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February 24, 2009


Peter Smeltzer

Is this not motivation for a revival? Suffering numerically like the ancient Israelites, do you not believe that God not man will provide? Christ is the one and only marketing plan. You have produced good work so let's have hope and tell everyone that Christianity is not a spectator sport we all must get involved.

David Ewart

Hi Lesley, Thanks for your thanks and for your blessing.

No matter what happens to any particular congregation or denomination, hunger for Jesus and his message will never go away.

I only wish that lack of focus on Jesus and the gospels was to blame for the UCC's decline. That is something we actually do have a long history of, and could relatively easily re-focus ourselves.

But the changes I am seeing are deep and broad and wide-spread in our society. And the simple fact is - though I do not know what you community you are from - your community woud not support 4 UCC's - or any any type of church - that were also having 800 attend every Sunday. Canadians are just not going to church in those numbers any more.

The United Church still has a large number of Canadians coming to church every Sunday. But we have too many existing properties that spread those numbers out too thinly to be able to be the people we would like to be - property concerns drain our attention and energy.

I do rejoice with you in your energy and success and return blessings to you and your congregation.


Hi David,

Thanks for your diligence and commitment to this important issue - and for trying to help the church find solutions to its decline. I am now attending a community church that has a strong focus on Jesus and the Gospels and we are bursting at the seams with people - and 20 somethings are the dominant group. About 800 people attend any given Sunday. It is simply amazing. At the same time about 4 UCC congregations in our community have closed. I really think it is the lack of focus on Jesus and the gospels that is to blame for the UCC's decline. Their is still a strong hunger for Jesus - as evidenced by the strong growth of community churches (i.e. non denomination Protestant). God bless you and the UCC!


David Ewart

Ah if only it were that simple Harvie. The Catholic church is growing primarily because of non-Western Catholic immigrants. And not not even at the same pace as Canada's population growth. Even conservation, evangelical denominations are in decline - and the trend is hitting the USA as well.

harvie meuse

very interesting discussion of a very real problem. as someone outside your denomination and an objective observer, i wonder why you do not consider that your product, so to speak is not wanted by most canadians. other religions especially those that have clear and real teachings of christian belief are still growing, including the largest one- he roman church,regards hj meuse

Anna Christie

one last thing....i believe ed is right on about loss of the heart of the gospel...although i may not share his theology of sin.

Anna Christie

oh bah! i've hurt my arm and can only type with one hand now....that counts me out of saying more.

just as well...i'm a compulsive contributor anyway!

- sure i'll enjoy the reading though....

S Lyster

Not sure what the argument between us is here, David, except I sense my posts have been somewhat unsatisfying.

So I'll say one last thing and then head back to Facebook....

I'm sure you can think of more options other than the four you list, and I agree wholeheartedly that whatever we do, we need to live with the consequences.

But as per Anna's example, my observation is that we also tend to choose something among those four that actually creates (perhaps 'exascerbates' is a better word) the outcome we are fearing.

United Church people I know are do'ers... and that's both a strength and a curse. It's mainly why I'm in the battered and bruised institution... people in it tend to be do'ers.

However, in this sitchyashun which the stats so brilliantly point out, the temptation to do something about it is perhaps part of the problem.

It's my opinion that the medical maxim "do no harm" is not necessarily a variant of your first choice (1) Do nothing and live with the consequences. In the United Church, we don't "do nothing" very well, although the the thing that looks like it - ie. "do no harm" - perhaps IS the thing to do, as it applies to anything currently on life support.

I've seen our actions in 2), 3) and 4) above create things which hasten the societal trend, that's all.

I'll call your Churchill and raise you an Einstein who said after the first atomic explosion, "Everything has changed, except our way of thinking."

So, I'll leave it there in case this is as equally unsatisfying as the previous ones.

David Ewart

From today's "The Aces on Bridge" column in the Vancouver Sun ...
"Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking -- these are the features which constitute the endless repition of history." Sir Winston Churchill

My fears are quite different than yours.

