Across the country, United Church congregations are mulling over the future. In teams large and small, they’re spending months — in some cases years — articulating visions and making plans.
For its part, the General Council recently appointed a task force to gather opinions and make recommendations for the future of the denomination. These conversations matter: as Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson observed in a video message last spring, the religious landscape “is facing demographic, cultural and financial shifts,” forcing us to “discern together how to respond . . . and reshape our church.”
Let’s start our own conversation by facing the elephant in the room: will there even be a future United Church? After all, congregations are closing at a rate of more than one a week.
The overall feeling among The Observer’s survey respondents is cautious optimism. On the one hand, they are well aware of declining membership: fewer than two in 10 say their local congregation is growing, and nearly half predict that it will be smaller in 2025 than it is today.
On the other hand, 61 percent are at least somewhat optimistic about the prospects of the wider denomination. Losing hope, after all, is self-defeating. Furthermore, the number of filled pews isn’t necessarily the best way to measure a thriving church: many respondents expressed pride in the level of energy, creativity and engagement in their congregations.
They also, however, showed concern over the lack of diversity. This deficiency is felt in everything from cultural and religious backgrounds to age. Over and over again, “reaching more young people” was mentioned as the most welcome of possible changes.
The dream diverges from the expectations, however: the majority of survey takers think it unlikely that even one family member who is currently under the age of 30 will be part of a congregation in 2025.
Some suggested that the absence of young people is due to societal changes. “When I was young,” says Fred Jones, 72, of Kingston, Ont., “it was normal for everyone to go to church. Now, most people just don’t.”
This is true. But are there factors in membership decline that can be influenced? Seventeen-year-old New Brunswicker Emily O’Hearn feels that young people themselves might engage more of their peers, given the chance. “We need to let youth have more of a say in things,” she asserts.
At least one older congregation has turned its decline into an opportunity to diversify. Donnelly United in Winnipeg disbanded in 2005 but used part of the money from the sale of its building to plant a new faith community in a neighbourhood that’s home to many South Asian, Chinese and multi-ethnic families. The resulting venture, Spirit Path United, was founded last January and so far attracts about 30 people to a typical worship service.
Craig Perry, a 32-year-old member of Shiloh-Sixth Avenue United in New Westminster, B.C., suggests a model where aging churches support new ones until they can stand on their own. Then the roles reverse and the younger group supports the parent church until the latter’s ministry comes to a natural end. “In this way, [older churches] could pass on the legacy of their faith without having to . . . adopt more contemporary styles or sacrifice the hallmarks of a faith they cherish,” Perry says.
Given the changing religious landscape, what will United Church members of 2025 have in common? Here, there is little consensus.
The church will be “a group of people who are more seekers than devout believers,” say 28 percent of surveyed readers. A nearly identical segment (27 percent) says members will “share similar religious beliefs and values.” Still others imagine a group of activists or people who are mainly looking for community.
There’s more agreement when it comes to the responsibilities of membership. Seven in 10 say members should be required to contribute financially to their local congregation — providing it’s within their means. And a slim majority agrees members must also give to the national church. “If everyone would tithe,” suggests Jones, “we would have better opportunity to survive.”
Holding certain beliefs should not be a requirement of membership, say 58 percent of survey respondents. However, a whopping 84 percent say that a willingness to participate in community outreach will be an essential characteristic of a United Church member in 2025.
“Are we serving this building, or is this building serving us?”
According to Rev. Scott MacAuley of Sparling United in Winnipeg, this question was the springboard for his congregation’s new vision. The year was 2004, the 100th anniversary of Sparling’s founding. It was also a time of financial crisis.
Going through archival documents to find stories of the past to share, parishioners discovered that it wasn’t the first time the congregation had experienced money trouble. Journals from the Second World War period described how revenues dwindled after many members enlisted and went overseas. As the war stretched on, the remaining congregation saved on heating costs by closing the sanctuary for the winter and worshipping in the basement.
