As much as I appreciate the work that is being done to renew or re-vitalize the United Church of Canada through programs and conversations such as Emerging Spirit, "Called to be the Church," Worship Matters, and smaller events on leadership, spiritual practices, systems change, etc., etc. (and I DO appreciate them - been there; done that; bought the shelf-full of books) - nonetheless, all these efforts, in my humble opinion, are lacking a crucial element of analysis.
They do not attempt to describe broader social-economic-political-environmental changes and their impacts on being / doing church.
To date, most of these efforts at renewal examine the church only from our internal experience.
Attendance is down? We need a new minister! We need a projector! We need a band!
We don't ask:
Attendance is down? Is this just our congregation? How are other congregations faring? Other volunteer organizations? Are there differences between older-urban, newer-suburban, and rural? Differences over the decades? Differences between organizational strategies (e.g., having many smaller, local, congregations versus having larger, destination, mega-churches)?
It is important to ask these questions with due care and consideration because often our anxiety causes us to leap to false conclusions:
We are failing, but that evangelical church down the street is growing. It must be because they are biblical and we're not. Let's get a biblical minister. Let's start an Alpha course. Let's start singing praise songs.
- Where do they get their money?
Oh, everyone on their Board and their core founding group of 50 families tithes.
How about us?
- Where do they park their cars?
Oh, they actually have parking for one car for every two seats in the church.
What about us?
- How much advertising do they do?
Oh, they regularly send out glossy advertising for special services and community events and concerts. They have people and booths at other community events sponsored by others.
What about us?
- How intentional are they at inviting and welcoming guests?
Oh, they actually set targets for new disciples each year. They expect everyone to invite guests each week. They train people who have the gift of hospitality to watch for guests and make them comfortable. They have well thought out, carefully staged information and programmes for "beginners." They evaluate - and will drop or change - everything (music, carpets, hymns, prayers, preaching, etc.) based on two key questions - Are we connecting with and attracting new people to become disciples of Jesus? Are all of us growing deeper in our walk with Jesus?
What about us?
- Who actually runs their show?
Oh, their senior minister actually has the final say on everything.
What about us?
- Where is their nearest sister church?
Oh, their nearest sister church is 50 Km away.
What about us?
And. We don’t remember that even growing evangelical church loses people every year. People die; they became dissatisfied; they move; priorities change; stuff happens. People leave.
And. We haven’t paid attention that the broad social trend in Canada - and now even in the United States - is over-all decline in ALL established churches regardless of their place on the conservative-liberal spectrum. (And in fact, this decline is actually being experienced by all volunteer, member-based organizations such as the Kiwanis, Rotarians, etc.)
Those big evangelical churches, like us, must cope with four wider social trends that are pushing toward fewer but larger congregations. These trends are:
- Economic efficiency
- Consumerism and critical mass
- Secularization, individualism, and the internet; and,
- Evolution of forms in changing environments
We live in a culture that demands "more bang for the buck." Our economy is based on increasing the amount that can be produced for the least cost. Typically, this leads to increased industrialization, mechanization, and automation - reducing manual labour - or to put it positively - increasing what each person can produce from their labour.
However, with labour-intensive work, such as education, healthcare, and yes, religion, the only available strategy for increasing economic efficiency is by maximizing the case load for each worker. This creates pressure toward having larger hospitals, larger class sizes, and yes, larger congregations.
A study by Mark Chaves published in the Christian Century, November 28, 2006 found that in the USA 60-65% of those attending church went to the top 20% of the largest congregations (page 21).
This was a significant change from the decades of the 50's and 60's. The author of the report speculated that this trend to more larger (and fewer smaller) congregations was because of economic pressure. Larger congregations are more efficient at "purchasing" the services a congregation provides. (And if you don't like talking about the church with this business language, I can only suggest try paying the bills with something other than the language business uses - money.)
And that is why economic efficiency supports larger congregations and diminishes smaller ones. Larger congregations are better at providing more bang for the buck.
Part of the reason for this trend to larger congregations is economic, but there is also the crucial issue of consumerism and critical mass.
Consumerism and Critical Mass
Critical mass simply means that they are enough people for a program activity to go ahead. Yes there have been many fine groups where 2 or 3 have gathered together, but a youth group can really rock when there are 20 or 30 - and most days now we'd settle for 10.