My fear is that we will continue to ignore what has been happening for the past 50 years and dither away the limited opportunities we have now to change that pattern.

My fear is that we will continue to blame each other for declining membership, attendance, Sunday Schools, etc. instead of recognizing that these are mostly due to factors at play in the wider society over which we have no control.

My fear is that we will not have the courage to exercise the limited choices we do have. If we cannot change the impacts of wider social factors, can we change our response to these factors? Can we stop whining, blaming, and being paralyzed by fear and uncertainty?

My fear is that we will recognize that our current way of "doing church" - relatively small but expensive to own and operate buildings with relatively expensive payrolls for "professional" ministers - is just not economically sustainable in today's society. It takes a lot more people to sustain a viable critical mass because everyone has so many demands on their time and loyalty.

So - in my humble opinion - we are either going to:
(1) Do nothing and live with the consequences.
(2) Get up to speed on all the latest "Leadership" courses, revamp our Vision, Mission and Values, etc., re-develop the parking lot, etc. - and live with the consequences.
(3) Team up (amalgamate) with other congregations to form a large enough "critical mass" to be economically viable - and live with the consequences.
(4) Sell everything, invest the proceeds, and operate as a house church and/or rented facilities - and live with the consequences.

Maybe there are other choices. I hope we'll seize the one's available.


David Ewart

Hi Ed,

Thanks for this thoughtful reply.

Your reflections put me in mind of the question, "Is it easier to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk.'?" One addresses a "spiritual" need, the other a "physical / worldly" need. As a church – including I, myself – we too often identify these two. So the joy of the gospel doesn’t feel joyful unless we are up dancing about. Can the Gospel be experienced as joy while we are still crippled and lying on our mats? Or, in our case, becoming crippled?

I’ll be doing a ritual of ashes this Sunday as well. As I was dreaming about it the other night, some new words for the imposition were given to me. With one stroke of the ashes, the words, "Here is your sorrow." With the other stroke, forming the cross, "Here is your salvation."

Thanks Ed for your ministry. I pray that in the years ahead – if they are ones of fear and dread, we will at least have the good sense that the apostles had to huddle together. Sometimes, the best thing we can do – perhaps the only thing we can do – is strive to be a location / community / circle of friends into which the Risen Lord can pass through our locked doors to bring us his peace.


David Ewart


many thanks for this important work. glad you'll be speaking at our meeting in March.

not sure how this will work its way into this coming Sunday ... but it will ... working title for the sermon is "Oh Happy Day" ... we're imposing ashes, reading Psalm 51 from Ash Wednesday alongside Mark 1:9-15 ... with all the talk about the need to have sin washed away in psalm 51 ... and the language of the good news of God being cause for turning and trusting in the God's time I was reminded last night of the song "Oh Happy Day ... when Jesus walked ... he washed my sins away" ... and am wondering about our loss of the wonder at the joy that comes when we can bring our ache/sin (and the world's ache/sin) to the One with the power to heal us and wash away the sin. somehow I sense that, in the midst of all the various reasons for the losses we are enduring in our generation (and Charles Taylor's "The Secular Age" is helping me make sense of much of this) at the heart of it is a loss of the heart of the gospel. Thanks again for bringing into stark relief the reality of the situation that faces us.


David Ewart

I too would like to see an end to the panic and in-fighting that is destroying colleagues and congregations.

Oddly enough, I have the naïve belief that this information ought to be helping people understand that whatever "the problem" is – it is NOT me, NOT you, and NOT us.

We are not the problem.

We are a symptom of a larger "problem" that is happening in our society at large.

And we know this is the case because "the problem" we are experiencing has been impacting all United Church congregations, all across Canada, persistently and consistently for 60 years. WE are NOT the problem.

Having said that, there are at least two things that are the enemies of an effective response to "the problem."

One is having no hope.