Today, all too many churches can relate to the difficulty of meeting the soaring maintenance costs of their buildings with the donations of a shrinking membership. This is one of the reasons that one-third of those who took The Observer’s survey think it unlikely that their congregations will still be gathering in their current building in 2025.
For Sparling United back in 2004, the situation had become so untenable that members needed to choose between cutting expenses, amalgamating or disbanding. During one tense meeting, an elder burst into tears and said, “I don’t care what we do, but let’s stay together.” Taking inspiration from their forebears, the church people closed the sanctuary for the winter and met in their Christian education hall.
They discovered they liked the smaller meeting room. “You can imagine what it had felt like to meet in a 500-seat sanctuary with only 40 to 50 people,” says MacAuley. “The other space was more intimate and social.”
Come spring, the congregation didn’t want to move back. They sold their building and started worshipping at a seniors’ recreation centre. For office and programming space, they bought a bungalow, which they affectionately call “Church House.” The changes freed up time, energy and resources to spend on outreach and pastoral care.
Selling “won’t solve all of your problems,” sums up MacAuley. “But it will allow your church members to be more creative and intentional about what they want to do.”
Most of our survey’s respondents are aware of these kinds of benefits and open to the possibility of leaving their buildings behind. Rented space in other churches, the great outdoors and school gyms topped the list of preferred alternatives. (Not so popular: pubs and online gatherings.)
Amalgamation is another possible solution to the property expenses problem, and survey respondents say if it had to happen, they would prefer to be the ones receiving another group, not the ones moving into someone else’s space: only 36 percent feel “very comfortable” with the latter scenario.
Already, some new congregations are operating under the premise that buying or building a physical church space is unnecessary. One example is Rising Spirit United in Guelph, Ont.
“I’m no businessman,” says Rev. John Lawson on the church’s website. “If God wants a physical place, God will have to provide the folks with business skills and cash. But there are already cafés to meet in, pubs in which to gather, places for conversation.”
Meanwhile, the members of St. Paul’s United in Kelowna, B.C., are trying an entirely different approach: rather than selling their property, they’re developing it.
“We’re sitting on some very valuable land,” explains parishioner and survey respondent John Walmsley, 74. The church plans to build and rent out residential and commercial units for income. It will also set up community gardens, a galleria for art exhibits, and an arts and worship centre. In short, the congregation wants to transform its space into a cultural hub.
“Champion of the arts is actually one of the church’s historical roles,” says Walmsley. “Our vision may not fill more seats on Sundays, but it will certainly change the way we resonate with the community. We’re really motivated by it.”
None of this is to say that the beautiful churches of yore won’t be missed. Surveyed readers highlighted these buildings’ special characteristics — from their stained-glass windows to the sound of their pipe organs to the memories and history they hold — as blessings that would be tough to give up. But the church isn’t a place, as more than one respondent pointed out. It’s a people.
The smartphone is infiltrating every part of daily life, from restaurants to the classroom. Is it time for it to enter the sanctuary, too?
Allowing worshippers to message with others during the service might give people the ability to share their prayers beyond the church walls, ask questions and clarify their understanding.
Be that as it may, 62 percent of survey respondents would prefer that mobile devices stay switched off throughout the service.
“It closes you up at a time when it’s important to be open to the Spirit,” says survey respondent Sandra Price, 72, of Skidegate United on Haida Gwaii, B.C. “If I’m sitting next to you in service and you’re typing away on your phone, you’re far away. I want community; that’s part of why I go to church. I don’t think the kind of connections that we’re looking to achieve during worship can be filtered through a screen.”
Other worship innovations suggested by the survey were better received: most respondents are open to offering worship on days other than Sunday, for example, or providing more opportunities to experience God’s presence. And a majority are at least somewhat willing to try out less formal orders of service, as Knox-Metropolitan United in Edmonton did over the five Sundays of Lent last spring.
