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It's possible that newcomers to our pews will actually want something new

By Muriel Duncan

She was new to the city, young and lonely. It took a while but she turned to a nearby church. They shook her hand at the door but that was it. She felt invisible and no closer to God than she had in her back yard.

He was new to the city too and for reasons never quite clear went to a downtown church service. He was mobbed by the members of this older, small congregation who took him off to coffee hour and tried to get him into Bible study.

Neither returned to church. No welcome, too much welcome: it is hard to get it exactly right but the United Church is ready to try. As the national church launches its Emerging Spirit project to welcome the 30- to 45-year-old generation, its organizers want to raise the profile of this denomination. We're not sure we loom large enough in the secular space this generation inhabits to make much of an impression anymore. So the United Church is researching the views and values of 30- to 45-year-olds, planning to invest in television and Internet spot advertising. We've never tried this before but a couple of denominations in the United States have had positive results.

As good as the advertisements might be, United Church project leaders are aware that won't be enough to regain a missing generation. Congregations must be ready to welcome those who show up, and make them want to stay. So we'll need a strategy, we'll need resources. Maybe we'll need a new mindset about what we're doing Sunday mornings.

What if a whole crowd of young people, some singles, some in families, showed up on Sunday with their own needs, questions and a completely different agenda? What if they wanted some changes in the worship service? What if they don't want to pitch in with the congregational dinners? What if they ask embarrassing questions about what we believe?

If they come to the door, we'd better be ready to meet change with honest, open hearts.

General Council Executive has made a commitment to this enterprise, approving spending up to $3 million from the Morrison Bequest fund for research and development to get started. When it meets next August, the whole General Council will get a look at the results and say yes or no.

Not everyone is confident that building a better media presence is the way to go. On page 38, you'll find a pro-and-con debate over the merits of plunging into an advertising campaign. We have to be faithful to who we are as a church, goes one argument. Can you really remain faithful in the foreign land of advertising? It's a good, reasonable question.

There are others. What about the missing folks in the 45- to 60-year-old range, the 18- to 30-year-olds? We should invite them back too.

It is natural to have qualms about a project of this magnitude. It is risky. It won't be easy to sum up the United Church in a 30-second television spot. We'll never get total agreement no matter how good it is. That's just not us. Yet what is the alternative? To sit in sorrow as fewer know our name?

We have to try, to go where we haven't been and tell our story to people who might care. We've embarked on a great adventure without knowing where we're going to end up.

You could call that faithful.

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