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At Issue

The United Church's Emerging Spirit Campaign begs some hard questions about money and faith

By Connie denBok

My husband and I suspect our dog does Internet off-track betting while we’re at work. At the end of every month, there’s less money in the bank account than we remember spending. Plus, Doc came to us fresh from the racetrack. So long as we have a greyhound and the Internet, we can dodge the other questions.

I wish there was a way to soften questions around the Emerging Spirit Campaign, because I have a lot of them. Especially money questions. And outcome questions. Okay, faith questions and policy questions, too. It’s hard to question anything in the church without fingering a real person with feelings and vulnerabilities of his or her own. Self-doubt has rarely been characteristic of The United Church of Canada as an institution, but I have doubts, big doubts. If I invested $12 million in a campaign to link a younger demographic to United Church congregations and couldn’t measure results at the end, I would experience a terrific moment of self-reflection that would be wasted if I blamed the dog — or the Empire.

Emerging Spirit was named after Arthur Fabel’s 2003 book Teilhard in the 21st Century: The Emerging Spirit of Earth, in which he references Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s metaphysics with a dove flying upward from the earth. You may remember the United Church’s crest is a Holy Spirit dove descending from heaven. How did it get turned around?

About five years ago, the church retained Environics to identify groups of people who would be receptive to joining us. They found three.

The first was the “Personal Faith” group. They liked connecting with people, reaching out and deep relationships. They engaged faith with mind and heart. The second was the “Community and Outreach” group — people who help others, put faith into action, work for justice. At the time it struck me that the Environics categories described 98 percent of the United Church people I’ve known in congregational life.

Then Environics named a third group, “Questing and Embracing,” described as “those who encourage, question, respect personal freedom and choice, build relationships, are open to change, celebrate all, including gays and lesbians.”

The majority of the Questing Embracers I’ve met are clergy, or in staff or committee positions at Conference or General Council.

The dividing line between the three groups isn’t over “including gays
and lesbians,” at least not for people under 50. It is that the first two groups value respect for all people, without breaking them into special categories.

So Emerging Spirit was directed at the third group — those least often found in our congregations, least likely to engage with a local church, least likely to embrace personal faith and transformation. If the Questers ever made it to a pew, I can’t imagine them “embracing” what they found.

I chuckled at the ads and cruised through the WonderCafe to see what my fellow clergy were saying. I stopped believing the day “a young man with no church background” discussed “order of ministry personnel.” Right. And I’m 22 years old, 115 pounds and 5’11” on the Internet.

Twelve million dollars was a lot of money for a celebration of ourselves, by ourselves, for ourselves. It was a great party, but I’d like to turn the dove back upside down.
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