Canada’s largest Protestant denomination is shrinking the fastest. The latest census paints a grim picture of The United Church of Canada, which lost a whopping 40 percent of affiliates between 2011 and 2021, falling to 1.2 million people from roughly two million.
“Affiliates” are people who self describe in the census as having a United Church identity, but they may never go to church. In the same 10-year time period, the United Church tracked membership dropping from about 480,000 to roughly 350,000 people, and church attendance declining from over 165,000 to under 120,000 people.
Rev. Michael Blair, the general secretary of the United Church, says he’s not surprised by the numbers. “All the institutions of our age are experiencing the same decline,” he says. He also wonders if the revelations of unmarked graves at former church-run residential schools in 2021 — the same year that the census data was collected — affected the responses. “People may have distanced themselves from the church,” he speculates.
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United Church affiliates don’t only skew older — they also skew more white. Among Christian denominations, the United Church has one of the lowest percentages of racialized affiliates at only 2.5 percent. Compare that to six percent of Anglican or 45 percent of Pentecostal affiliates.
Blair says this is due, among other things, to the United Church’s lack of an international identity. “Newcomers and diasporic communities that come into the Canadian landscape don’t easily recognize the United Church.” He also says they encounter a style of worship here that they aren’t necessarily comfortable with.
Kevin Flatt, the author of After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada, says that the United Church is experiencing a “catastrophic decline” in membership, and the dwindling numbers are part of a broader trend stretching back decades.
Flatt agrees that unmarked graves could affect affiliation and that COVID-19 may have affected attendance — but acknowledges it’s “hard to say exactly what’s going on.” Overall, he believes United Church theology is the main cause of its decline. “The more liberal or progressive churches have a harder time answering the question ‘Why do we need to exist?’” Flatt says. When a plethora of community groups already organize around causes like climate change and reconciliation, he notes, why would people bother going to church?
Under Blair’s leadership, the denomination is hoping to change course. With a pledge to create 100 new faith communities in the next three years, the national office will be rolling out the welcome mat to immigrant communities. “We’re at the point now where we recognize that our comfort level needs to change,” he says. “We have to decide, do we want to be an enclave? Or do we want to…reflect the Canadian reality?”
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Some immigrant United Church congregations already exist. Ghana Calvary Methodist United Church in Toronto was established in 1996, for example. Its worship style is more charismatic than one would find in a typical United church, but minister Rev. Eric Nyarko says he appreciates the denomination’s theological openness.
Nyarko says he got a “yes-and-no answer” when he asked his board if the United Church was a good fit. There are differences that strain the relationship, he says. For example, same-sex relationships are illegal in Ghana. But, Nyarko adds, the leadership is “very happy that the UCC has not imposed something that is against their culture.”
Blair says that the national office recognizes the need to maintain the United Church ethos, but suggests it’s easier said than done. “Our commitment around LGBT inclusion is not something that sits easy with some of our migrant communities,” he admits.
What would the people in the pews look like if Blair’s plan to create new faith communities gets off the ground? It’s hard to say exactly, but certainly they would be more diverse, and not just racially, ethnically and culturally. And while the United Church will almost assuredly not return to its heyday of the 1960s, it could continue to exist — just in new ways.
There’s a “gift in the numbers that in some ways gets our heads out of the sand,” Blair says.
Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Guelph, Ont.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s June 2023 issue’s Religion in Canada series with the title “Inside the United Church’s Decline.”
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