Friday, November 11, 2011

Judging Books by Their Covers

In the time I've been living here in Calgary several United Church congregations have either closed completely or amalgamated with other congregations. What's interesting about these closures is that they've happened during an extremely intense boom time. In recent years Calgary has grown to roughly one million people. During this same period of time, the church shrank. For me, this points to a rather troubling reality: the United Church of Canada is dying and it's dying a sad, tragic, unnecessary, and completely self-inflicted death.

In Reginald Bibby's new book, entitled Beyond the Gods and Back (Project Canada Books, 2011), two important numbers make an important statement about the past and present predicament of the United Church. In the mid 1960's membership peaked at just over one million (p. 11). Bibby also states that during this same period of time the United Church built roughly 1500 new church buildings and halls. This was a time of incredible growth.

In recent decades everything has changed and we live in a new reality. For me one simple figure says it all about where the United Church stands in our present day and it also hints at what things will look like in the near future. According to Bibby's numbers, 1% of today's Canadian teens identify themselves as being somehow connected with the United Church (p. 32). In comparison, up to 32% of Canadian teens claim to have no religious connections at all.

Things don't look good at all.

So why is the United Church dying? For me, one of the main reasons is a profound loss of faith among many of the denomination's clergy and lay leaders. In the recent February issue of the United Church Observer Sarah Boesveld introduces readers to something called "Post Theistic Worship" currently being offered in many United Church congregations. These are services where the Bible is barely seen or read from and prayers are no longer addressed to God. In one congregation, Christmas Eve service was cancelled and replaced by a Longest Night - type service on December 21st. This theological drift, if you will, is one of those things that has set the United Church apart from other traditions.

Bibby predicts that if the current trends continue, the United Church will be "on life support" in a matter of years (p. 4). While I think this prediction is a little generous I agree with the overall sentiment of his prediction. At some point leaders and parishioners are going to have to make the heart breaking decision to pull the plug. If the denomination's decline continues at the current pace this may happen sooner rather than later.
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