When talking about the future of the church in North America, I sometimes joke there are only two kinds of denominations today — those that are in trouble, and those that will be.
One Canadian denomination that is definitely in trouble is the United Church of Canada.
Between 2002 and 2012, 565 of its churches closed — an average of about one a week. And there’s no indication things are changing for the better; a recent survey found that 31 percent of existing United Church congregations expect to shut their doors in the next few years.
In that same time span, membership in the almost 90-year-old mainline denomination declined by 26 percent and attendance at worship services dropped by 38 percent.
In November, I talked to United Church of Canada moderator Gary Paterson about the grim news. Surprisingly, he was optimistic about the church’s future.
“The statistics are troubling,” he acknowledged. But instead of seeing them as a reason to give up, he saw them as “a spur to take action.”
And what actions does he see his church taking?
One will be to “create a culture where fresh expressions of faith can be tried and encouraged,” he said. This will not be accomplished through directions from on top, from the head office, but through “supporting renewal in the grassroots.”
The goal, he said, is to “enable communities of faith to go deeper in faith, to rediscover and communicate the good news to new generations in word and actions.”
Another direction will be engaging in conversations with Aboriginal Canadians. The United Church has a difficult history with Canada’s First Nations, he said, recalling the failed efforts to assimilate Aboriginal people through church-run residential schools in the first half of the 20th century.
“We need to get that relationship right, mend and deal with our history, and understand the integral place of Aboriginal people in the history of Canada,” he stated. “The future of the church, and Canada itself, depends on it.”
A third course of action will be to simplify the church’s governance structure. The current way the church operates has worked for 90 years, “but times have changed,” he said. “It needs to be simpler and streamlined.”
There is still a need for a governance function, he says, but it should be less about setting and enforcing rules and more about supporting and enabling communities of faith to do ministry and mission.
At the same time, the church also needs to deal with its financial shortfall — it needs to cut $10 million from its $30 million budget this year. “We need to live within our means,” Paterson said.
It’s a big challenge, he admitted. Making changes won’t be easy. And some good things the United Church is doing now “may not be able to continue.”
But there’s no way around it, he says. “We have to do something new.”
The United Church isn’t alone in facing challenges. Other Canadian, and U.S., denominations are facing the same issues: Falling attendance and giving, and declining denominational loyalty.
Denominations not on the precipice right now might be tempted to think it can never happen to them. I suggest those groups watch the United Church and other struggling groups closely. There could be some significant lessons to learn about what and what not to do.
After all, there may really only be two kinds of denominations today. And that’s no joke.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.