But the problem is that a youth group will likely not get off the ground if there are only 10 youth in total associated with a congregation because for any given event, you can't rely on all of them being available and turning out. To get a turnout of 10, you probably need 20 or 30 on your list. To get a turnout of 20 or 30? That would take 40 to 90. And that takes a large congregation.
Without the critical mass for a successful turnout, those who do come experience a letdown; and worse, begin to wonder if it will be worth the effort to go the next time. "No one came last time; it wasn't as much fun last time; maybe I'll have more fun staying home / going to a show / hang with friends / etc." And the whole program falls apart even though it could work - but only if EVERYONE came out at the same time.
Smaller congregations can do many things really well. Can do things that larger congregations cannot. But the attraction of larger congregations is that they have the critical mass to provide a wider variety of programs and events that appeal to diverse interests. Looking for a support group for parenting teenagers, for grief, for financial planning, for learning English, for daily prayer practice, for social action? A congregation of 400 or more is far more likely to have enough people to have most of these groups than one of 75 people.
The reason why a congregation is under pressure today to have the critical mass to meet so many diverse needs is consumerism.
In the good old days when there was no shopping or sports on Sundays, church was the only game in town. There really wasn't "consumerism" then. Folks were mostly rebuilding families, homes, neighbourhoods, and communities following WW II. Personal gratification was delayed for the sake of the children, etc. People went to church and were satisfied with what was offered. And had very few options otherwise. Limited choices resulted in limited imaginations; limited desires.
But as prosperity returned, businesses realized that providing consumers lots of choice and novelty was the road to increased profits. The result is that we have become a nation of consumers. We look for and expect to find goods and services that meet our specific, personal needs / tastes / wants / desires. Variety and novelty are the spice of life. (And please don't send me emails about how selfish we have all become: that we no longer know the difference between wants and true need.)
Whether we like it or not, we live in a consumer culture, and that culture doesn't stop at the doorstep of the church. People are attracted to churches that provide specific services / groups / programs / events that meet their specific needs / wants / desires the minute they walk through the door.
But already having those programs in place means that there is already the critical mass to provide those programs! This is why it is a lot easier to increase the size of a large congregation than a small one.
And that is why consumerism and critical mass support larger congregations and diminish smaller ones. Larger congregations have the critical mass needed to provide the variety of services people are looking for.
A third pressure is secularization, individualism, and the internet.
Seculariazation, Indiviualism, and the Internet
Secularization is the simply the reality that faith / belief has now become a personal option.
“God” is no longer treated as a really real reality; but as a personal choice. As Long as you’re polite about it, you can believe in God – that’s “your thing.”
In the good old days, faith / belief was a collective reality. Yes, a few individuals railed, "There is no God," but the society as a whole supported faith and religious practices. We were "a Christian nation," and being a good citizen meant doing the things good citizens did - one of which was going to church. And going to church was mostly about learning to do the things a good citizen did - looking out for one another, sharing, being kind, etc., etc.
But with secularization, it isn't that people have stopped being spiritual. It's that faith / belief have become personal options. People still report that they are "spiritual." But secularism has broken the cultural bond between individual spirituality and organized spirituality, a.k.a. "religion."
Just as the Reformation 500 hundred years ago relocated spiritual authority from the Pope to the Bible (but still as proclaimed by the church); so the process of secularization has relocated spiritual authority to each individual. The culture at large no longer looks to the Church to support it to be spiritual.
Secularization has also led to the heightened trend of "individualism" - meeting my personal desires. And that has reduced the "market" - the number of people - who are willing to join social organizations that emphasize self-sacrifice; self-giving for the good of others without any thought of pay back. All types of service organizations are having a difficult time with declining participation. Yes, there are still many, many people who are in the "market" for social organizations such as churches. But their numbers have dropped significantly over the past decades.
In the 2001 Canadian Census, the top 5 religious affiliations were:
Roman Catholic (43% of the population)
No Religion (16%)
United Church (10%)
Anglican ( 7%)
Unspecified "Christian" ( 3%)
Of these 5, Unspecified "Christian" had increased in numbers by 120% from 1991; No Religion by 44%; and Roman Catholic by 5%. (The population as a whole increased by 10%.) Groups that declined include: United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, unspecified "Protestant," Pentecostal, Mennonite, Jehovah's Witness, Salvation Army, Christian Reformed, Brethren.
