« Response to Lois Wilson Interview | Main | The Death of the American Liberal Class - Chris Hedges »

October 16, 2010


David Ewart

Our colleague, Keith Howard, has provoked an interesting discussion on his blog when he asked for comments on whether GM would serve as a good parallel / metaphor for a presentation he is preparing. http://keithhoward.ca/2010/10/15/the-united-church-and-general-motors/

Below is one of my responses - it also has something to add to the comments here.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if there really is a single parallel that will serve as THE metaphor.

The church is not like GM in that it doesn't produce material goods that our culture is still highly invested in. (The internet, secularization, individualism, consumerism, etc. are no threat to the future of cars.) Nor does the church have a central HQ that actually gets to decide what the products are, at what price, etc. And congregations are not like dealerships - they are more like franchises: each is responsible for producing the product for its local customers. (Except that unlike real franchises, there is no global contract re: quality control, service targets, appearance and maintenance standards, etc.)

Because the church's business plan assumes people attending a live performance, I think a better comparison is local theatre - except that local theatre has never been a cultural phenomenon like religion has been. (We don't care if the PM goes to theatre as much as we care about his / her religious practices - and in Canada we have agreed that that is a private matter that the PM and the press keep to themselves.)

But if by "vital" you are willing to think about "financially vital" and ask about the business plan as well as all the usual purpose / program things we talk about, then I think the performing arts are a better parallel.

And having recently attended a film festival, a writer's festival, and a play I'd have to say they are about 10 to 15 years behind the same demographic crisis we are currently in. (It would be intersting to find if there is any data for attendance over the decades for the performing arts in Canada.)

But one thing I think is the case for performing arts is that ticket price has long since stopped being sufficient to pay the bills. All arts organizations rely on significant grants, donations, endowments.

For churches, our ticket income is Sunday offerings. But what is the parallel with endowments and grants? We'll not be getting government grants any time soon. So that leaves endowments.

Which is why I am coming to the conclusion that churches - which have begun to rely on rental income - need to get out of that (because we are lousy property managers and don't budget properly for actual costs of operations, repairs, and capital replacements.)

We need to see our property as an endowment, as a capital investment from which we need a conservative return of, say, 3%. (I say conservative because we need to protect the capital value from loss due to inflation and other market variables.)

The heart-breaking irony in all of this discussion, is that COLLECTIVELY, we actually still have the people and resources to re-tool ourselves to make the kind of changes that would be a vital response to our changed environment.

But CONGREGATIONALLY, most would rather close than sell their property in order to build something new together with other congregations. (And if they did to this, most would then just build a newer version of what already isn't working.)

Nor do we have the governance structures for supporting this conversation to take place in the sustained manner that it needs.

Whatever metaphor you use Keith, I think the key message has to be that the culture has changed, and if we actually care about connecting with people who are not now part of our church (including those not yet born), then we need new forms of being / doing church that respond to the changes that have occured in our environment; and we need some clear-headed business plan for making sure it can be financially sustained in a market of declining Sunday offerings.

Thanks for asking for help on this. I hope these responses have been that.

Paul Browning

I appreciate your honesty and thoughtful analysis.

I don't think we will find rebirth from structural readjustment. Unless an organization has a clear reason for its existence that the people it seeks to serve both affirm and support it will decline. It is part of the natural order of things (providence).

Liberal Christianity and the United church in particular, have no compelling narrative as to why Jesus based spiritual community can be vital to the evolution and well being of people and creation. We know what we don't believe. We are far more aware of the harm Christianity has done than we are of our salvation history. Few of us have experienced in church what a communal life of prayer and following the Jesus way can mean to us and those we desire to help.

We put mission support payments into outreach activities that are completely removed from spiritual identity and practices and which have no links to our congregations. Most candidates for ministry that I have interviewed have no clear sense of what the "good news' is and what the "cross and resurrection" can mean within an inclusive context. Our members view church as optional for their children and grandchildren because nothing about their church life is particularly instructive or transformational.

The “good news”, as i see it, is that "make believe" Christian community based on social and institutional norns no longer works well anymore. It's not working for the evangelicals and fundamentalists either. Reality always has the last Word.

I suspect that as our church continues to be pruned, a new smaller church will be born that deeply values the opportunity and need to worship the Mystery of Creation as a means of claiming freedom from the Principalities and Powers that so often own us. Sharing our true selves (rather than gathering with our social masks on) and actually praying together and seeking to be conformed to the image of Jesus will replace organizational forms and policies. The cross as the embodied suffering that God and God’s people take on in the struggle to care for creation and to fight injustice and the resurrection as the promise of new life and future hope will become visceral realities. We will rediscover what it means to “worship in Spirit and in Truth” and we will “cease being a form of Godliness with no Substance within.”

David Ewart

Thanks Sandra. Needless to say I've been thinking about this for a fair while - and think there is still more thinking - and acting - to be done.

I'm game to be part of a conversation, so let me know if / when such a gathering happens.




I think you are completely bang-on with your analysis.
After one year so far leading the "Transitional Ministry" at Grace Memorial, looking at what "new thing" God may want to do at Grace and/or within UCC ministry and mission on the east side of Vancouver in general, I think I've come to many similar conclusions and am asking the same core question. I have become convinced that the neighbourhood church model is no longer viable, that a new form is necessary (and in fact we should have been onto this decades earlier but oh well), and that the new form must also take seriously a new financial structure, as spiritual communities with members who worship Sunday mornings and financially and administratively support and run the church is simply no longer tenable. So... THANK YOU for articulating so well alot of what has been floating around in my head for the past while! And I wonder if it would behoove some of us like-minded individuals to get together and fuel the conversation...

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Blogs

  • David Ewart
    A miscellany of writings, sermons, worship resources, leadership resources, spiritual practices, and church health.
  • Holy Textures
    Musings on various lectionary texts influenced by Process Theology, Rene Girard, class analysis, and feminist analysis.

Email David