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Ross Woolford

A few hundred facts about you

Our 2009 readership survey results paint a surprising picture of the United Church today

By Observer Staff

Go tell it on the mountain

Although two-thirds of respondents agree that the United Church has an obligation to spread Christianity at home and abroad, 15 percent say it does not, and one in five isn’t sure.

Hesitancy to embrace an evangelical mission, says General Council general secretary Nora Sanders, may be a backlash from dealing with a bygone church mission project that went tragically awry. “Yes, we want to share this wonderful part of our lives,” she says. “But in this era, we have the memory of residential schools. And now we’re in a time of exploring more interfaith relations.”

The phrase “has an obligation to spread Christianity,” says University of Toronto theologian Marilyn Legge, “sounds out of tune with seeking right relations . . . and lacks nuance.” Respondents would naturally be wary “if the content and context of the evangelization are vague.

“Historically, the United Church of Canada has had deep connections with global partnerships . . . which fostered profound mutual evangelization and support.” Mission today is changing, Legge says, and “we are being evangelized by the global church, too.”

Warm memories of days when the church’s mission in Canada and overseas was less clouded by controversy may account for the fact that 70 percent of respondents age 75 and over believe the church is obliged to spread Christianity, compared to only 44 percent of those under 50.

Even those who believe in the church’s evangelical obligation seem uncertain it is being met. Half of respondents are not sure the church is fulfilling that mission and one in 10 is certain it is not.

Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano says United Church people tend to be quiet about their faith, preferring to live it out in the world. Still, he says, “We need to be able to speak about who we are and how we serve Christ in the world, without having it come from a place of entitlement and the idea that everybody has to be on our team or they’re wrong.”

—Mike Milne

Tuned in to the wider church

Most church people follow the actions and decisions of the General Council, albeit usually with lukewarm interest.

Twelve percent of respondents follow the proceedings of the triennial General Council meeting closely, and only eight percent keep a close watch on the ongoing work of the national church and General Council staff. But nearly two-thirds say they are moderately interested in both General Council’s decisions and the continuing work of its staff.

That’s understandable, says general secretary Nora Sanders, “because most people are connected to their congregation. I was like that before I came to work here. I really knew little about the General Council office. The role we play is trying to support those congregations in all that they do.”

Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano says the high level of moderate interest is “great. I think there is generally a sense of affirmation about who we are as a United Church of Canada.”

Access to information about the wider church is also important and survey respondents gave The Observer a strong vote of confidence. The magazine was listed by 92 percent as a source of information on the United Church, while ministers were listed by 61 percent and Presbytery reps by nearly half. Word of mouth was a source for a third of respondents and non-church media for a quarter.

Since taking over as general secretary in 2007, Sanders has made improved communication a priority. “We try to be pretty available, but you don’t want to force information on people.” The Observer and clergy leaders are important, she says, but “there is no one route to reach everybody in the United Church.”


A confession of faith

If some of us aren’t sure how to share our faith, we seem more definite about what we believe.

A New Creed — adopted in 1968 and beginning with the phrase, “We are not alone, we live in God’s world” — is often spoken aloud in worship. Roughly 100 words long, it is an easily memorized summation of belief. Given its longevity, it is not surprising that 90 percent of

Observer readers are familiar with A New Creed. Of those, 92 percent say it reflects their core beliefs.

“It’s a kind of affectionate response, isn’t it?” asks Rev. Carol Hancock, General Council officer for conciliar relations. A New Creed “has obviously become part of our self-identity.” It has also been adopted and widely used by other churches.

On the other hand, the United Church is still cozying up to the more than 2,000-word Song of Faith, adopted in 2006. While 28 percent of survey respondents are familiar with the Song of Faith, 57 percent are not and 16 percent are not sure. Among those who know the Song, about two-thirds say it reflects their core beliefs.

“It’s wonderful that it’s that high,” says General Council worship staff Rev. Betty-Lynn Schwab of the 28 percent familiarity, noting the relatively short time the Song of Faith has been circulating.  

Some ministers include excerpts from the Song of Faith in worship and use it as a resource for confirmation classes. But avowed Song-of-Faith fan Rev. Bruce Cook of Blenheim, Ont., says resources that would help ministers integrate it  into worship are badly needed. “If you ask the same question three years from now with no resources,” he says, “you won’t get 20 percent familiarity. But if we get some resources, it will be up to 40 percent or more.”


For more readership survey stories, click here:

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