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Setting the table; not serving the meal

Thanks to the Emerging Spirit campaign, Canadians have come to expect the unexpected from the United Church

By David Wilson

About a year ago, a publicist contacted CBC Radio’s As It Happens. Would they be interested in doing a piece on The Observer’s sponsorship of a museum exhibit on the life and work of Charles Darwin?

The answer was a polite no. Not enough edge, the CBC said. “People expect the United Church to do that sort of thing.”

I found the response more puzzling than annoying. But I now think I know why we were turned down. It was because the United Church’s Emerging Spirit campaign was working.

Emerging Spirit is the focus of a story by senior writer Mike Milne (This United Church, page 27) that asks: Has it been worth it? What did the United Church get for the $10.5 million in special project funds it sunk into a profile-raising and welcoming campaign with no real benchmarks for success?

Mike discovers that for everyone who supports Emerging Spirit, there’s someone else who is unconvinced or openly fuming. I can understand their pique: struggling congregations might bristle at The United Church of Canada spending millions on whimsical magazine ads intended to drive people to a website; those with a passion for justice might take a dim view of millions being spent as the church cut back on some of its traditional justice work.

I suspect Emerging Spirit’s critics might not be so harsh if they were able to look around and see empty pews starting to fill up. But Emerging Spirit never promised the pews would fill, only hinted that it would be nice if they did.

Emerging Spirit has been more about setting the table than serving up a full-course meal. Its designers saw the church drifting toward the margins of a culture that grows more secular by the day. Their research suggested that re-engaging with the culture was a precondition for the culture re-engaging with the church. That meant putting a new face on the United Church’s brand of Christianity.

In this respect, I think it has been remarkably successful. The cheeky magazine ads, the ongoing media buzz, the discussions on wondercafe.ca — and more recently Emerging Spirit’s playful yet clever response to atheist transit advertising — have combined to fashion a smart new image for the United Church.

I know many lapsed churchgoers who have come to admire the United Church all over again because of Emerging Spirit. Will they darken the door of a church anytime soon? Probably not. Will they listen with fresh ears to the United Church? Yes. Will they be influenced spiritually by the assurance of Christian welcome and inclusiveness that underpins Emerging Spirit? Absolutely.

Because of Emerging Spirit, Canadians have come to expect the unexpected from the United Church. I think that’s why we got a “thanks but no thanks” from As It Happens. Yes, Emerging Spirit has cost a lot of money and it is risky. But the alternative — turning inward, disengaging — is riskier, and not the United Church I know, nor the United Church that Canadians want and need.

• There’s a new way to make your views heard on Emerging Spirit and other subjects. Here at  www.ucobserver.org, you’ll find we’ve added commentary boxes at the end of stories. It’s part of our own ongoing effort to carry on a better conversation with the wider culture.

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