At youth minister Camille Kamphuis’s suggestion, the traditional service temporarily gave way to a dramatic telling of a scriptural story. The congregation was then divided into intergenerational “learning circles,” where worshippers could either study Christian history, watch and discuss a film, take part in some gentle yoga, make a craft or discuss food issues while cooking a tasty dish. Each morning wrapped up with everyone coming together again for announcements, prayer and lunch.
“What took me by surprise was the energy and willingness of the congregation to try the idea,” says Kamphuis. A post-Easter evaluation revealed that 90 percent of the church people would happily repeat the experience.
Everyone has their specific preferences — the blend of music, prayer, activities and ritual that moves or inspires them — but overall, survey respondents envision the worship service of 2025 as a mix of old and new (with a minority 32 percent hoping for a completely new type of experience). Many would also like worship to blend explicitly religious content with other types of material — instrumental compositions, say, or wisdom from great novels. At the same time, two-thirds want to preserve the current level of emphasis on the basics, namely the Bible, the sacraments and the symbols of Christianity.
Given that most respondents consider worship a very important part of congregational life, a surprising number are open to the possibility of replacing it with outreach activities. One quarter are “somewhat comfortable” with the idea; another quarter, “very comfortable.”
Some congregations have already switched their emphasis. A few years ago, Knox-St. Paul’s United in Cornwall, Ont., was going through a rough time, having lost its building due to unstable ground. The shrinking congregation felt compelled to deliberate over its mission, starting with the question “What’s the purpose of us, anyway?”
“Our vision is a city where no one journeys alone,” says the resulting statement. “It’s a big vision. We can’t do it. But we know God finds a way where there is no way. So we dream big!”
So far, the congregation has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Cornwall Interfaith Partnership, and Bereaved Families of Cornwall to help bring companionship to people in need.
The minister, Rev. Don Wachenschwanz, says the congregation’s primary orientation is now outward, into the community. “Worship is still there, but it’s there to inspire, strengthen and motivate us so that we can continue with our mission.”
And this mission doesn’t include recruiting new Sunday worshippers. “What it means to belong to Knox-St. Paul’s United is becoming a question,” he says. “Because we don’t just want to minister to people, but minister with them. So if you’re involved in the ministry but not in worship, are you a member?”
An insightful question for the future church. Where can you find 40 influential faith leaders in the same place, each one overseeing a Bible study on his or her area of specialty? That would be Facebook.
The social media group Rock the Bible started off at Carleton Memorial United in Ottawa last spring as an online Bible study for congregation members who couldn’t commit to another evening away from home. It quickly grew into a countrywide forum with over 1,750 members.
On each of the 30 days of June, a different writer (and sometimes a special guest) posted his or her thoughts on a biblical topic and led participants in a discussion. Part of the significance of Rock the Bible was how it connected participants from across the country with leading thinkers: church people in rural Manitoba could exchange ideas with former moderator Very Rev. Lois Wilson in Toronto; folks from Newfoundland could talk about faith and politics with Ottawa journalist and former MP Dennis Gruending, and so on.
Perhaps the impressive calibre and increasing reach of the church’s current leaders is the reason why the majority of survey respondents believe it’s important for future leaders to be highly skilled as preachers and worship leaders, as well as formally trained in the theology and practices of The United Church of Canada.
However, when it comes to other aspects of congregational life, they think the minister should have some help. Pastoral care, outreach, faith formation and attracting new members are all seen as shared responsibilities by more than three-quarters of survey takers.
“Shared leadership is important, no matter what kind of an organization you are,” says Barb Taylor, a 67-year-old member of Trinity United in Elmira, Ont. “If the minister can’t delegate, he or she will end up burning out — I’ve seen it happen.”
If we need more hands to share the work of leading the church, where will we find them? It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of new seminary school graduates, not only in the United Church but also in other Canadian denominations. One alternative source is the laity: non-ordered leaders of various types and titles have always been a part of United Church operations, and there’s no reason to think this will change going forward.