The other is having false hopes.

What I like about Barak Obama is that he lays out the hope: We will recover. But he also lays out the truth of the actual losses, of the things we have enjoyed in the past but are now gone forever, and of the personal sacrifices and long-term focused efforts that will be needed.
And just to keep picking at the small nit of future trends.

It is NOT the statistics that determine or compel an unavoidable future outcome. I have not said that.

On the other hand, it is also factually not true that addition means there will always be at least a remnant.

Organizations do require a critical mass to continue, and if that critical mass is lost – even though there may have been continuous additions – the organization will collapse and no longer exist.

The historical record of congregations ceasing to exist – even with additions along the way – THAT is a consistent and persistent trend. And it is that pattern (which presumably is due to consistent and persistent factors that impact all congregations, everywhere, all the time) – not the statistics – if that historical pattern continues to repeat itself without any change, then it is indeed possible that the institution will lose its critical mass and collapse. But it is the historical pattern that is at play, not statistics.
I don't believe that the death of the United Church is inevitable or unavoidable. But, like you, I do believe we have to stop believing in false hopes – and thereby falsely laying blame.

Unfortunately, I also think we need an Obama sized dose of reality and awareness of the sacrifice that is truly in front of us if we actually want to respond to the challenges we face.

S Lyster

My fear is that when this information is laid out, it simply becomes determinative of outcomes. It's like post-traumatic stress syndrome where someone keeps replaying the facts of an accident in their minds. I do not share your optimism that this info will lead someone to say, "Whew, it's not about me, it's about some larger societal trend."

My fear is that The United Church has long since internalized these stats so that it becomes an unhealthy part of the "corporate culture" which we keep replaying, and which is so alienating to newcomers. As Anna observed, it also leads to actions which create the future we are fearing.

What is needed is a challenge to the corporate culture that The United Church is a failure. Actually, I think there's an equal case to be made that The United Church is going out of business because its been successful at converting culture to various quasi-liberal causes, without the religious baggage - like the "secular marriage services" developed in the 60s. It's like the Food Bank which proudly goes out of business because it has finally lobbied the right government body and poverty is being addressed.

I think we need to stop dwelling on these stats. It is incredibly alienating to present them to the few people in their 20's who find our pews their church home. It's not the largest reason by any measure why it's so difficult for a 20-something to find a place in the pew, but it plays a significant part.

I was at a United Church a couple of Sundays ago in the back row watching the lone 30-something couple with one of the 3 toddlers in the service... all the while the announcements were a call for money from the pews, and side remarks like, "We already know young people don't come to United Churches any more." If I'd been the 30-something, I'd have stood and said, "What am I, chopped liver?"

My fear is dwelling on this stuff is the agenda of a particular demographic within the church, and not necessarily what gives the rest of the church life.

Stu Lyster

Thanks Anna - you've said better what I meant to say. "I've seen so many older congregations PANIC incessantly that they have no young people - that they need children and youth to survive. That just isn't true. But the discouragement, low self-esteem and often internal conflict or projection-blame onto clergy kills the congregation when they could have "survived" despite no young people."

This is one of many examples where the UCCan actually creates the future it fears.

David Ewart

Your data is very telling and I don't question the implied conclusions, however one item is a bit of a misdirection. To use the statistics regarding the number of ordained and commissioned ministers under thirty as an indication of decline is a misnomer. We must consider that our polity has set things up such that it is very unlikely that a person under thirty could complete our educational requirements. We require a minimum of 8 years education which means the likely minimum age possible is 26 years old. The four years of possible under thirty clergy is unlikely to show as significant statistic. Most individuals require some time of discernment as well which is encouraged and welcomed.
The under 30 stats is more indicative of the structural constraints the UCC polity which is another conversation.


David Ewart

David – I’ll say one thing…. when you offer a Lenten meditation, you offer a REAL Lenten meditation. I won’t be able to hold down my Shrove Tuesday pancakes this evening after reading those stats!

