The Future of Faith


  Considerations.   Questions.                                                                

                                The Future of Faith                     



                                 by  Kenneth Bagnell


                      It’s now at least a half century since Christians began an ever deepening worry over their church’s future. Now they worry for the basic existence of their congregations no matter the faith group. One vivid example is a window upon a US church which was born out of the Anglican tradition and is known to as Episcopalian. The title over a recent essay in a theological publication is: “Why is the Episcopal Church near collapse?” The article reveals that, among all major American churches, the Episcopalians suffer most. In membership it has dropped from 3.4 million to 2.3 million and, its leaders expect the decrease is increasing.

           In Canada, the situation is really no better. The United Church, (born in a 1925 a union of Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists) is in a steady decline from its healthy one million, one hundred thousand, to considerably under 400,000. None of this is what we want to hear but we ought to hear it. The people of Britain heard it in 2001, when a senior scholar of religion, Callum Brown recorded it in his darkly named book: “The Death of Christian Britain.” Will that be the outcome of your national church and mine?

            Several months ago, another Canadian study was made of the major Protestant denominations – United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran – that revealed as expected, an ongoing decline. The governance of each of these major groups had to ponder the problem they knew they’d had for over a decade. As for the evangelicals, who oversaw the study, they revealed positive results, so that their press release, drawn up by conservative overseers, reported:   “Without exception,” study co-author Kevin Flatt told LifeSite News, “the growing churches all had conservative theology, the declining churches all had liberal theology…” (I have no window on the design of the study and its analysis by conservative overseers. That said, I’m not certain but also I’m not shocked by the findings.  I am not at all surprised that, Dr. Flatt – a faculty member at conservative Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, – would salute the findings. As the report puts it: “Flatt and his colleagues clearly subscribe to the theory that ties conservative theology to strong efforts at evangelization and to growth.”

     Flatt is not a stranger to the United Church, having published a thoughtful, if biased, book in 2013, entitled, “After Evangelicalism, The Sixties and The United Church of Canada.” That said, it was natural for me to be surprised, if not shocked, to see in The Observer of October, 2013, a lengthy interview with Kevin Flatt about his book, written with competence but quite adversarial. However, it speaks well in terms of The Observer’s mature confidence. Flatt views the United Church, not as a church founded in 1925 as it truly was, but in the 1960s, which he explains in these words:  “The sixties is when today’s United Church was born… I want to know when the United Church acquired the characteristics it has today… Before the 1960s, it’s like a different religion inhabiting the same organization….”

       I expect that Flatt’s interest in the United Church is honorable, if quite partisan, thereby presenting the UCC with a justifiable critique of its theology and its social perceptions, which in the 1960’s, were strongly spoken – often by the Board of  Evangelism and its senior clergymen, the late James Mutchmor and my friend, the late Raymond Hord.  They were intelligent and ethical men of their time, leaning leftward but only “center-left.” Dr. Flatt was asked in the taped interview, if between the 1925 formation of the United Church and the changes by 1960, the leaders took the direction of a liberal theology.  Then, says Dr. Flatt, more change came.

         As we know it came everywhere, throughout both Europe and North America. There was a significant influence, which, depending on your perspective, brought the big change. “A number of things happened,” said Dr. Flatt.  “The denomination had been planning a new Sunday School resource, known simply as the New Curriculum. It had the aim of actually bringing liberal theology to the pews. It was the first time the United Church had done this, and leaders were taken aback at the backlash from people who didn’t know that their ministers didn’t believe in the virgin birth or physical resurrection. There was also new leadership at the Board of Evangelism and Social Service – a man named J. R. Hord. He dropped the traditional evangelism that the board had acted from and concentrated on social and political issues. Along with that, the United Church became distant from mass evangelists. Finally, there was, throughout Christianity, the emergence of radical theologies – the death of God movement and so on. This provoked public comments, usually very positive, from United Church leaders, which again shocked many lay people.”

       This point of view is evident and plausible but we can’t leave it at that. Why? Because what happened in Canada’s major Protestant churches is happening to most of the world. We’ve already mentioned the grim title of the British decline. As for the USA, its church problems, sorry to say, are no different. A recent study, called The Gospel Coalition, gave the statistical decline of many historic American denominations: Disciples of Christ, Reformed Church in America, Congregationalist, Episcopalian (down 49 percent), Presbyterian Church, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptist.  

     We all wish it wasn’t so. A few weeks ago, I received by mail what you might call a hopeful book on a painful problem. It has a title that may not make you comfortable but one never knows.  It’s “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive.”  It’s by Thom S. Rainer, whose qualifications may engage your interest: Ph.D from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pastor of many congregations, now author of over twenty books on church life and church problems. It’s quite hopeful, costs around ten dollars and is reachable at .  The challenge Christians face, came to mind the other day when I noted a sentence in an old faded magazine. Helen Keller said it: “Nothing can be done without hope…”

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