In these days of change in the church, imagination must win out over nostalgia.

A brilliant double rainbow over a green field. A solitary tree stands beneath the apex of the colourful arch.
Credit: James Wheeler, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Published On: December 13, 2018

My earliest church memories are tethered to St. James-Bond United Church in Toronto. (Of course, we called it “Bond…St. James Bond, United Church,” with a Sean Connery burr.) I won’t elaborate with tales of basketball courts and bowling alleys, wonderful ministers, witty musicians, finger sandwiches, ukuleles, and poster paint because you likely have similar memories of a church with a slightly less cool name. These days, when I travel along Avenue Road, I see condos where there was once a church. And I feel a little sentimental tug—a nostalgia that I can often confuse with sadness.

I know others who feel the same way as they wander through old neighbourhoods or memories and recall full Sunday schools and couples clubs, not to mention public recognition of who we were as a denomination and what we stood for. They look around and ask, “What’s happened to my United Church?” Some laugh, some shout, some cry, and still others speak in whispers without hope.

But I have hope. I have great hope.

I have hope inspired by scripture. Recalling the stories of Gideon in Judges, I am taken by God’s winnowing down of Gideon’s troops before the battle with the Midianites. It’s not my reflection that God has scaled down our numbers so as to curb our arrogance or keep us aware of God’s presence, but it is my reflection that being “large” is probably not the ministry to which we are called.

I would also offer that we are called to engage the world and share the gospel of hope that we have found in Jesus, a ministry that is perhaps done more effectively when we are not so large, not so tethered to a “dominant church” way of being.

I have hope because I no longer confuse nostalgia with sadness. The things that once were can be lovely to remember, but ultimately nostalgia is selfish and myopic: it appeals only to those included in the memories and it has no relevance to those who were not there. When I put my memories aside, I discover the freedom of creating something new, not the burden of maintaining something that has already been.

On the first day of General Council 43, the United Church overwhelming accepted the Calls to the Church from the Caretakers of the Indigenous Church, thus beginning a new relationship. This is not sentimentalism or nostalgia, but the beginning of something new—something that will be unfamiliar to us who are used to the power of the dominant church; we are creating a partnership of respect and mutuality.

On the last night of GC43, the Spirit moved through our gathering, and for those with ears to hear, there was a call to let go of our dominant church. We witnessed inspired, spontaneous testimony from racialized and marginalized members of our church; we heard the pain, the injustice, the hope, and the demand for a new way of being together. We heard a call into relationships not based on nostalgia or a will to dominance, but on mutual honour and respect. These calls give me great hope; living into these calls will allow us to model real reconciliation and give us a way to share effective, vital ministry.

Our United Church has formal and informal relationships with churches all over the world. We share communion and mutual recognition with many partners internationally and in Canada; individual communities collaborate and share ministry with all manner of religious and secular partners. We are no longer “my United Church,” a church of nostalgia and memories, but instead exist within relationships based on mutual recognition and shared ministry.

My greatest hope comes from the knowledge that we also share mutual recognition and shared ministry with God. However we express that relationship, we can say with confidence that it is one so great that we can hardly agree on descriptive words or metaphors. It is in that sustaining presence that I find my greatest hope. God isn’t done with us.

— The Rev. Norm Seli was ordained 26 years ago and is delighted to be in team ministry at Jubilee United Church in Toronto.

This article was orginally titled "The Gospel of Hope" and published in the Fall 2018 issue of Mandate magazine. Find out more about Mandate and get a copy or subscribe.