Who Do You Say I Am? Who Do You Say I Am? Who Do You Say I Am? Who Do You Say I Am? Who Do You Say I Am?

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In a recent Friday Update, I made mention of a special report on Religion in Canada that

appeared in the June 2023 edition of Broadview magazine. At that time, I specifically quoted

some comparative numbers from the 2011 and 2021 Statistics Canada census followed by

United Church of Canada statistics for the same decade under review. Let me briefly return to

the four sets of significant comparative figures to be shown on the screens.


  1. In the 2021 census, almost 13 million Canadians stated that they had no religious

affiliation, an increase of 5 million from 2011.


  1. In 2011, the number of Canadians declaring an affiliation with The United Church of

Canada was 2 million. That number declined to 1.2 million in 2021, a hemorrhaging of



  1. Membership in The United Church of Canada decreased from 480,000 in 2011 to

350,000 in 2021, or an average drop of 13,000 members each year.


  1. UCC Sunday worship attendance in this same ten-year period dropped from 165,000 to

120,000, or 37.5%.


My intention was to revisit this topic into today’s reflection and offer my personal take as to

what these realities might be telling us. Let me be clear, I am not obsessed with statistics. In

fact, it was one of my most challenging subjects in college. Furthermore, I do not have a

template for arresting these accelerating trends in the organized church. I am also mindful, and

should note before moving on this morning, that as members of this church, Lawrence Park

Community Church, these figures do not describe us at this point in our history. In fact, the

pandemic presented challenges, but also opportunities and LPCC rose to the occasion. We now

have a large and expanding Sunday morning congregation taking in the live-streamed service;

we have had four and possible five Sundays where we have welcomed new members; and our

ministry and scope of programming is a response to doing church in new ways and building

community. Yes, we can celebrate these progressive steps, but at the same time recognize that

we are an aging congregation, and that children and youth are essentially absent. You can do

the math! Having said that, our Front Porch ministry seeks to engage with the young adult

demographic by meeting it on its own terms and identifying with its challenges with

encouragement, care, and understanding. LPCC can rightfully claim a kudo for this progressive

step in outreach being led by Reverend Roberta. Contrary to the old model of ministry being

tied to an expectation of a revenue stream, now we reach out to respond to the needs of the

community without looking for a pay back. This is the very essence of ministry, the sowing of

seeds through kindness.


Let me turn to the reality of the trends we see in the church universal and specifically in The

United Church of Canada. I believe that the time has come not to look for reasons or blame in

what is clearly a rapidly declining interest in church. However, I would be remiss in not

recognizing that the words religion and church have negative connotations. That has been

magnified in recent years with the discovery of unmarked graves of children who were

entrusted to the leadership of denominational residential schools, a national tragedy that has

permanently scarred, not just the Indigenous peoples, but the church universal itself. There was

a time when the decline of church attendance was simply linked to Sunday shopping and

children’s sports activities. That reason has exceeded its shelf life. We need to look further than

these convenient explanations.


Well enough of what might be considered doom and gloom on a lovely Sunday summer day!

My purpose in offering this diagnosis of the church’s current condition and reputation in

today’s society is to elevate the need for honest and intentional investigation. So often we are

prone to immediately look for a remedy, or a new approach, or innovation to reverse a trend.

While this is perfectly fine, I believe that more importantly we should look at what needs to be

safeguarded and nourished in the Christian faith.


To get to the heart of the matter I want to speak to what I have seen and experienced over my

years of ministry. It can be captured in a crucial question that I have tried to keep in constant

focus: How relevant is the church today?


Let me attempt to answer this question by turning to the Gospel of Matthew that Marilyn read

from earlier. This is a rich and pivotal narrative that never loses its currency. It is Jesus at his

best and, if I may say so, at his cleverest! Whereas this passage is usually preached on with the

emphasis on Peter declaring that Jesus was the Christ, my focus this morning will be to

elaborate only on Jesus’ questioning.


