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Reality Check

No new members?

By David Ewart

Does a church with no new members have a future? That’s a question the United Church will face in 2019 if the trend for the past 10 years continues.

People join the church for the first time by making a public profession of their faith during a worship service. Typically, these are teenagers who are being confirmed after attending children and youth programs. The chart shows the baby boom spike after the Second World War, and the smaller echo in the 1980s of the boomers’ children.

The future will not unfold in a straight line, but we are headed toward having no one newly confessing their faith in Jesus Christ.

We live in a culture that is “spiritual but not religious” and more eager to connect online than in person. It is also one where fewer and fewer people are committing time and money to join volunteer membership organizations of any type.

Joining a face-to-face community that has accepted Jesus’ invitation to “Pick up your cross and follow me, for I am the way, the truth and the life” is truly countercultural.

Our mission then, should we choose to accept it, is pretty much to forget everything we have experienced about being the church. Our best days in the future will look nothing like our best days in the past. With fewer people and smaller budgets, we must shift our time and energies from buildings and budgets to identity and mission: Who is Jesus for us? What are we being called to do and be? How are we loving our neighbours?

The future presents us with wonderful opportunities to find new ways to be communities of faith that are authentic, engaging and joyful.

We have a history of giving ourselves for others in need. We don’t have much of a history of evangelizing and raising up new disciples. But if we want to have a future, it looks like we have about five years to change that past.

*Correction: The post 1945 spike was not that of Baby Boomers; it is attributed to their parents and older sisters and brothers. The chart does not reflect that while new members joined in record numbers, folks also left in record numbers. The number of those leaving peaked in 1958 when the first Baby Boomers turned 12. In 1964, the first Baby Boomers turned 18. While they refrained from joining the church, their parents continued to leave. The result was the beginning of the decline in overall membership whose seeds were sown a decade earlier.

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

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