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Observer Survey 2014 : Part Two

Canadians don't know much about The United Church of Canada, according to our survey results.

By Samantha Rideout

Brad Abare and Kevin Hendricks knew they would rub some people the wrong way by calling their website ChurchMarketingSucks.com. (And indeed, for the faint of heart, they offer the alternate address ChurchMarketingStinks.com.) But the two Americans wanted to make the point that “church communication is ministry” and that there often isn’t enough emphasis on doing it well.

“Maybe you think the church shouldn’t market itself,” Hendricks writes on the website, speaking to a common objection. “With telemarketers, pushy sales people, and lousy marketing tactics it’s no wonder people bristle at the word. But the concept itself isn’t the problem. Marketing happens whether you plan it or not.”

In other words, a church will inevitably have a reputation of some sort, so why not try to ensure it’s a good and accurate one? With this in mind, The Observer’s 2014 survey looked into what kind of “brand reputation” the United Church has beyond its own walls.

The results suggest that most English Canadians have only a vague sense of the denomination. While eight in 10 survey takers had heard of the United Church, only half of these people said they were somewhat or very familiar with it. Asked for specifics, the majority couldn’t, for example, say whether the United Church ran residential schools in the last century, whether it encourages its members to take action on political issues, whether it supports same-sex couples in marriage or whether the Archbishop of Canterbury is its leader. Of all the fact-based questions posed to the general public, the only accurate answer was in response to whether the United Church allows women to be ministers (59 percent said yes).

When asked a different question — why they think United Church people get involved in a congregation — respondents expressed a similar lack of knowledge. For one thing, says survey author Jane Armstrong, although people within the church are proud of the denomination’s reputation as a socially liberal, justice-seeking church, respondents didn’t really differentiate United churchgoers from other churchgoers. Whether or not their impressions are stereotypes, survey respondents thought that people get involved in church — United or otherwise — for personal reasons rather than to serve others and pursue justice in the world.

Nonetheless, they did reveal faint glimmers of knowing the United Church’s unique “brand.” For instance, 49 percent agreed that United Church people are welcoming to everyone regardless of race, background or sexual orientation. (Of the remaining 51 percent, 13 percent disagreed and 38 percent didn’t know.)

Forty-nine percent also agreed that the United Church is comfortable welcoming people who have different ways of understanding and talking about God (compared to 13 percent who disagreed and 37 percent who didn’t know).

“I’m a non-Christian,” says Kashif Pirzada, an emergency room doctor in Toronto, “and my
first grade-school teacher in Canada was a United Church member. Her gentle generosity and warm-hearted open-mindedness is the best memory I have [of anyone] from any church community.”

Also noteworthy are the attributes that were not thought to describe United Church people. For example, only a third of Canadians said United Church members are devoutly religious (30 percent), deeply spiritual (35 percent) or given to closely following scripture (34 percent).

Some of the public’s perceptions are actually not too far off from what church members think about themselves, according to Rev. Robert Dalgleish, executive director of the United Church’s EDGE network for ministry development. In the recent Comprehensive Review consultation, he says, most of the 600-plus participating congregations and ministries could agree that the denomination is characterized by radical hospitality and inclusion, an open-minded and questioning theology, global partnerships, an engagement with justice issues and a desire for intercultural community.

Most Canadians would likely react well to this definition if they knew about it, says Joel Thiessen, a sociologist of religion at Ambrose University in Calgary. He sees both an opportunity and reason for concern in the fact that three in 10 survey takers didn’t know whether or not their personal values align with those of the United Church. The denomination, he points out, actually shares the values of the statistical majority of Canadians, who support social engagement, diversity and multiculturalism, the equality of women, the rights of minority sexual orientations and so on. “It’s a church that comes out of a uniquely Canadian context,” Thiessen says. “More than others, it speaks the language of Canada.”

So why don’t more Canadians hear it? One reason is that United Church people are apprehensive about evangelizing, says Dalgleish. And for good reason: the denomination now recognizes that some of the ways Canadian churches evangelized in the past were just plain wrong. They failed to respect other groups’ ways of relating to the Divine; they sent First Nations children to residential schools to “Christianize” them, with terrible social consequences. “Until we process all of that, it’s difficult for us to enthusiastically share our experience of God with others,” Dalgleish says, adding that the United Church nevertheless hopes to empower members to feel more comfortable doing so.