On one of his travels with the disciples Jesus asked two questions. He first asked them: Who do

people say that I am? (Or what’s the gossip out there?) This was really an easy question

because it did not require a personal response. Notice how quickly the disciples responded with

answers they probably thought Jesus was expecting to hear; Some say John the Baptiser; others

say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. They imagined that these identities

would be pleasing to him. With the easy question out of the way we can understand that they

felt a sense of relief . . .at least for a moment! Jesus then followed up with what was a real

burning issue for him: Who do you say that I am? The change in the disciples’ comfort level was

palatable. Their eager voices were instantaneously replaced with hesitation and a deafening

silence. The confidence with which they offered the descriptions of Jesus they had heard from

others was exchanged for an uncertainty of their own understanding of him. I respectfully

suggest that most, if not all of us, intersect with the gospel. We can identify with the disciples’

uncertainty and their reluctance to answer the question. It could be also outside our comfort



I want to pause here and freeze frame this scene from two thousand years ago and fast forward

it to today. I believe that the personal question on which the disciples stumbled is as relevant

and perhaps more vital to you and me today than in its historical context. Would it be fair to say

that we may well stumble on this question? Do we rely on that often-quoted statement that

our Christian persuasion is purely a private matter? Are we able to speak about him in our

regular conversation or is it simply the evangelical branch of the church that gets excited and

animated about the person Jesus? The naming of Jesus is pervasive on a Sunday morning as we

hear the gospel message; enter into prayer; and sing of his love and saving power. This morning

is no exception when, in our opening hymn, we spoke of Jesus as fairest as one who we cherish,

and one that we honour. Does this devotion lead us to tell others of our experience? I think we

all know that the gospel was never meant to be privatised but to be lived and shared. Let me be

clear that this is not an imperative to proselytize and tell others that we hold the truth. What

we hold is our truth in that it is only the Christian faith that is built around Jesus, who became

the Christ . . . just one of many faith expressions. Our mission is not to evangelize the world. We

have seen the disastrous results of that misjudged missionary zeal where rich cultures and

spiritualities have been destroyed.


This brings me to where I wanted to go this morning in this reflection. In these final years of my

ministry, I have come to the conclusion, along with many others, that the days are over of

expecting more pews or seats to be occupied on a Sunday morning. The church is no longer in

the context of a Field of Dreams movie where if we build it, they will come. Yes, there are

exceptions and new ways of being church that are showing results, LPCC being one of those

progressive and successful congregations. But for me, and as naïve that it may sound to you this

morning, the centrality of the person Jesus in what is his church will never change and is non-

negotiable. Our whole raison d’etre is built around the teachings and ministry of Jesus. This lies

at the very heart of who and what the church is and was meant to be. Jesus’ teachings

represent the ultimate humanity . . . his example of unconditional love, his passion and

compassion, and his acceptance of all people. Yes, that is a tall order and when we are honest

with ourselves, we admit that we, and the church, fall short of that high bar in our being and

doing. It is the gospel and its proclamation that acts as a catalyst, a model, to encourage us to

live in right relationships, which in turn calls us to love our neighbour, and in the words of the

Prophet Micah, show kindness, seek justice, and live humbly. It is the Gospel that is a constant

fountain of grace in living the authentic life. Yes . . . you have heard all this many times before

and, in an increasingly secular world of indifference, the challenge has become greater.

When Jesus asked these questions of his disciples all those years ago, he was concerned with

what today we call succession planning. Were their any, when he was gone, who would carry

on the work of the building of God’s realm? For Jesus that was a crucial concern. Today the

mantle has been passed down to us. We have inherited an overwhelming responsibility in that

we are the church of Jesus Christ in a vastly different, challenging, cruel, and complex world. If

we tire of that identity, or the centrality of Jesus is diminished, I submit to you that the church

as we know it will come to a logical conclusion.


I recall a few years ago on my way driving to work I stopped at a red light, I glanced as I often

did, at the church at this intersection. I had not previously noticed its cornerstone. Unlike many

churches this one did not have the name of a prominent church official who happened to lay

the stone such as the right or very reverend (whatever this means) with her or his list of

credentials. It simply contained five highly meaningful words: Jesus Christ is the cornerstone.

Nothing more! That simplicity spoke to me that day and reminded me what the church and my

role in it should always be about. I trust that you have been similarly challenged this morning as

we have revisited that unchanging cornerstone of our church, Jesus Christ. He is a constant

beacon of light to show us His Way. That same Jesus still calls us to follow him. The question as

to the relevance of the church today very much depends on the extent to which we are

prepared to make him known. Knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing him. One

concerns facts and the other calls for a relationship.