So, a parting shot (for now) from the most esteemed Lesslie Newbigin. It's from the final paragraph of his Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
It may well be that for some decades, while churches grow rapidly in other parts of the world, Christians in Europe [or certain denominations in the U.S.?] may continue to be a small and even shrinking minority. If this should be so, it must be seen as an example of that pruning which is promised to the Church in order that it may bear more fruit (John 15:1ff). When that happens it is painful. But Jesus assures us, "My Father is the gardener." He knows what he is doing, and we can trust him. Such experience is a summons to self-searching, to repentance, and to fresh commitment. It is not an occasion for anxiety. God is faithful, and he will complete what he has begun.
So once again, thank you, Bishop Newbigin. Let's have confidence in the gospel and confidence in God. Let's do our best, as individuals, small groups, congregations, seminaries, parachurch organizations, judicatories, denominations - whatever shape the Body of Christ is taking in us - to discern our vocation in God's mission and to live out that calling in faithfulness to the triune God for the good of the world. But I think there's something we should not do. We should not attempt to enact some pantomime of missional faithfulness out of anxiety - because we're afraid that the institutional structures that support us will shrink and crumble. And we shouldn't encourage others to do that either. Missional faithfulness is not an imperative for the Episcopal Church (for example) because we're shrinking numerically. Missional faithfulness is an imperative for the Episcopal Church because we are followers of Jesus - of the one who did not falter in his own mission though it led him to the Cross, and who made it crystal clear that to follow him is to walk that same path of courageous, limitless love.
Let's look at this from a different perspective. I almost titled this post "fear-based evangelism". I dare you to show me a liberal mainline Christian who thinks evangelism based on eliciting fear of hell is an acceptable practice. But is it any more faithful to the gospel to suddenly get the "evangelism" bug because of a different kind of fear - fear not for your neighbor's eternal security, but for your own security in this life, whether that security takes the form of material support from an endangered religious institution, or the less tangible support of familiar liturgy and comfortable ecclesial structure?
That's why I grumble about programs like the "20/20 Vision" initiative in the Episcopal Church, with its goal to double average Sunday attendance in Episcopal churches by the year 2020. We do need to do the things that are being associated with that Vision - good, creative ideas for blessing the world and inviting and forming new disciples - but we need to do them because Jesus did them, and commanded us to do them - not because we're shrinking and we fear that we must do something to reverse the current numerical trend. If we attempt to do the right things for the wrong reasons - out of fear, instead of out of confidence in the gospel and its Author, then I'm afraid our efforts don't stand an ice cube's chance in that place we liberal mainliners don't like to talk about. Confidence in the gospel is the only thing that will make these efforts succeed; acting out of fear will make us smell like frauds and weasels.
Maybe God will use anxiety about numbers as the opportunity to work in the heart of some folks and continue the work of conversion. I don't know. I certainly don't want to try to place limits on God. But I just feel that we would do better to shut up about numbers and redirect all our efforts to fanning people's passion for the work of the kingdom - loving neighbors, blessing the world, radically welcoming all to the table. God may work in our hearts through fear, but I know God works in our hearts through love. That's something, I think, in which we can have confidence.