A week or so ago, driving to a dentist appointment in Goderich, I passed the Benmiller United Church. The sign board in front of the church announces the time of the services, 10:00 am, and the name of the person currently leading the congregation. In stark contrast to the business as usual of the sign, a bulldozer is working next to the church with an odd extension attached to the bucket, carefully stripping off the bricks for salvage. Another rural church is closed, the third in my area in the past year. I’m sure a small monument, not unlike a grave stone, will be planted on the lot, to commemorate the place which was once the social and spiritual center of this community.
It seems the church, once a driving force in Canada, is being pushed, and shoved, by various forces into a corner of the social fabric which is almost redundant. The pushing is not unlike that experienced by the Crow People as described in Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope. The movement from the feared, nomadic nation, roaming the American west, a nation that knew what it meant to be a Crow, to life on an ever shrinking reservation, where the old rules and the old measures of success no longer held true, could be used as a metaphor for the decline of the church in Canada. Just as the sphere of the Crow influence was eroded, from all of the land they walked on, to seventy million acres, and then to two million acres with parcels of being sold off every year further endangering their identity, the church in Canada has lost much of its place as well, being pushed from honour to obscurity, from power to poverty.
Plenty Coups, the chief of the Crow identifies the end of their existence, as it was traditionally known, with the disappearance of the buffalo. He identifies this as the point their paradigm for life shifted, where their sense of what was honourable and shameful was turned upside down. It was at this point, their social structure, their measure of courage, their entire sense of self identity changed. He does not identify the fact that being on the reservation, being prevented from making war, stealing horses, counting coup, as the turning points. These were certainly symptoms of the change, but he points the loss of the buffalo as the root, the defining moment, the point at which there was no opportunity to turn back.
I wonder, if the church in Canada could identify the particular thing which is the loss of buffalo for us, could we face the future and flourish, with the radical hope shown by Plenty Coups and the Crow people? Plenty Coups was able to articulate the cause of the end of the world as they knew it. The loss of the buffalo meant many other things were lost as well. Courage and cunning in the hunt would no longer be prized, honoured, traits. The nomadic existence, following the herds, would no longer sustain life. The protection of the tribe from other tribes, as they moved through their lands, would no longer be a necessary, or even valued skill. Bravery and courage took on new meaning and were no longer measured in the same ways. All of this change could be placed on the loss of the buffalo, and as much as one might hope to turn back time, to hold on to the old ways, the thing that made the old ways work, the buffalo, had disappeared and they were not coming back. With the buffalo gone, forward is the only direction available if the tribe is to survive.
Part of our issue, as we struggle to find our way in the church, is, we cannot identify our buffalo, and since we cannot identify the particular event, we somehow feel there may be a way back to where we were. For the Crow there was no choice, it was change or die, the buffalo were gone, end of story. For the church it is much less clear. Is the issue the epidemic of consumerism sometimes called afluenza, which has replaced the God of the heavens with the god of stuff? Has positive thinking so invaded our psyche we no longer need to come together in churches for physical, moral and spiritual support and, if we did come together for those reasons, would it be a sign of failure? Has the media so permeated our lives that the truths of scripture have become mere whispers, and in fact, not even recognized as truth? Is it the shift that has taken place from tool using to technocracy to the technopoly which has overwhelmed the church and in some ways made it seem redundant? Or is it the effect of our culture’s move to postmodernity, with its distrust of the meta- narrative, and its refusal to accept that there might be some ultimate truth?
Whatever issue we might choose doesn’t really matter. Plenty Coups chose to identify the disappearance of the buffalo, he could have chosen to point at any number of other events, but he picked this one as the defining event, and recognized, neither he nor his people could reverse it. They could not bring the buffalo back. They had to change, adapt, by, as he puts it, becoming like the chickadee, watching, listening, learning.
As I watched the bulldozer peeling the bricks off of the church in Benmiller, joining the one in Nile, and Donnybrook, and St Helens, and Kingsbridge, and Lucknow, and Whitechurch, and St Augustine, I wonder if this is just part of the kind of death and destruction Plenty Coups and the Crow people experienced after the buffalo were gone. There must have been a real sense of hopelessness there, and yet, by recognizing there is no way to return to the past glory days, Plenty Coups is able to lead the remnant of his people forward toward a new hope and a new flourishing identity.
Our churches need to do the same if they are to flourish. Trying to identify the reason the old ways don’t work anymore, and doing battle with that reason, is likely not the answer. The force is just too large, too dominant, the change in our cultural landscape just too radical to overcome. We are called to be in the world but not of the world, but still to be salt and light. We need to learn again what makes a church a church, in this time, and in our culture. This would entail quiet listening and learning, a study of how this new reality in which we find ourselves functions and flourishes and then applying our learning to a new radical hope, and new way of flourishing as God’s people in this world.
Plenty Coups put faith in his dream, a dream that told him that a tree, the Crow tree, would be left standing after the storm which was coming. We can put our faith in a God who promises never to leave us or forsake us, who promises to be there whenever two or three are gathered together. In the same way as the Crow nation looks much different after the storm, but is flourishing, the church in Canada can flourish, in new ways we may not yet be able to imagine.