There’s also a small but steady trickle of worship leaders who were trained in other Christian traditions but who now affirm United Church theology and practice. Their origins are as diverse as Christianity itself: last year saw ministers admitted from the Baptist Convention, the Moravian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran youth movement and the Church of North Africa.
The survey results suggest that they were welcome: 88 percent of respondents are at least somewhat comfortable with the idea of leaders coming in from another denomination, and over half say they’re “very comfortable.”
To reassure those with doubts, new United Church minister and former Catholic priest Rev. Jeff Doucette says, “There’s a lot of homework done on admission candidates. It’s not a question of being desperate and taking anyone at all.”
Doucette was trained and evaluated by the United Church for two years before officially joining its ministry — although his connection to his congregation was far more immediate. “It felt like home to me,” he says of his first time visiting Dunbarton-Fairport United in Pickering, Ont. “Those folks had me at hello.”
He didn’t feel welcome, by contrast, in Catholic churches after leaving the priesthood six years ago. Doucette’s departure wasn’t prompted by scandal, nor was he in a relationship when he applied for dispensation (although he was feeling profoundly lonely at the time, and is now happily married). Even so, “just going in to take a seat with the laity wasn’t easy,” he says, “because people would ask about my past and make all kinds of assumptions.”
Doucette thinks he’s a better United Church minister than he was a priest since he disagreed with Rome on such topics as LGBTQ2S+ rights and the ordination of women. “Hopefully, those of us who are joining the United Church really want to be here. I know I do.”
All the more so, he says, because he finds it exciting to help lead the denomination during a time of challenge and change. “My personal struggles have shown me that only God knows what’s going to happen. Our role is to try our best, and hope.”
For all their differences, United Church people want to stick together.
Four out of five of those surveyed agree that it’s better for their congregations to operate within a denominational structure. Why not go independent?
Being part of a denomination “gives you perspective from other parts of the country,” says Fred Jones, 72, of Kingston, Ont. “It’s not just you in your little fishbowl.” He also points out that banding together increases church people’s political influence, which is important when it comes to social justice campaigns.
Independent churches “are accountable to no one but themselves — and there are dangers in that,” observes Rev. Georgia Copland, a minister with several churches in the Laurentian region of Quebec. “We’ll always need a system of checks and balances to help prevent extreme positions, and also the kind of [financial or emotional] exploitation that can happen in church settings.”
The United Church’s strong desire for unity doesn’t mean that it’s insular. Survey respondents are very interested in connecting with the global faith community; six in 10 want a greater emphasis on this, and only six percent want less. As a denomination, the United Church is already active in many interfaith and ecumenical organizations. But it may be smaller-scale, face-to-face interactions that are more important.
Rev. Jim Cairney knows how powerful and moving such collaborations can be; he recently presided over a multifaith memorial service in Toronto, with contributions from Muslims, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox members and United Church people. It took place at a Starbucks coffee shop, the deceased young woman’s workplace.
When the lights and espresso machines were turned off and everyone stood in silence, a sense of consolation and solidarity emerged, he says. “In everyday life outside of church, people have friends and colleagues from various faiths, so there should be ways for the church to mirror this.”
Surveyed readers are also interested in strengthening connections within the United Church, with half preferring a greater future emphasis on this, and 40 percent wanting the existing level of connectedness to continue. Currently, several intercongregational projects are on the go. But here again, church people may be hungry for connections that feel more personal.
Copland has been encouraging partnerships in her region, where 10 tiny United Church congregations are geographically scattered. “Two of them hold alternating services at each other’s buildings. The next move is to get people on Skype so they can have services come to them from other churches during the winter,” she says.
It’s healthy for people to feel like they’re part of something bigger than a local congregation, Copland says, and the survey respondents agree. “We are not alone,” begins the New Creed; it appears that United Church people have taken this to heart.
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s September 2013 issue with the title “Imagine your church in 2025.”