Church Decline in Canada

By Margaret Wente, who sounds a bit like Ross Douthat:

Two weeks from now, the United Church of Canada will assemble in Ottawa for its 41st General Council, where it will debate church policy and elect a new moderator. The top item on its agenda is a resolution calling for a boycott of products from Israeli settlements. Fortunately, nobody cares what the United Church thinks about Israeli settlements, or anything else for that matter, because the United Church doesn’t matter any more.

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.” Besides, who needs God when you’ve got Israel to kick around?

The United Church is not alone. All the secular liberal churches are collapsing. The Episcopalians – the American equivalent 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 worshippers. It was a colossal flop.

Here is here money quote:

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.

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  • Robin

    65 is appallingly high for average parishioner age. I haven’t seen that discussed in the discussion surrounding American decline, but that is a giant flashing light in this article.

    Anyone have similar numbers for mainline/evangelical average parishioner age?

  • Rick

    Interesting quote:

    “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.”

    Jesus Creed anyone?

  • Shu

    As a Chinese-Canadian Pastor, I can see that happening in Toronto. United Churches are definitely older and more liberal and show these traits:

    “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 worshippers. It was a colossal flop.”

    But I will have to point out that conversely, conservative churches that are becoming more closed, more exclusive, more complementarian and more fundamental is not the answer either.

    While I’m not in the UCC, I do wonder what would look like a more biblical and culturally appropriate approach to discipleship here? Not to mention to engage the mosaic of ethnicities here as well.

  • Tracy

    Yes, she does sound like Douthat. Complete with the glee, the sarcasm, and the quotations that support her stereotypes. All of which is not to see mistakes in the mainline church, but to allow that this may be an insufficiently complete report on a fairly complex phenomenon. Douthat has political and religious beliefs of his own he appeared to want to shore up. Is that the case here too?

    When the church declined in England and throughout western Europe, what did we pin the blame on? Elderly Palestinian-sympathizers there too?

  • Tracy

    By the way, I find this a clear example of her cynical read:

    “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 worshippers. It was a colossal flop.”

    Does she truly think the church ordained women, advocated for the poor, for racial equality, etc — as a marketing ploy? She could start by admitting that perhaps this is what they believed was the path of faithfulness.

  • Rick

    Tracy #4 and #5-

    “Does she truly think the church ordained women, advocated for the poor, for racial equality, etc — as a marketing ploy? She could start by admitting that perhaps this is what they believed was the path of faithfulness.”

    I think she sees those aspects emptied of the spiritual by the churches. They emphasized those to the neglect of core beliefs.

    “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.”

  • This article neglects the other side of the picture – those in the United Church that are being “forced out,” for lack of a better word. My colleagues husband was “let go” as a UCC pastor because he refused to perform same-sex marriages. Most of the church went with him.

    A tremendously difficult time.

  • gingoro

    First let me say that there are good solid churches and or ministers in the United Church even if they are few and far between. I know of one minister in the UCC who was chairman of the last Billy Graham campaign in Ottawa but he is now retired and rather discouraged about the UCC.

    Second A few years back the moderator of the UCC was a local Ottawa church. He was quoted as saying that he did not accept the historicty of Jesus. The secular press wondered why he bothered being a minister as without Christ it all seemed irrelevant.

    I know of two Anglican churches that left the Anglican Church in Canada over the homosexual issue. One was able to buy their building and keep meeting in the same location, the other simply folded and I suspect that some/most members joined the other church. The Anglicans are trying to start a new congregation in the building where the church folded.
    Dave W (Canadian)

  • Greg Gamble

    The exodus from the UCC is well documented, here again by Wente, but to call it part of church decline in Canada in light of the biblical definition of church is a stretch.
    If the UCC is a legitimate church, then Jesus was wrong to tell the Pharisees of his day that they were making disciples of hell by their outward show of righteousness while they either didn’t know God or were His enemies.
    A few good apples in a barrel of bad ones isn’t going to reverse the rot, and trying to sell a barrel with even one bad one is duplicitous and just dumb business.
    Nature itself teaches us that unless your apple juice is 100% pure, you don’t have the real thing, but when it comes to the life of God among His people, Margaret Wente is suddenly the loudest voice in the temple courtyard?
    John Baptist stood outside the church of his day, calling into its midst for an exodus from compromise and sinning against the light, and Jesus found all of his disciples outside the established church.
    There are times in the declension of a group that the heart stops beating, and the few that point that out will of course pay dearly for saying so.
    For those of us that have never been to church, or have found Jesus outside its fortress walls, there is no decline.
    In my 40 yrs outside the church, Iv’e seen a small spark of young dissenters grow like an underwater volcano, preparing to erupt in the near future.
    Seriously debating Wente’s observation is to miss the real action and contribute to the muffling of the voice of God through his prophets as He announces the rebirth of His Son into this corrupt generation of vipers.
    There will soon be two clear choices, as God always reduces the smoke filled battlefield down to two opponents; life or death.
    We should be telling Wente and everyone that cares to prepare our hearts for the toughest day of our national life, because Jesus is coming again for our generation like he came for his own, with few heralds, unobserved by most and misunderstood by all as to his ultimate intention.

  • James

    Hey Scott. This is an interesting read and is necessarily simplistic as are lots of journalistic pieces. Of course there are exceptions to the decline in the UCC. We have a wonderful UCC church in downtown Calgary that is full and vibrant and very active in social justice issues. They also retain a robust evangelical theology for the most part. I have been reading Bonhoeffer lately and would like to see someone address this question of modern decline in the church with his notion of religionless Christianity. Is the decline in many church groups simply related to the bogey man of “liberalism” or is it a wider phenomenon, maybe something starting to gnaw at the edges of a fading Christendom?

    I also read a great counterpoint about the Episcopalian decline entitled “My Liberal Christian Church is Not Dying” at HuffPost. Interesting note from someone who left an evangelical church for a liturgical church.

  • Tim

    We have a challenge in modern society. As a general rule, those religions that seem to thrive the best, are those that insulate themselves against the free marketplace of ideas and maintain doctrinal hegemony among their flock. The more conservative/fundamentalist spectrum of many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc. have been known to do this enormously well. Their ability to shut out competing views or otherwise denigrate them to the point of a-priori dismissal is widely acknowledged.

    But what does this tell us about the other end of the spectrum that welcomes engagement with broader ideas? Does religion thrive in this more open environment? Is there a balance needed? Or a new framework that doesn’t rely on the sheer force of dogma to bind together a community and safeguard the faith for new generations?

    Everyone has ideas on this topic. But I’d be very interested to know what has actually been shown to work.

  • I spent most of my life in the United Church of Canada and am just finishing an M.Div. at a UCC seminary including a class on UCC history. When I first saw the editorial, I completely agreed with it all. She isn’t saying that a lot of those liberal stances are wrong, just that they abandoned any sense of Christian uniqueness in the process. Most people in my generation see the UCC and wonder why they wouldn’t just volunteer at a secular soup kitchen instead – they do the same kind of social work without wasting time in the vague worship services to a God that they refuse to define in any meaningful way. As much as conservative Christianity doesn’t work for the emerging generation, neither does liberal Christianity. It isn’t a coincidence that I was the only student in the M.Div. under 40… and I’m not staying in the United Church (there were a few younger in the MTS but none of them are UCC either). With all that said, they just elected a new Moderator who has acknowledged their difficult position so I am curious to see how he navigates them for the next 3 years.