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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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