UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Reality Check

It’s not your fault

By David Ewart

American author and social critic James Howard Kunstler coined the phrase “long emergency” to describe the effect of decades of small changes. For example, if your congregation were to lose half its members in one year, that would be an emergency. But if it were to halve its membership over two decades, losing maybe three or four per year, you would adjust and carry on. But, says Kunstler, it’s still an emergency — a long emergency.

Here’s how it looks on a national scale. In 1977, when the United Church began recording average weekly worship attendance, 378,000 people went to church. That number peaked at 404,000 in 1984. Since then, attendance has gradually declined by 2.5 percent each year, so that in 2011 the number was 167,000. And if the rate of decline for only the past 10 years does not change, attendance will drop to 25,000 by 2025.

But here is the really bad news: it’s not your fault. The decline in worship attendance is not because you need a better minister, cheerier music, more small groups or jazzier youth programs. It’s not because you need to read one more church-improvement book or to attend one more workshop. It’s not because the United Church is too liberal or too political.

The simple fact is that Canadians are not going to church like they used to. In fact, Canadians aren’t going to synagogues, mosques, temples or Kiwanis either. Volunteer membership organizations of all types are declining.

Attendance decline is not a problem that can be fixed. It is simply a reality to which we must respond. Congregations must plan to be fewer, smaller and without buildings or payrolls. The challenge is too big for individual congregations to meet on their own; we will need to close, merge and work together in new ways.

The good news is that the United Church was founded by those who left the beloved familiar behind and embraced the desired unknown. Where that heart still beats, our hope for the future can be found.

Rev. David Ewart is a United Church minister in Vancouver.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image