See our ‘State of the Church’ series for past years
In 2008 and in 2009, CC.com ran series of articles on The State of the Canadian Church. Both series drew extensively on research by pollsters, academics and church leaders. This year, we are looking at some of the same issues, but from the bottom up – from the point of view of the local church.
FOR SALE: 45-year-old, 270-seat church; $4.5 million or best offer.
In the late 1950s, the United Church aimed to have a church in every high school catchment area in Canada. Today, many of those congregations of 200-300 people have dwindled to less than 100. Some have closed altogether, and their buildings are being sold. The same thing is happening with other mainline denominations.
Peter Elliott is chair of the Vision 2019 Task Force – an exercise “to discern, dream, and decide where we think God wants the Anglican Church of Canada to be in 2019.” [WEBLINK: anglican.ca/v2019/report/index.htm (this link no longer works — ed.)] Elliott also headed an Anglican Diocese of New Westminster study group which, in 2009, presented a strategic plan called ‘Growing Communities of Faith in Jesus Christ to serve God’s Mission in the World.’ [WEBLINK: vancouver.anglican.ca] The plan analyzed what is required for a vital, sustainable parish.
‘Vital’ refers to the quality of the parish, while ‘sustainable’ refers to quantitative requirements. As a general rule, the strategic plan asserted that to be sustainable, a parish requires a minimum of 100 active adult members and weekly attendance of 70. Financially, a parish with a building and one priest requires about $130,000-$150,000 annually, or about 130 parishioners contributing regularly.
Judged by these criteria, the plan revealed that almost three quarters of the parishes in the New Westminster diocese may be unsustainable: 25 percent have Sunday attendance of less than 50, and another 47 percent have 51-120 attenders.
What does this mean for the local church? Is it a dying institution? Are these disappearing local churches further evidence of the decline of mainline denominations? Is the neighbourhood church being replaced by some other form of church?
To some extent, local churches are victims of larger trends. Weekly church attendance has dropped from about 70 percent of the Canadian population in the 1950s to 20 percent today. Not as many people are attending church, and this means there are not enough churchgoers in a given neighbourhood to keep some churches open.
Elliott said many Christians look at the decline from the 1950s and see that as a problem. However, in Canadian history, it is the 1950s jump in church attendance that is the aberration, not the current situation. Church attendance has simply returned to its normal levels.
Many of the churches that are closing in Canada are mainline Protestant churches, and this also is in keeping with larger trends. Mainline Protestant attendance in Canada has dropped by a third in the past quarter-century, while evangelical churches have grown by 50 percent.
But are mainline churches closing because their denominations are in trouble, or are the denominations in trouble because their local churches are closing? Both may be partially true.
Elliott said, “Mainline churches particularly expanded like crazy during the boom, and therefore it is not surprising that it is mainline churches that are closing now.”
Doug Goodwin, executive secretary of the British Columbia Conference of the United Church of Canada, suggested that it may be harder for mainline churches — with buildings and an established way of doing things — to adapt to new circumstances. But, he added, the same is true for long-standing evangelical churches.
Cam Roxburgh, national director of Forge Canada and Church Planting Canada, noted that the typical life cycle of a local church is about 70 years — so evangelicals are not immune to problems. “Over the past 10 years, we have planted more churches in Canada than have closed — but not by enough.”
It is not so much that the local church is declining but that the institutional form of churches is changing, suggested Elliott. The point of the Anglican study was not to mourn the death of the local church but to determine the form of church that will serve God’s mission most effectively in the future. In some cases, that will mean churches will merge or close, but it may also mean that new churches will be started.
Goodwin expects his denomination will see some experimentation. That may include deliberately smaller congregations, ministers serving more than one congregation and even buildingless churches.
Some churches are closing due to shifts in population, Elliott said, citing a comment by his bishop, Michael Ingham: “We have churches where we don’t need them. There are many churches close together in West Vancouver but not enough in Surrey.”
Another aspect of the issue has been highlighted by Geoff Ryan, a consultant for urban ministries for the Salvation Army. In an article in Comment online magazine, he noted that “between the end of the Second World War and the year 2000, approximately 400 (middle-class) church congregations” moved out of Toronto’s downtown area to the suburbs. This has left empty church buildings surrounded by the urban poor in the inner cities.
Another part of the problem, Elliott suggested, is that many mainline Protestant churches were founded at a time when automobiles were not as prevalent and people went to neighbourhood churches. Now people don’t necessarily choose the church closest to them geographically.
Goodwin agreed: “There are an increasing number of people going to destination churches.” These are often larger churches with more vibrant music and more diverse programs.
However, this does not mean that only large churches will exist in the future. “We live in a more diverse and splintered society,” said David Horita, regional director of the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches in B.C. and Yukon, “and therefore we need a lot of models of church.”
Elliott noted that while large churches have better programs, small churches are often more relational. Goodwin agreed, saying, “Most people are looking for a church where they can be challenged to be better disciples, very basic things, and even small churches can provide that.”
David Wells, general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, has suggested that this nation has a pressing need for “wireless” churches that focus on going out and “and being among those who do not know Jesus” – in homes, schools and workplaces. Such ‘churches’ can impact a growing segment of the population who may become Christians without ever becoming members of a neighbourhood church.
However, Wells also noted that there is still a need for “hard wired” churches, which invite people to come to a traditional church building and take part in worship services and programs. Different approaches are needed to reach different groups.
“In the past couple of generations there has been a push towards bigger is better,” Roxburgh observed. “But the neighbourhood model is far from obsolete. There are increasing numbers of people who desire a lifestyle where walking is good, and neighbourhoods are making a comeback.”
Horita suggested that it would be wrong to conclude that the local church is in trouble just because some are closing. “Some churches are really struggling, and some are doing very well.” While the form may change, “the local church is still God’s plan for changing the world.”