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Emerging Spirit: The Boomer Edition?

The United Church's multi-million campaign to engage non-churchgoers seems to have excluded the 45-plussers

By David Wilson

A big surprise awaited me this spring as I made my way into a church basement to speak to a breakfast gathering.

The invitation to speak had arrived via e-mail from a congregational leader named Brian several weeks earlier. From follow-up e-mails, I got the sense that he was a bright, congenial, dedicated guy. I looked forward to finally meeting and speaking with him face to face.

Finding Brian was the first order of business as I arrived at the church. Fifty or 60 people — most of them older, a typical United Church crowd — were milling about, chatting and drinking coffee. One of the organizers greeted me and began making introductions. I immediately felt welcome and at ease.

But no Brian. I surveyed the room and picked out half a dozen people who fit my mental image of him.

Finally, I asked where he was. “Probably in the kitchen,” a woman said. “Come with me.”
Brian was facing away from us as she called his name from the kitchen doorway. He turned around and I took a sharp breath.

He was my age.

I am 53. I’m not sure how old Brian is, but in an instant I recognized him as someone who could have been a classmate in university, or whom I might have met at prenatal classes, or with whom

I might have carpooled to house-league soccer games. The fact that I was surprised to see someone like Brian — someone like me — in a church basement on a Saturday morning (or in a church, period) points to a huge demographic challenge facing the United Church today. I’m not sure the challenge is being well met.

A couple of years ago when the church launched its bold $10.5-million Emerging Spirit campaign to engage non-churchgoers in the 30- to 45-year-old age bracket, I remember thinking, yes, the church needs to speak to younger adults in a language they understand. But why stop at 45? What about the hundreds of thousands of women and men in the 45- to 60-year-old range who haven’t darkened the door of a church since they graduated from Sunday school?

Obviously, $10.5 million only goes so far. But it seems to me that limiting the scope of Emerging Spirit may have carried an implicit message to the 45-plussers: the United Church has written you off. It hasn’t, but neither has it actively sought to convince them otherwise.

One of Emerging Spirit’s strengths is its use of research to locate and describe the kinds of young adults who might be interested in connecting with The United Church of Canada. If similar research existed for the 45-to-60 segment, I think it would paint a portrait of people who may be less resistant to the idea of church than they were 20 years ago; who have likely experienced a major life change such as the death of a parent or the end of a marriage; who are beginning to wonder about their own mortality; who want to talk about life’s bigger questions but can’t seem to get the right kind of discussion started or find someone willing to break the ice; who are nearing or have reached the end of their child-rearing years and have more time and money at their disposal.

In other words, people who might appreciate hearing from The United Church of Canada — and who might have something to offer back.

Emerging Spirit: The Boomer Edition? It may not be as wacky as it sounds. Can we afford it? Who’s to say? Perhaps the question should be: can we afford not to?

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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