Statistical trends are always couched in the phrase “if current trends continue”. The one thing that is almost certain is that trends rarely continue. For instance, in the summer of 2007 no one, not the finest financial minds in the world, predicted the current economic collapse. Now there’s a trend which did not continue!!

True, this reasoning suggests two things…. these Lenten statistics-of-collapse could just as easily hasten a quicker disaster as reverse themselves. Indeed, these statistics are themselves based on a reversal of “the trend” our parents saw in the 1950s, proof itself that trends as measured from 1925 to 1964 were themselves unreliable as predictive tools. What reason makes the trends of 1964 to 2009 any different?

I also know of no Christian theology or ecclesiology that takes into account “trends”; except for the prophetic discourse of the Old Testament which basically said, “if you continuing doing X, you’ll end up at Y.” Usually X was a bad action and Y was a disasterous outcome. X was almost never a trend, but a free choice which (perhaps) caused a trend which led to Y.

My worry in presenting these statistics is that they feel determinative. And the problem with determinative things is that they “tend” to cause us to take actions which lock-in outcomes which almost guarantee the result we fear. This is the lesson from the current economic collapse – a self-fulfilling pessimism which means that no one wants to be seen as the first one being optimistic, because no one wants to be the last one taking their money out of the pot – because by that time they fear there’ll be no pot.

The statistics also are outside of any definition of paradigm-shifts; meaning that being locked into the pessimism of the stats as presented means buying into the old age which is truly passing away. Given that the old age had a foundation which included sexism, homophobia, and other things, many might cheer that the old age is passing away.

Some in Fraser Presbytery are actively working for retrenchment – merging congregations and streamlining ministries, which may be a good thing – but it is simply creating a smaller version of what’s obviously in decline in its larger version anyway. There is no guarantee that willfully making things smaller will reverse the trend – one could make an equal case that we are actually causing the end we fear with our action. But that’s for another day.

Anyway, I hope the presentation of these stats includes some dreaming of what could be, something faithful to the Biblical narrative but translated into a modern, post-congregational time. Most trends DO NOT continue – sometimes they take unexpected turns and sometimes the whole context of the trend gets wiped out in a paradigm shift beyond all control.

Any ecclesiatical thoughts, which by definition cannot rely on stats?


Stuart Lyster

David Ewart

Hi David;

How do we balance concern --lament?-- for the institution of the United Church, this body which cradled and nourished our faith, with our hope in the Body of Christ in the world? I do think the UCC may be dying, and that makes me so sad, but it may be necessary. Lenten thoughts indeed.


Rev. Dr Janet Cawley
Consulting Services
for Congregations in Transition
2121 Alma St, Apt 802

David Ewart

Shrove Tues, Feb. 24/09

Hi and thanks, David for these current and, advance notes:

I commend your dilegence and vigilence to these trends:

while wondering, too:

a) to what extent, are we still determined or even, alas, unduely influenced by the kind of church the United Church is/was felt to be "supposed to be", as the once established "church of Canada" and thereby, supposed to reflect the mainstream or deemed average norm?

b) Pray tell, I wonder, what is the church, the ecceslia, we are "called to be" -- knowing that this is easier to state, than engage, practice and risk? Like, what will we risk our anticipated funds toward and for, come the eventual sales of St. John's and Renfrew United Churches, tho I still harbour the hope, against hope, that the latter will be parleyed into a held-on-to-base for our church, with a meaningful, faithful presence, however combined with some social housing, community arts, etc. ....

and, for now:

c) what root image or metaphor, anyway, comes to mind-and-soul-legacies, as we are challenged to think of not only the universal or our "national" church out there, but as the church we called ministers, lay and ordained/commissioned, to serve, regardless of the current numbers or lack of? [Paul Minear some yrs ago, as Mollie Williams will recall too, wrote of some 100+ such images just from out of the Biblical or maybe, only Newer Testament writings...]