Secularization also means that the "market" for "spirituality" has become fragmented. Yoga, jogging, golf, spa treatments, a walk in the park, etc., etc. all market themselves as meeting spiritual needs. Spirituality is now personal and optional. So combined with consumerism and individualism, the "market share" for our way of being spiritual (i.e., organized) has shrunk considerably. The number of people who regularly attend church has dropped by more than 50% since the 60's.
However, while I don't have the data in front of me, of those who regularly attend church today, I would guess that the United Church still has the same percentage of people as we did in the 60's!
That is, if by "same percentage" we mean, "of all the people who attended any church in the 60's" how many went to the United Church then? And of all the people who attend any church now, how many attend a United Church? I think that our market share of those attending church has remained steady over the decades.
The reason why fewer people are attending our church now is NOT because we have been bad. It is NOT because we have not focused on spiritual practices, or discipleship, or any number of other good things. Fewer people are attending the United Church because fewer people are attending any church. Our market - those who attend church - has shrunk considerably. And it may shrink some more. I personally don't believe it will ever be totally gone. But it does mean that we have to find a way of being / doing church with considerably fewer people attending than in the good old days.
And finally, as a broadcaster of Good News, it is not surprising that we are facing the same problem of a diminishing market as TV broadcasters and newspapers. The internet now provides enormous capacity for free, on-demand, real-time, content at an individual's complete discretion and convenience. Who needs to pay? Who needs to go to all the bother of showing up at a set place at a set time for a live show? As I have said earlier, many, many people will still do that - but their numbers are significantly reduced.
And that is why secularization, individualism, and the internet support larger congregations and diminishes smaller ones. There simply are not the same number of people attending church. And as small churches become smaller, they become over taxed by maintenance needs, and have less and less to give to their purpose of being a church.
The fourth social trend is actually a biological imperative - the evolution of forms in changing environments.
Evolution of Forms and Urbanization
Whether we like it or not, a rule for all life forms is: change or die.
The environment we live in, that supports our living, is dynamic and ever changing. It is built for change and evolution. It requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances. . In order to produce future generations each organism’s form must change to draw sustenance from what there is more of in the environment and become less dependent on what there is less of.
The church as it exists in Canada today still grounds itself in the FAITH of the early church, but its FORM would be completely unrecognizable to them.
If the United Church is to survive, its form must continue to evolve, and continue to become unrecognizable to those of us alive now.
Unfortunately, when our environment radically changed in the mid-60’s, the United Church replaced declining numbers of people with increased rental income. This model has allowed congregations to financially exist, but it has changed most congregations from being people-based, people-focused to being rental-based, property-focused. It has allowed us to continue without changing our form in response to our environment. It has allowed us to remain unchanged and live on what there is less of in our environment (less participation in organized spirituality). But adapting to what there is less of in an environment without changing our form is the path of extinction.
As well as all the other changes noted above, a huge shift in Canadian society has been the migration of population from the country to cities. The majority of Canada's population live in cities.
And yet the FORM of the United Church is based on a rural parish model. One small, but local church for every country town and - by extension - for every city neighbourhood. And during the population boom, and the urbanization boom of the 50's and 60's that model worked pretty well. Buildings were bursting at the seams.
But that was then, and this is now. Change or die is the rule. Cities are no longer populated by people who have moved there from the country. They are populated by people who have moved there from many countries. They are urban people.
And, for the city, the rural model is just not viable. Many people confuse the success of evangelical churches with their theology. I believe their success is because they have abandoned the model of small neighbourhood churches, and opted for an urban model of fewer, but larger, congregations that can meet the challenges of being a church in today's culture that have already noted.
And that is why the biological imperative for life forms to change in response to their environment is diminishing smaller congregations and supporting larger ones.
There will be many responses to that question.
I believe that an urgent conversation is needed - but not a panicky, anxious, fearful, discouraged, angry, or accusing one. We need a clear-eyed, clear-headed conversation with good questions, and thoughtful responses.
For myself, the way I frame the question is: what form of organized spirituality is financially sustainable in a culture that is secular, individualistic, consumer-oriented, media-savvy, and urbane?
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