"These are Jeremiah days. The change that is coming will be more like the experience of exile than the Reformation."
When I charted the United Church data for the first time a year ago, my jaw dropped. And when I used Excel to forecast where we'd be on our 100th Anniversary in 2025, my heart sank.
Suddenly, sadly, the past 35 years of ministry began to make sense. What I knew in my bones was actually true:
The number of people coming to church was in steep decline. And there was no sign that they were ever coming back. And they weren't particularly troubled by that.
It wasn't just us. In fact, it wasn't just churches. Churches of all kinds are having the same experience; including all kinds of other volunteer organizations.
Now, it is true that everywhere you go, there are some congregations that are doing very well - including United Church congregations. And good on them. But overall, attendance is in steep decline, and for every church that is doing well, there will be 6 or 7 that are struggling and 2 or 3 that are closing because there just are not enough people going to church for all 10 to do well.
What do I mean by steep decline? 86% over the next 15 years. That's the forecast. Because over the past 10 years, we already actually have 100,000 fewer people coming to church each week.
And it's not just worship attendance. Here's what's forecast:
- Sunday School membership declines by 69%.
- New Members by profession of faith disappear altogether.
- Identified Givers to the Mission and Service Fund decline by 74%.
- Givers to Local Expenses by 52%.
And what we are living through is not like the Reformation where the church changed but society as a whole continued to be Christian, either Re-formed or Catholic.
What we are living through is more like the Exile where the people wondered how to sing the Lord's song in such a strange land. Only problem is, unlike the Exile, the "strange" land is our home. We can't even long for a place to return to.
The forecast says that the United Church cannot, and will not, exist in its present form 15 years from now.
Problem is, our present form has demonstrated remarkable tenacity and high resistance to change.
Problem is, evolution makes clear that organisms that don't change their forms in response to changed environments die.
Problem is, not all parts of the church feel the stress, and we keep believing this is a problem that can fixed instead of an irreversible change that can only be responded to:
Even if only 1 in 10 people continue to attend church, how can we change so that we will still be there as church for them?
That is a question that each congregation CANNOT address on its own.
Do we have the courage to die to all that we have separately known and loved, in order to be the church for those yet to be born?
In spite of all the evidence to the contrary - so far - I continue to believe that the adventuresome hearts that once left the loved familiar for the desired unknown still beat, and will rise to the challenge of the days ahead.