Thankfully, once again, tomorrow Lent commences... ashes, temptations, trials and errors, false and half-baked starts & all.

And this year, there is a Lent Vigil right in the heart of the Lonsdale Quay, over Wed noon hours as there is, again, for the 5th annual Lent, on the Robson side of the downtown Art Gallery, over noon hour.

in the Peace of Christ:


Anna Christie

Online communication is a challenge! Methinks we're not on the same wave length. Nothing in your reply to me do I disagree with. Of course we've been in decline since 1965 and it's going to get worse. The thing I'm arguing with is that one CANNOT keep the "trend" going down to zero assuming we will thus disappear - that's statistically innacurate. We have not ONLY been declining - we've also been adding, and at some point in history we we "level out". Maybe there will only be 10,000 people left in the denomination - a couple of congregations per province -who knows? But it's just not based on science or statistical fact to say "if the trend continues we will disappear altogether. (That's all I'm sayin')

My example of 90-year-olds was an exaggeration. But if you change the number to 50 or 60-year-olds then it makes sense. I've seen so many older congregations PANIC incessantly that they have no young people - that they need children and youth to survive. That just isn't true. But the discouragement, low self-esteem and often internal conflict or projection-blame onto clergy kills the congregation when they could have "survived" despite no young people.

I guess my point is that we have declined because of the death of Christendom, and not because of anything we did or could have done better. A theology of grace says by implication that it's not necessary to go to church for one's salvation. The CULTURE - with a billion times more money and marketing power took the converts the church once had. There was no avoiding it.

Many congregations will "die" over the next few years. The ecclesiology will change and the "face" of the United Church of Canada will be different in the next decades than it ever was. Hell, now we're battling militant atheists who are coming into "vogue". That'll probably be another blow, but it's a natural response to the rise of fundamentalism and its political power both here and down south. That too shall pass.

Meanwhile? I'd rather we weren't so anxious about survival and concentrated instead on strong mission and ministry, and good leadership. The blaming and projecting has got to stop - I see it killing my colleagues and it rips me up inside. Unfortunately, I don't have an easy answer to that. But believe me, I spend a lotta time thinking about it....

A pensive Lent to you,

David Ewart

Sorry Bill, even if I could make the line be nice and curvey, the historical pattern all points in one direction.

See below my response to an email received from Anna Christie (which I have copied ad posted here.)

David Ewart

Hi Anna,

Always good to hear from you.

I’m going to assume that not everyone wants to be receiving all the responses to my original email – and so will eventually, as time permits – post the responses I have received onto my blog, http://www.davidewart.ca/2009/02/united-church-of-canada-people-trends.html. I’ll send out one last email asking everyone to go there to post any comments. In fact, I’ll post this email there as well and hope the conversation can continue there.

In the meantime, let me respond to your comments.

First, in spite of what you correctly point out about adding and subtracting, it is the case that things do disappear.

The historical record of the past 50 to 60 years is that 3,420 congregations have disappeared, as have over 4,400 Sunday Schools. They have closed. They are no more.

The information I sent out did not attempt any analysis. It simply tried to state fair and representative data from the historical record.

I did also include sections on future trends for these reasons:

1. In any given year, the 50 or so congregations (to paraphrase that great Paul Simon song) all close for 50 different reasons. Each of them has unique historical and contextual reasons for closing. It would be difficult to analyze factors that were common to all of them – and therefore would also be at play in the life of all other United Church congregations. A Trend cannot be determined from one year’s data. All that the rest of us can do is to regret their passing and carry on.

