What’s the future of The United Church of Canada as it approaches its centenary? While some might despair as churches shutter across the country, Rev. Brian Arthur Brown is surprisingly hopeful. In Keys to the Kindom: Money and Property for Congregational Mission in The United Church of Canada — the first book in a planned trilogy — Brown brings the wisdom gleaned from 60 years of pastoral ministry to the task of discerning the denomination’s way forward.
On what led him to write the book: I felt it was time to turn around the negative narrative that surrounds the church these days. All we hear is that we are in our death throes. I was happily surprised by what I discovered: the church is much healthier than most people think. We have seen a doubling in francophone congregations and a significant increase in bilingual congregations. We are seeing new congregations forming from the African Canadian community, and new immigrants from China and Hong Kong are creating their own United Church congregations.
On growth in the Indigenous Church: Yes, we are getting serious about the importance of urban Indigenous congregations, and the church as a whole is starting to move beyond Sunday land acknowledgments and actually engage with Indigenous perspectives of the Gospel. The church understands that it’s a time for listening and is truly paying attention.
On the trend of church closures: We always think that where we are is where we will always be, but that’s never been true. I predict that we’re in the early stages of a new era.
We’re going to see surprising growth led by people currently on the margins: women, LGBTQ people, Indigenous people, African Canadians and people of Asian descent. These are the very people we need if the United Church is going to reflect what Canada actually looks like.
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On reconciling the church’s present situation with the future he envisions: There’s no question that the church was pruned in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and that this pruning has been extremely painful. But it’s what was needed for growth. I want to suggest to you that not only are we going to survive, but we’ll be thriving in the future.
We’re becoming a more congregational church. I see that as a positive development as local congregations will take on more responsibility for the mission of the church.
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On financing this renewal as the church’s largest givers age out: Depending on the offering plate to finance the church is a relatively recent development. We need to leverage the 100th anniversary of the United Church to create endowment funds for each congregation. We should encourage once-in-a-lifetime gifts, tithing in our wills, special memorial donations and gifting annuities to the church. We should set ambitious targets.
If we’re successful, the investment returns on these endowments will help local churches fund their operations.
EDGE, a network for ministry development, has played a critical role helping congregations to leverage their properties to generate both revenue and mission activities. As it transitions into the future, it will help to create new forms of mission.
In my next book, I hope to illustrate how the United Church is transitioning into an ecclesiastical lean machine.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s December 2022 issue with the title “We’re in the early stages of a new era.”
Rev. Christopher White is in ministry at Kedron United in Oshawa, Ont.
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"if the United Church is going to reflect what Canada actually looks like."
Should not the UCC reflect what Christ actually looks like?
What does Christ want with marginalized people?... a populated church?... or their salvation? Coming to church does not make one a Christian or guarantees eternal life in Heaven.
If you focus on a populated church (full pews), you're doomed to fail, and you will certainly fail Christ's mandate.
Relying on monetary investments for future stability or growth only works if the economy stands. Investment in lives will outpace money, that is our command from Christ.
Elder since 1972 says:
'No servant can be slave to two masters; for either he/she will hate the first and love the second, or he/she will be devoted to the first and think nothing of the second. You cannot serve God and money.
Gary, if we went by your advice, that UCC should mirror what Christ looked like, you’d only have Jews in your audience.
Based on your humourous response, what would the reflection of "Canada" look like?
Fortunately, Christ was God, and we were made in His image.
We, through Adam gave up that image, and Christ came to reconcile it back.
Sheldon LeGrow says:
It seems somewhat arrogant, as I look at the vastness of the universe with the unlimited number of galaxies, solar systems, planets and forces not yet discovered that here on our insignificant blue dot that many folk still see an itinerant Jewish rabbi who taught the positive attributes of compassion and love and forgiveness, as being God. So...Jesus created all this stuff? I am a firm believer in God but my feeling is that God is real but not what most folks think. Teaching people to be more understanding, caring, accepting and kind are far more important on this earth and in this time than looking forward to a fantasy belief in some kind of afterlife in a place called "heaven." We need to practice the teaching of Jesus here and now.
Debra L Leedham says:
Because my own life has taken a different turn lately, I am starting to notice a different change in the United Church of Canada. This change was likely in the structure all along, but I never really noticed it before. I agree to some extent, that the church is becoming more Congregationalist. The change I referred to, is that I see this movement happening in the local churches, but the national church expresses a different movement. It seems that some of us have forgotten that the Congregational church was one of the churches that started this denomination in 1925. It seems unacceptable to me that the movement that gave rise to the amalgamation of 3 denominations can now be ignored or even rejected. I pray fervently that the United Church of Canada does not victim to the "me first" philosophy.
We are not becoming a more congregational centered church. On the contrary we are becoming more centrally controlled. Regions and General Council have more control than ever over doctrine, allocation of financial resources. There us no coherent plan to support rural congregations with little finacial means for ordained leadership. And GCC refuses to take some cost sharing responsibility for their buildings while at the same time imposes a formal assessment tax on all congregations. And these are just the major finacial issues. We have not addressed the normalization of atheist clergy being acceptable to the denomination now.