For many years, the United Church was a pillar of Canadian society. Its leaders were respected public figures. It was – and remains – the biggest Protestant denomination in a country that, outside Quebec, has been largely shaped by centuries of Protestant tradition.
But today, the church is literally dying. The average age of its members is 65. They believe in many things, but they do not necessarily believe in God. Some congregations proudly describe themselves as “post-theistic,” which is a good thing because, as one church elder said, it shows the church is not “stuck in the past.” ...
The United Church is not alone. All the secular liberal churches are collapsing. In the United States, the Episcopalians – facing many issues similar to those of the United Church – have lost a quarter of their membership in the past decade. They’re at their lowest point since the 1930s. Not coincidentally, they spent their recent general meeting affirming the right of the transgendered to become priests. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it doesn’t top most people’s lists of pressing spiritual or even social issues.
Back in the 1960s, the liberal churches bet their future on becoming more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive. They figured that was the way to reach out to a new generation of worshipers. It was a colossal flop.
“I’ve spent all my ministry in declining congregations,” says David Ewart, a recently retired United Church minister who lives in British Columbia. He is deeply discouraged about the future of his faith. “In my experience, when you put your primary focus on the world, there is a lessening of the importance of worship and turning to God.”
The United Church’s high-water mark was 1965, when membership reached nearly 1.1 million. Since then it has shrunk nearly 60 per cent. Congregations have shrunk too – but not the church’s infrastructure or the money needed to maintain it. Today, the church has too many buildings and too few people to pay for their upkeep. Yet its leadership seems remarkably unperturbed. “It’s considered wrong to be concerned about the numbers – too crass, materialistic and business-oriented,” says Mr. Ewart. The church’s leaders are like the last of the Marxist-Leninists: still convinced they’re right despite the fact that the rest of the world has moved on.
Clearly, changes in society have had an enormous impact on church attendance. Volunteerism and other civic institutions are also in decline. Busy two-career families have less discretionary time for everything, including church. Sundays are for chores and shopping now. As for Sunday school, parents would rather take the kids to sports.
But something else began changing in the 1960s, too. The liberal churches decided that traditional notions of worship were out of date, even embarrassing. They preferred to emphasize intellect, rationality and understanding. “When I went to seminary, we never talked about prayer,” says Mr. Ewart. “I had an intellectual relationship with Jesus. But love Jesus? Not so much.”
As the United Church found common cause with auto workers, it became widely known as the NDP at prayer. Social justice was its gospel. Spiritual fulfilment would be achieved through boycotts and recycling. Instead of Youth for Christ, it has a group called Youth for Eco-Justice. Mardi Tindal, the current moderator, recently undertook a spiritual outreach tour across Canada to urge “the healing of soul, community and creation” by reducing our carbon footprint. Which raises the obvious question: If you really, really care about the environment, why not just join Greenpeace?
According to opinion polls, people’s overall belief in God hasn’t declined. What’s declined is people’s participation in religion. With so little spiritual nourishment to offer, it’s no wonder the liberal churches have collapsed.
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If Wente is right about the United Church of Canada, then there are, indeed, parallels with the Episcopal Church. For the sake of "relevance", we, too, have invested heavily in (politically correct) attempts to be "more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive." The sad irony is that the more "relevant" we have become in these ways, the more deeply we have bought into "secular" social and political agendas that are often more ably enacted by other groups and institutions that often have little time or respect for anything Christian. Taking that route of "relevance," we have been tempted to call into question, set aside, or even abandon core aspects of Christian faith and practice lest they give offense to those who don't already belong to the Episcopal Church. The more that has happened, the more we have come to tolerate dumbing down the faith (or flat-out leaving it behind) within the Episcopal Church as well.
Even keeping in mind the complex constellation of factors that account for church decline across the theological spectrum, this kind of "relevance" really does raise the question: why bother with the Church - or anything particularly Christian - at all when those needs and causes can be more easily met elsewhere?
We can and must do better than this! And we can start by doing two things: (1) proactively studying, teaching, and preaching basic Christian doctrine, and (2) insisting on uncompromising commitment to the theology and practice of The Book of Common Prayer.