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Survey: Predicting the future

Where will the church be in years to come? Depends who you ask.

By Mike Milne

Rev. David Ewart of North Vancouver, B.C., has been called “Doctor Doom” for his dire predictions of the future of the United Church. His statistical trend charts show the church losing 26 percent of its congregations by 2025, with average congregational membership down to 107, and 14 people at weekly worship.

“We’re on a downhill roll here,” says Ewart, “and there is no bottom” to the trend. General Council recently offered new programs to help congregations adapt, but the 2010 Observer Survey seems to bear out Ewart’s forecast.

More than a third of respondents (lay and clergy combined) say their congregations are not financially healthy, and 46 percent say they are shrinking. More than half don’t expect their congregation to last more than 15 years, and 24 percent give it a five-year lifespan.

Some see their churches caught in the quicksand of changing social and cultural priorities as people turn away from religion. “I think it’s just the times, it doesn’t have anything to do with our church,” says Judy Parks, a member of St. Paul and St. Stephen United in Kentville, N.S. “There are so many other things children are interested in.”

While lay people readily recognize church decline, ministers take an optimistic view. More ministers than lay people surveyed saw their congregations growing, and more lay people than ministers saw decline.

Margaret Harris, a member of St. Mark’s United in the growing town of Dundas, Ont., knows her “really thriving” congregation is bucking trends. Young families are joining and a part-time youth leader is getting young people involved. Harris credits her minister’s positive approach and a “focus on joy and abundance,” as well as “the dynamism and commitment of people who are on the Board.”

In rural Saskatchewan, Hugh Hawkins of Kyle United says dropping attendance may be due to the “competition for that one hour a week on Sunday,” but falling church membership is tied to shrinking rural populations. Many Saskatchewan churches are well funded, says Hawkins. But expenses rise as numbers go down, and there’s little sense in holding worship in nearly empty sanctuaries.

Survey respondents say congregations are “most responsible for securing the future well-being of the church,” followed by the minister and the denomination. But as these congregations dwindle, churches simply close.

With no weddings, no baptisms and a dozen funerals at his church in the last year, Hawkins echoes Ewart’s prediction: “We’re doomed.”

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