Keith Howard, former executive director of the Emerging Spirit project, writes about the future of The United Church of Canada.

At the risk of sounding naïve, the shape of The United Church of Canada, in my corner of the continent, seems to be emerging from the fog generated by massive cultural shifts.

Congregations - Large, Medium, Small

In larger centres, we may have one large congregation - Vancouver, North Vancouver, etc. This congregation is heavily endowed or has another significant revenue stream. The property, in some form, will be a significant part of their budget. The large congregation(s) will be the only ones with multiple full-time ministerial staff. At this point, it seems unlikely that any United Church congregation will approach, much less break, the 1000 member mark. So “big,” within the context of British Columbia, is relative and a far cry from the megachurches in the U.S.

Many of our churches will have an average Sunday attendance ranging between 80 and 350 people. The property will be a factor but those that survive will have found ways to renovate their facilities and bring them close to 21st century standards. Alternate revenue streams will be necessary to keep these congregations solvent. The old business model of a congregation surviving based solely upon the giving of its members no longer holds. Centres like Victoria and some parts of the Lower Mainland may support 3 (or more) of these congregations but most cities and towns outside of the Lower Vancouver Island or Lower Mainland will, at most, see one or two of these United Church congregations.

A number of smaller United Church congregations will continue. Very many of these may be quite healthy and have a vital and faithful ministry to their communities even if they are no longer supported by a full-time ministerial staff person. In smaller communities, these United Church congregations will increasingly be seen as community churches with some of the maintenance and upkeep being done by people in the community who “support” the church but do not attend any regular Sunday service. Services, when held, may be led by an itinerant minister or, most positively, by local people with an interest (and, we hope, training and support).

Other Ministries

We will continue to support ministries that seek to be the hands and feet of Christ - street ministries, ministries that help people transition from a destructive style of living to greater health, and other more service oriented projects.

There will also be a small number of newer ministries. Some may be based on an “intentional community” model; others may use models not yet envisioned. The long-term survival of such communities is problematic without significant support from the larger church or creative revenue generation from other sources. Such initiatives are a lot of work and the larger church has not yet found a way to evaluate those initiatives with promise and those that remain passionate ideas without root. Perhaps because of this the larger church does not seem willing to invest the amount of money, in the medium to longer term, to ease the burden of staff trying both to develop new ministries and find ways to support themselves and their families financially. Not to sound too pessimistic because some will survive and provide a glimpse of new possibility. Some good people are, even within institutional restraints, working at these models of church but the numbers are few.

The Digital World

One dimension of the emerging church that seems predominantly clear but has not yet been engaged significantly is the online dimension of ministry and faith development.

Among the many reasons are these.

1. Much of our current leadership belongs to those generational cohorts that are not digital natives. My boomer generation, in particular, tends to think of digital and online as “add-ons” as opposed to integral to life, work and the way we see the world. 

We understand one-to-one, face-to-face interactions but do not feel networking as it now exists.

Catherine Rodd, Executive Officer, Communications, for the General Council of The United Church of Canada, says that, theological pronouncements aside, we still tend to equate The Word with the printed word. We are then suspicious of technology and the visual. Faith drifts towards becoming “an intellectual exercise to be treasured and delivered firmly, with little positive emotion.”

Related to this is the matter of control.

“Writing down things, you have the illusion of control - in this new space, not so much. The church has been used to telling people what to think and believe, despite our openness, finds it difficult to actually engage in real time with people who think differently in a public space. So we need to shift our culture to one that listens, engages and is prepared to adjust, rather than just talks.”

2. Part of our reluctance to explore this comes from our antievangelical bias. Many evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians rushed to the online world seeing it as another powerful tool for ministry. United Church people recoiled at much that was displayed and retreated to a more comfortable zone. We stepped back from the medium as well as the content.

3. Despite the rush to embrace the language of “mission” our focus is predominantly inward. The online communication of most congregations still follows the Web 1.0/billboard model that sees ourselves as the primary reference point. We do not ENGAGE.

Aaron Gallegos, Digital Content Strategist for the General Council of The United Church of Canada, names the result.

“The more we talk about ourselves (our denomination, our church work) the less people engage with us online. But when we talk about faith and make posts that directly engage our audiences' experience of God and the spiritual life, we get lots of engagement because we're connecting with where they are at, rather than informing them about where the denomination or local congregation is at. What people want online (and in "real life" as well) from the church is a spiritual experience, a connection with the divine.”

4. We carry the remnants of Christendom.

Gallegos again. The church “culture is still one where we expect our audiences to defer to us rather than the other way around. This is very similar to the response many of our churches have towards visitors, requiring them to conform to "the way it's done" in church instead of allowing them to reshape the way we do things. This isn't especially successful in real life, and in the digital world, where people have a billion options at the flick of a finger, it's even less successful.”

5. All indications point to the increasing importance of the online world for development and training of all sorts.

Most congregations now recognize that they at least need to have a website but usually, their staff are overwhelmed with the current challenges of ministry; they do not have the time or other resources to fully engage the potential of the virtual world.

So who does?

Some congregations carve out part of their staff budget for communications support but, in times of pressure on scarce resources, they can hardly be expected to lead the revolution!

Will some of the significant monies being realized from property sales and a reconfiguration of the structure of the church be invested in an exploration of and training for this new world? Or will it fall to the spiritual but not religious crowd to develop their own models, as is currently happening?

Is the mainline mentality even able to see and grasp the opportunity or will we come late to the potential?

In the last federal Canadian election, Liberal strategist Tom Pitfield said “digital had the greatest ROI (return on investment)… We focused on it as a strategic advantage.” The Liberals spent $8.8 million mostly on digital strategies; the Conservatives spent less than $2.1 million. “The Tories, meanwhile, shelled out $5.1 million on call centres, whereas the Liberals spent just $436,000.” (Canadian Press)

Strategically, has the United Church moved from being the NDP-at-prayer to being the Tories-at-prayer?

Will the church be left trying to engage a world that no longer exists with outdated methods?

Some scholars argue that not only did the printing press assist the Protestant Reformation but, in fact, caused it. And that many of the changes brought about by the decades-old printing technology quickly moved beyond the control of the church.

We are now in a similar time when the impact of the information/online world will not only transform the world of which we are a part but how the Christian faith is understood and practiced.

Now that’s interesting!

Rev. Dr. Keith Howard is profoundly curious about the interface of the Christian gospel and the social context in which we live. This curiosity has drawn him into many roles, including 23 years of congregational ministry in the United Church; more than five years as executive director of the Emerging Spirit project; and most recently, team leader for LeaderShift in BC Conference. Keith blogs at keithhoward.ca. Sign up for his newsletter here.