Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, he suggested, have registered declines in baptisms in the past two years at least. “It is not a trend yet, but for Baptists, its implications are huge.”
Ewart added: “Evangelical churches have never been ‘established’ or ‘mainline.’ They could not just build and expect people come.”
United churches, he said, “need to figure out that often, we are theologically liberal but structurally conservative. Churches would rather close than help people to know Jesus.”
Having said all that, he suggested there are good examples of bucking the trend, even in the Vancouver area. Some examples are St. Andrews-Wesley, in downtown Vancouver; Canadian Memorial, across the Burrard Bridge; and Northwood in Surrey.
St. Andrew’s-Wesley laid a good foundation a few years ago when Gordon Turner was senior minister, in reaching out to its community. “They developed the Jazz Vespers, and that was just one example,” he suggested — noting, pointedly, that the church has continued to grow under the leadership of Gary Paterson, an openly gay minister.
The point is not that he is a gay man — but that he engenders a spirit and atmosphere that reaches out to people, want to help them to know Jesus, Ewart suggested.
At St. Andrew’s-Wesley, there has been “new energy and new programs. Attendance is up. Part of it is partnering with other [community] groups in music and drama, plus making connections on environmental or homeless issues.”
There are many factors in growth and energy in a theologically-liberal church, Ewart said. “There can be impact in the environmental area, interfaith relationships, interaction with modern science — all relating to how we see God in the present world. And we have to see ourselves as cultural organizations, and have plans for revenue development, as well.”
Not that evangelical churches suffer when liberal churches grow, Ewart cautioned.
Across the street from St. Andrew’s-Wesley is First Baptist, which has maintained vigorous growth for several decades. And Coastal Church on Georgia Street, housed in a heritage former Christian Science edifice at the foot of a new 62-storey tower, is also a strong growth example.
“And it is not just luck. Coastal Church is a classic model of a contemporary church, in its staffing, outreach, and quality contemporary music,” noted Ewart.
One axiom shown by the statistics, he suggested, is that larger churches tend to grow and smaller congregations shrink. It has to do with critical mass, resources and people there to welcome others who come.
Does that mean mergers of smaller churches to form larger ones will help reverse the trends?
Not alone, he answered. “When congregations merge, not everyone who went to one of the closed churches will transfer to the merged one. But often, the new critical mass, itself, helps to create a synergy.”