch people at church” accomplish year after year. The commitment of small congregations to their Christmas mitten trees, their Mission and Service Fund, their lunches and community suppers as well as the Sunday services is the kind of investment every rural area needs from its residents. A dozen people, by sheer force of will and faith, are keeping their churches open while doing the work of two dozen to do so. 
Look around and see this pattern reflected in the greater community. 
If we don’t support the churches or businesses or service groups in our area, they will close down, leaving yet another gaping hole that won’t be filled. For everyone who says, “I’ve lived here all my life, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” there needs to be more than lip-service to that insistence on staying here. Without people being involved in the community, without residents supporting each other – in stores, on the newsstand, in the pews, at the service clubs – not just with words but with action and money, a community crumbles until there is nothing left but foundations. 
And no one around to do the rebuilding. 

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