American author and social critic James Howard Kunstler coined the phrase “long emergency” to describe the effect of decades of small changes. For example, if our congregation were to lose half its members in 10 year, that would be an emergency. But if it were to half its membership over two decades, losing maybe two or three per year, we would adjust and carry on. But, says Kunstler, it’s still an emergency – a long emergency.
Here’s how it looks on a national scale. In 1977, when the United Church began recording average weekly attendance, 378,000 people went to church. That number peaked at 404,000 in 1984. Since then, attendance has gradually declined by 2.5 percent each year, so that in 2011 the number was 167,000. And if the rate of decline for only the past 10 years does not change, attendance will drop to 25,000 by 2025.
Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that If you don’t ask the right questions, you end up trying to solve the wrong problems. And every congregation I had involved always asks me: What can we do to get more young families to come to church?
I have shelves full of books and have attended a lot of conferences and workshops to get answer for that question. All of these books, workshops, and conferences have focused on the church in splendid isolation. They all had great ideas.
However, what I didn’t notice was that none of these ever seriously discussed the reality that congregations do not exist in isolation. Congregations function within a larger society with its own culture and values. And its own competing salvation stories.
Now no congregation can survive from one generation to the next by having babies. It just can’t have babies fast enough to regenerate itself that way. Congregations must depend on society having babies who will go to church.
Nowadays from the babyhood they learn how to enjoy themselves with computer. The baby is hard-wiring her brain to expect that space does not end with the four walls of her room. To expect that time is not just, “Now,” but “All the time,” “Any time.” Is this the baby who will regenerate our congregations?
But here’s the catch. What if the society is producing babies who don’t go to church like they used to? Because if that is true, then this is a problem that no congregation can fix.
Here is the really bad news: It’s not your fault. The decline in worship attendance is not because you need a better minister, cheerier music, more small groups or jazzier youth programs. It’s not because you need read one more church-improvement book or to attend one more workshop. It’s not because the United Church is too liberal or too political.
The simple fact is that Canadians are not going to church like they used to. In fact, Canadians aren’t going to synagogues, mosques, temples, or Kiwanis either. Volunteer membership organizations of all types are declining.
Attendance decline is not a problem that can be fixed. It is simply a reality to which we must respond. Congregations must plan to be fewer and smaller. The challenge is too big for individual congregations to meet on their own; we may need to merge, or some other better ways yet unknown, but surely work together in new ways.
The good news is that the United Church was founded by those who left the beloved familiar behind and embraced the desired unknown. Where that heart still beats, our hope for the future can be found.