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Church beyond the borders

Are we ready to consider new visions and the big changes that go along with them?

By David Wilson

We produce and deliver this magazine with a combined operations and editorial staff of nine regular employees. With a work force this small, getting the job done demands a high degree of organization and scheduling. We can’t leave much to chance.

But sometimes chance comes calling, and the result is better than anything we could have planned. Two features in this issue are a case in point: an essay by Vancouver writer Christine Boyle (“The United Church diaspora”) and our annual reader survey. Each of them evolved separately and were never intended to run in the same issue. But due to an unforeseen scheduling change, they appear together — and couldn’t be more complementary. Both start with the assumption that The United Church of Canada is on an irreversible path toward change, and both invite you to think creatively about it.

Christine Boyle is a 28-year-old community organizer in Vancouver with an academic and work record that would be remarkable in someone twice her age. She also has deep roots in the United Church. In her essay, she introduces us to several young adults like her who have the United Church in their DNA but rarely, if ever, darken the door of a church. Boyle argues that the church needs to do a better job of connecting with them — not by inviting them to come to the church, but rather by asking them if it’s okay for the church to come to them. Underpinning her essay is the idea that a United Church with more relaxed borders is no less Christian than a United Church with rigid ones. Just different.

I think she’s on to something. I am continually struck by how many young and middle-aged adults who have little or nothing to do with congregational life still think of themselves as United Church people and conduct their lives according to a set of values they are happy to characterize as United Church. I’m sure you know people like this too. Demographic researchers say there could be as many as three million of them across Canada. It’s almost as if they’re a subsidiary denomination — the United Church Beyond the United Church.

Through smart, passionate and deeply committed people like Boyle, the church beyond is making its presence felt more and more. It’s happening at a time when financial, demographic and cultural conditions are forcing change on the church, whether it wants it or not. While some may mourn, Boyle and others celebrate the inevitability of change as an opportunity for the United Church to engage more of its “own” people by redrawing its borders.

This brings me to our 2013 reader survey. We couldn’t have asked for a better companion piece to Christine Boyle’s essay if we tried. The survey asks you to think ahead 12 years from now, to 2025, when The United Church of Canada marks its 100th anniversary. What do you think will become of your congregation? What would you like your congregation to become? The survey covers things like membership, buildings, leadership, worship style, community engagement — as many bases as possible. We hope it helps you to focus your individual thinking, and we also hope it helps to foster a climate of creative give-and-take across the church.

What kind of picture will emerge? A church that wants to preserve what’s best about the United Church today? Or a church that’s ready to consider new visions and the big changes that go along with them? Something in between? I can’t say. But I can say this: the schedule on my wall says you’ll be able to read the survey results and analysis in September. Around here, that’s as good as a promise. 

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