2. However, 50 years of a small pattern that repeats itself persistently and consistently do invite the consideration that perhaps there is more than individually unique historical and contextual factors at play. Perhaps there are wider factors at play that do in fact impact the life of all other congregations? There may indeed be 50 reasons for closing a congregation, but surely there are not 3,420 unique reasons.
Personally, I see no reason to think that the historical record is misleading. That is, I see no reasons to believe there is in fact no pattern repeating itself; or that perhaps there are hidden, as-yet-to-reveal-themselves, factors that will suddenly alter the pattern of the past decades. (Which is why Stuart’s reference to the current financial melt down is false, misleading, and unhelpful. He is using a dog’s breakfast to dismiss the merits of a Macdonald’s Quarter Pounder real meal deal.)
Can you think of any good reasons why the historical record is not a pattern repeating itself?

3. Because I believe the historical record is a pattern repeating itself consistently and persistently, that makes it correct to then ask, what does it look like if this pattern continues to repeat itself, unchanged, consistently and persistently for, say the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years?

I myself have ministered in a congregation of 80 year olds that had no Sunday School. The pattern of closing is NOT that some people leave while new one’s are added and therefore the enterprise carries on, even though fewer in number. The pattern is, that at a certain point, a “tipping point” is reached, when the numbers are not sufficient to sustain the enterprise and the enterprise collapses suddenly.

At Chalmers there were 30 good souls who had the money (from investment income) and the spirit to continue worshipping and supporting one another. But they did not have the capacity for handling the institutional/organizational requirements (payrolls, tax filings, etc. etc. – yes, they had hired people to do most of these, but they still had to be responsible for them, to actually hire people to do the work and receive reports of what had been done, and be responsible that it was done well and properly.) In theory, Chalmers could have carried on, adding and subtracting indefinitely. But that is not how institutional life works. There will not be congregations consisting of only 90 year olds, just as there not retirement homes owned and operated by 90 year old residents – they simply do not have the capacity to meet the unavoidable institutional / organizational requirements.

I would also add that this is how Sunday Schools, youth groups, women’s groups, etc., etc. also disappear. At some point, if the group falls below the critical mass needed to sustain itself, it collapses. It does not carry on subtracting and adding, diminishing one by one, until there is no one left.

As I said earlier, my initial email did not offer any analysis. I am, however, asserting that the historical record evidences that there is a small, but consistent and persistent pattern that is repeating itself year after year for the past 50 to 60 years.

If you or Stuart have evidence to the contrary – or some other way of explaining the historical record I’d be open to hearing it.

Otherwise, arguments about methodology, etc. are unhelpful because they divert us away from analysing what are the patterns that are impacting all our congregations and what, if anything, might we do in response to them that would change the pattern from repeating itself?

David E

David Ewart

David - my 'reply all' didn't work - can you forward to the rest for me? thanks.

Ah! Something to sink my teeth into which recouping from surgery - thanks David!
I want to comment along the lines of Stuart's response. Just call me a geeky-scientific method-statistical freak or something. But this "decline", let's say in Sunday school has not been a 100% "pure" decline. In other words, Sunday schools have become smaller due to less children/young families. However, children have been "added" over the years as well (obviously - as children grow up and thus 'leave' SS). The number of children ADDED has been less than the number of children SUBTRACTED over these years, but the number added is not zero and thus it is not only unfactual but foolishness to say that Sunday schools will disappear based on some overly simplistic graph.
Nothing will disappear. The church will live. Will it be smaller? Obviously, but it will survive. The question is - what will it look like? Which congregations will survive and which will not? What are the factors contributing to this? These are the questions to ponder, I believe. A congregation of 90-year-olds can survive thousands of years, for instance, because someone turns 90 every year/day/minute. So how does a congregation of 90-year-olds BE the church and continue to attract other 90-year-olds? The idea that we need youth is not true - we need mission and vision.

Perhaps, since I've just gone through an early "Lent" of my life, I'm feeling more Eastery today. I have hope for the church!

But this conversation is fun...thanks again David!

Bill Kennedy

Please please please no more straight line extrapolations! I just hate it when the line intersects the x access (i.e. membership hits zero). We are clearly experiencing what economists would euphemistically call "and extended period of negative growth", but every fiber in my being tells me we have a future.

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