In the meantime, Canadians have limited exposure to the United Church, and consequently, one-third of survey takers have no overall opinion about it, good or bad. Among those who do, the feeling is rooted in the “somewhat” rather than the “very” positive camp. David Tonen, a Canadian church-marketing specialist, suspects these attitudes are directed more at Christianity in general than at the United Church in particular. “The biggest problem any denomination has is overcoming the public’s perception of what church is,” says Tonen, founder of the Halifax-based consultancy Ministry Story. In this case, the United Church’s “position” isn’t getting through to most Canadians. “Positioning” — to use marketing lingo — refers to how a company or organization distinguishes itself from other organizations in its category. Effective positioning helps an organization connect with the people who would be most likely to benefit from what it has to offer, Tonen explains. For companies and churches alike, the advice is the same: “Focus on who you really are,” he says, “because you’re most likely to attract more people like you.”

If Tonen is right, then the United Church might want to consider launching a new communications program, says Armstrong. Reflecting on the ever-present need to “break through the clutter” and convey a message that is heard and remembered, she recalls the United Church’s bobble-head Jesus ad campaign, which was part of the Emerging Spirit initiative several years ago. “Although some people in the church winced at what they thought was unnecessary irreverence, that ad campaign was designed to send a powerful message to Canadians: despite what you may think, there is a church out there — The United Church of Canada — that values the same things you do and might even be worth a second look,” Armstrong says. “The Observer survey results tell us that this message may bear repeating, because misconceptions and lack of knowledge about the church still exist.”

But ad campaigns are better at changing perceptions than they are at convincing people to actually take action. David Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford, Ont., campus and two other university professors conducted an independent focus-group study in 2012 and found that of the 62 participants, most had a positive perception of the United Church after viewing the Emerging Spirit ads and responding to their “call to action” by visiting the now-defunct WonderCafe website. However, only a few participants “acknowledged some interest in attending a United Church service . . . [and] their attendance was always expressed in highly tentative terms (e.g., ‘If I ever go to a church . . .’),” the study’s summary noted. As Rev. Dan Benson, the United Church’s executive minister of communications, says, “People are far more likely to try out a church if they’re invited by a friend than if they simply see an ad.”

Even so, improved public perceptions might increase the chances of such an invitation being accepted. “The Emerging Spirit campaign was just one positive ripple compared to how often the church, in general, is portrayed negatively in the popular media,” Benson says. “I think we can do more and better marketing.”

'I still feel like I’m part of the United Church community, but I also feel there isn’t enough time in the week to spend with my two young kids. And church isn’t really family time . . .'
The view from the United Church diaspora

“Life just gets in the way,” says Sheila Aitken-Morrow, explaining why she no longer regularly attends church. The resident of Chelsea, Que., grew up going to St. Andrew’s United in Sudbury, Ont., and looks back upon the time fondly. “I still feel like I’m part of the United Church community,” she says, “but I also feel there isn’t enough time in the week to spend with my two young kids. And church isn’t really family time — you know, the adults are in worship service and the kids are off doing something else.”

Instead, she and her family might, for example, take a nature hike together on a Sunday morning, “and this would be a source of spiritual connection for us,” she says.

Like Aitken-Morrow, eight percent of the 2014 survey respondents are part of the United Church’s “diaspora,” which means they feel a connection to the denomination through family history or past experience, but now rarely or never participate in church life. They’re the ones who might identify as “United Church” on the Canadian census but who are seen only at Christmas or perhaps the odd wedding or funeral.  

Diaspora members are better informed about the United Church than the eight in 10 Canadians who say they’ve heard of the denomination — but not by a whole lot. Although they’re much more likely to know that the United Church ordains women (81 percent of them agreed with this statement, as opposed to 59 percent of the public), they fared only slightly better when it came to knowing the denomination supports same-sex marriage (47 percent versus 37 percent) and that you can be actively involved in the United Church without believing that Jesus is divine (33 percent versus 24 percent). For all other factual questions, their level of knowledge was more or less on par with that of the general public, which is to say low.

There was less uncertainty when it came to values. Seven in 10 of the diaspora believe that the United Church’s values closely align with their own. This awareness of shared principles might be why diaspora members are more inclined than others to be in favour of the church working to address the needs of people in the wider community. Some — like Aitken-Morrow, whose work involves guiding victims of crime through the courts — live out United Church-style social justice values in their careers. This perhaps lends credence to sociologist Reginald Bibby’s assertion in the 2012 book A New Day that in spite of declining church attendance in Canada, “the ‘salt-like’ impact of faith through the lives of individuals may be dramatically underestimated.”

