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About those empty pews

By Samantha Rideout

Across the country, United Church congregations are mulling over the future. In teams large and small, they’re spending months — in some cases years — articulating visions and making plans. For its part, the General Council recently appointed a task force to gather opinions and make recommendations for the future of the denomination. These conversations matter: as Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson observed in a video message last spring, the religious landscape “is facing demographic, cultural and financial shifts,” forcing us to “discern together how to respond . . . and reshape our church.”

Let’s start our own conversation by facing the elephant in the room: will there even be a future United Church? After all, congregations are closing at a rate of more than one a week.

The overall feeling among The Observer’s survey respondents is cautious optimism. On the one hand, they are well aware of declining membership: fewer than two in 10 say their local congregation is growing, and nearly half predict that it will be smaller in 2025 than it is today.

On the other hand, 61 percent are at least somewhat optimistic about the prospects of the wider denomination. Losing hope, after all, is self-defeating. Furthermore, the number of filled pews isn’t necessarily the best way to measure a thriving church: many respondents expressed pride in the level of energy, creativity and engagement in their congregations.

They also, however, showed concern over the lack of diversity. This deficiency is felt in everything from cultural and religious backgrounds to age. Over and over again, “reaching more young people” was mentioned as the most welcome of possible changes. The dream diverges from the expectations, however: the majority of survey takers think it unlikely that even one family member who is currently under the age of 30 will be part of a congregation in 2025.

Some suggested that the absence of young people is due to societal changes. “When I was young,” says Fred Jones, 72, of Kingston, Ont., “it was normal for everyone to go to church. Now, most people just don’t.” This is true. But are there factors in membership decline that can be influenced? Seventeen-year-old New Brunswicker Emily O’Hearn feels that young people themselves might engage more of their peers, given the chance. “We need to let youth have more of a say in things,” she asserts.

At least one older congregation has turned its decline into an opportunity to diversify. Donnelly United in Winnipeg disbanded in 2005 but used part of the money from the sale of its building to plant a new faith community in a neighbourhood that’s home to many South Asian, Chinese and multi-ethnic families. The resulting venture, Spirit Path United, was founded last January and so far attracts about 30 people to a typical worship service.

Craig Perry, a 32-year-old member of Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United in New Westminster, B.C., suggests a model where aging churches support new ones until they can stand on their own. Then the roles reverse and the younger group supports the parent church until the latter’s ministry comes to a natural end. “In this way, [older churches] could pass on the legacy of their faith without having to . . . adopt more contemporary styles or sacrifice the hallmarks of a faith they cherish,” Perry says.

Given the changing religious landscape, what will United Church members of 2025 have in common? Here, there is little consensus. The church will be “a group of people who are more seekers than devout believers,” say 28 percent of surveyed readers. A nearly identical segment (27 percent) says members will “share similar religious beliefs and values.” Still others imagine a group of activists or people who are mainly looking for community.

There’s more agreement when it comes to the responsibilities of membership. Seven in 10 say members should be required to contribute financially to their local congregation — providing it’s within their means. And a slim majority agrees members must also give to the national church. “If everyone would tithe,” suggests Jones, “we would have better opportunity to survive.” Holding certain beliefs should not be a requirement of membership, say 58 percent of survey respondents. However, a whopping 84 percent say that a willingness to participate in community outreach will be an essential characteristic of a United Church member in 2025.



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