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"Easygoing" Church Turns 80
How can numbers be dropping in a denomination that appears to be in lockstep with the attitudes and ideals of Canadians?


The United Church of Canada marked its 80th birthday during the summer of 2005.

The anniversary was significant but for unhappy reasons. When the Methodist, Congregationalist, and two-thirds of the Presbyterian Churches in Canada amalgamated to form the United Church in 1925, the new denomination had more than 600,000 members. Demographic trends suggest that this year, for the first time in its history, membership in the denomination has sunk below 600,000—despite the fact that Canada's population has tripled over the same time period.

… faiths that are easygoing … are far more likely to die out than faiths that take a harder line with members.

While it still remains the largest single Protestant denomination in Canada, it's a long way from it zenith in the 1960s when it boasted 1.1 million members.

In many ways the decline of the United Church flies in the face of common sense. How can their numbers be dropping when they seem to be the only major Christian denomination in lockstep with the attitudes and ideals of Canadians?

The United Church was an early convert to the idea of equal rights.

In the 1930s it began ordaining women ministers. In the early 1980s the United Church was promoting tolerance of homosexuality and in 1988 it made active homosexuals eligible for ordination.

In the 1990s leaders in the United Church sensed the changing spiritual zeitgeist of the nation and set out to make Christian belief more rational and easier for the common person to accept.

Near the end of that decade the books of the liberal theologian John Spong and the works of the Jesus Seminar—a group of academics dedicated to demystifying Jesus—were getting a lot of publicity and some Canadians began expressing doubts about the validity of the Christian religion. They saw Christianity's supernatural assertions—like the divinity of Jesus and His bodily resurrection—and its claim to be the one true way of salvation as problematic: one conflicted with science and the other with the postmodern ideals of relativism and pluralism.

In a public declaration that received a great deal of media attention, the head of the United Church at the time, moderator Bill Phipps, offered a more relaxed view of Christian doctrine.

He said that one did not need to believe in Jesus to find salvation; Jesus was not the only way to God. Regarding Jesus' resurrection from the dead he said in terms of "the scientific fact" it was not believable. And with regard to Jesus' divinity, Phipps concluded that Jesus was not God.

Phipps' comments raised some controversy amongst conservative Christians—some were rank-and-file members of his own church. However, the majority of his denomination's clerical leaders gave him their full support.

This decade the United Church has remained synchronized to society's evolution. Among religious groups it has been the loudest voice in support of same-sex marriage.

We know from the world of business and economics that a product will be successful if it meets the needs of consumers. Why isn't the new and improved United Church achieving market penetration?

Some conservative Christians have suggested the denomination's dramatic decline is attributable to supernatural causes. They say that United Church leaders abandoned orthodox Christianity in favour of liberal theology and now are experiencing the wrath of God for their insolence.

That could be, but trying to pin down God's opinion is always a dicey prospect.

Fortunately, recent scholarship in the field of sociology provides a more accessible path to explore the issue. In particular, the studies and theories of American sociologist Rodney Stark offer fairly clear reasons why a religious behemoth like the United Church might be on its last legs.

After decades of studying religious groups in the United States professor Stark has concluded faiths with a laissez-faire doctrine—that is, faiths that are pretty easygoing when it comes to what members have to believe and what behaviours they have to follow—are far more likely to die out than faiths that take a harder line with members.

He explains that on the whole people join and stay with a faith group only if they are convinced that that faith group alone offers the solution to their spiritual needs. Joining the group may come at a high cost. Members might be asked to abandon elements of their lifestyle that they really enjoy or be required to believe doctrines that can't be verified empirically. But in their minds they're getting a bargain because terrific rewards—like a transformed life in the present or the promise of eternal life in the future—accompany faithful adherence.

Stark says when a faith group like the United Church proclaims that it is just one path among many that a spiritual seeker might choose to wander down, it's shooting itself in the foot.

It's akin to the makers of one product saying in their advertisements: "God ahead and buy our competitor's model. It's just as good."

Stark says religious bodies that are more demanding and exclusive and also at an advantage because they tend to screen out members whose participation and commitment would be low. They are left with motivated individuals who are willing to show up to church regularly, give their time and money to the denomination, and actively recruit new members.

The commitment of members of hard-line faith groups is further strengthened by a feeling of not belonging to the rest of society. Because their values and norms are at odds with the population at large, members of the faith group become more active in their church environment where they feel welcomed and "at home."

… Groucho Marx's comment that he wouldn't want to join a club that would be willing to have him as a member fits too.

If Stark is correct, by closely aligning itself with the societal trends and dominant culture, the United Church is actually causing its current members to be less committed to their denomination. Ultimately, less committed members just stop showing up.

Similarly, it's also hampering its ability to recruit committed new members because its "admission standards" are too easy to meet.

It seems the old saying that "we're more likely to prize something we have to work for" also rings true for religion. I guess in some ways Groucho Marx's comment that he wouldn't want to join a club that would be willing to have him as a member fits too.

This isn't meant to be a judgment of whether the theological position of the United Church is right or wrong. But unfortunately, being dead right is little consolation if it means you literally have to die to enjoy the privilege.

If membership trends in the United Church continue in the direction they are heading, only about 50,000 members will be standing by to blow out the candles on its 125th birthday.

The future looks grim for the denomination but they could always pray for a miracle. Miracles aren't in keeping with "scientific fact" but in light of the situation, church leaders might be in a mood to reconsider their position on such things.

David Haskell is assistant professor of journalism at the Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Originally published in the Toronto Star, August 20, 2005.

 

 
 
 
 

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