Interestingly, members of the United Church diaspora are less likely than Canadians as a whole to believe in the existence of God (54 percent of them say they are believers, compared to 66 percent of the wider public). They’re also less likely to call themselves “devoutly religious,” “a person of faith” or even “spiritual.” Sociologist Joel Thiessen’s research might explain this finding: by interviewing 21 “marginal affiliates” of various denominations, he discovered that a crisis of faith is one of the top five reasons why Canadians cut down on their involvement with organized religion.

Someone who drifted away from the United Church for this reason is Lynda Giffen Clements, a minister’s daughter who works as a youth arts co-ordinator in Scotland. “I would not consider myself a Christian now,” she says. “And to their credit, neither my family nor my old church community holds this against me. I don’t agree to a large extent with organized religion and feel it fuels conflicts the world over. . . . But if more religions could function with the goodwill, intelligence [and] respect . . . of the United Church, then I’m certain the world would be a far better place.”

Not all diaspora members are so enthusiastic. Granted, they are more likely to express a positive view of the denomination than members of the general public who have heard of the United Church (78 percent versus 53 percent), probably in part because they think they know enough to have an opinion. But their good feelings are definitely of the lukewarm variety: diaspora members are twice as likely to say they have a “somewhat” (56 percent) rather than “very” (22 percent) positive impression of the United Church.

Other results show that the United Church diaspora may even hold some negative feelings toward the denomination. For example, they’re much more likely than the average Canadian to think United Church people are focused on caring for members of their own congregation (80 percent versus 60 percent). “Although on the surface this might sound like a good thing, it could also suggest that the diaspora thinks United Church people — like church people in general — are inward-looking,” says Armstrong. “If this is the case, it is a significant criticism, especially when one notes that members of the diaspora are more likely than anyone to say that if organized religion did just one thing, it should be to ‘address the needs of people in the broader community.’”

This could explain in part why members of the diaspora rarely if ever go to church. And it suggests a way forward too. Rev. Alexa Gilmour, minister at Windermere United in Toronto, is a former diaspora member who felt called to the ministry after two decades away from the church. “What if we also looked at what God was doing in the wider community and participated in that?” she asks. “Maybe, ‘How can we get the diaspora back [within the sanctuary walls]?’ isn’t even the right question to be asking. Maybe it’s time to recapture what it means to serve.”

When members of the diaspora guess the reasons why someone might get involved in a United Church congregation, their answers are similar to those of the general public, speculating that people do it largely for personal reasons: to feel in touch with God, to follow Jesus, to seek personal comfort. Diaspora members (along with everyone else) are much less likely to think people join a United Church to serve others outside the congregation or to work for justice in the world.

Armstrong says this finding highlights a big gap between how United Church members view themselves and how outsiders perceive them. In other research she has conducted (specifically for The United Church of Canada), she learned that the people in the pews place a high value on belonging to a social-justice-oriented church that serves others.

There’s good news in this. If the United Church were to launch a communications campaign explaining who it is and what it values, there would be no need to customize separate messages for the general public and for the diaspora. “There isn’t too much that distinguishes the two,” says Armstrong. “What will speak to the general public will speak to the diaspora and vice versa.”

Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that people from the diaspora are more likely than other non-churchgoers to show up at services from time to time. And when they do, it’s an opportunity to reconnect. The caveat? As Thiessen writes — echoing Reginald Bibby — in his essay Churches Are Not Necessarily the Problem: Lessons Learned from Christmas and Easter Affiliates, “Many Canadians are content with their fragmented consumption of religion. . . . It is difficult to convince a person to eat five meals a day when they are content with three.”

Editor's note: Jane Armstrong Research Associates was commissioned by The United Church Observer to design and conduct an online survey approximately 15 minutes in length among a sample of 3,000 English-speaking Canadians from Feb. 21 to March 4, 2014. Armstrong Research is a full-service, Canadian research company that has conducted and analyzed numerous studies on faith and religion in Canada. For more information about Armstrong Research, please visit www.armstrongresearch.com.

The 2014 Observer Survey was made possible with a grant from the Hugh and Helen Mogensen Fund, through the Victoria Foundation and The United Church of Canada Foundation.

Click here to see Observer Survey 2014 Results (Tables - Part 2)

Samantha Rideout is a freelance journalist in Montreal.



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