Church Attendance in Decline

By Kenneth Bagnell


Over the past few years, I’ve spent profitable time reading theological books, each one, dealing with the decline of membership in their denomination: Methodist, Congregational. Lutheran and so on. One sample reveals the year after year descent. In 1925, the United Church of Canada was formed and its membership was 609,729. For the next 40 years, the United Church grew and grew until the membership struck its highest in 1965 at one million, sixty two thousand and six: 1,062,006. The following year it fell to 1,060,335 and from that point on it was, sorry to say, down and down to 2016, which was 413,717. You can imagine how   that descent simply leads to further descent.


                 One of Canada’s national papers, described the decline as “a breathtaking erosion in its membership”.  The paper, The National Post, did its best to treat the declining church with reasonable respect, but it had to record the Niagara of membership erosion. This is not a decline only to The United Church. Far from it. I might as well advise all readers that, in 2001, a British scholarly historian, Callum Brown, wrote a book on the decline of Christianity, entitling it with a most forboding expression: “The Death of Christian Britain.” In the book, he draws upon statistics, which document the decline and, in his view, the ultimate result is expressed in that dark and dreary title. One example of many is the fact that the City Temple — where I interviewed the renowned preacher Leslie Weatherhead — is no longer a sanctuary for worship. It’s over. 


       As for Canada’s Protestant churches, very few are as they used to be in terms of attendance. A UC minister, Rev. David Ewart, had the skill and conviction, to spend many years, studying, analyzing and reporting on the United Church as a worthy institution. I believe he has retired but it was clear that he was an insightful man whose analysis was mature and worthwhile taking seriously. In the early days of his analysis he was gifted with insight and candid with courage. He applied “projection analysis” to determine where coast to coast denominational statistics would take us in the trends of the decades leading to 2025. (That year, of course, would be the end of a century as the United Church was born in 1925.)


   All of this must have been an onerous task for Ewart but his analysis  is not just accurate but insightful; he says this: “Rates of participation by Canadians in the UCC – as shown by membership, weddings and funerals – have all shown steady decline since at least the mid1960s….” (His chart which revealed United Church membership as a percentage of Canada’s population from 1925 to 2018, for example, showed steady decline from about 6.25 percent to about 1.5 percent. “If the trend of the past 15 years continues, church membership will be less than one percent of the nation’s population….” As I say, he has the sharp insight to determine our institutional future.


    The UCC is not without analysts such as Ewart but also a man named Keith Howard. Mr. Howard studied in the Canadian west and at San Francisco Theological Seminary. He is very active in congregations and conferences He was appointed executive director of the project called, Emerging Spirit, which expresses its vision and purpose. Its title is engaging for us all: “The Future of the Church is becoming clear…” His analysis begins with “larger centers,” so the UCC may have one large congregation. Such will be the only congregation with a multiple fully employed ministerial staff. The membership will hover around 1,000. A number of smaller congregations will still continue.


      There are, as you reason, other forms of “ministries.” Some may be formed or based on a model that confirms to the community’s need or preference. In addition there will be a smaller number of creative new ministries and pastorates. Then there are the contemporary methodical efforts that require more detailed on-line description. In the document I read and reread, is this paragraph: “Writing down things, you have the illusion of control – in this 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 and is prepared to adjust rather than just talk…”


        Then, we carry the “remnants of Christendom”. As the leader puts it: “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.” There is much more to all of this.


        Obviously, I suspect it will require a measure of training and familiarity. But it must be said that effort and exploration have been put together to develop the method we have just gone through. Dr. Howard, after all, has been through many roles, and has been a congregational minister for a quarter of a century. He has given instruction that I include here the insight, the purpose, the methodology, we have just gone through, and it is partly his own vision, rather than the vision of the well versed national bureaucracy.


          So be it. We face the future and try our best to figure what it’s all about and how we deal with it. My own view is that we enter the future with the faith we have had for many years. In my view we must nurture it and never alter it. As the late Helen Keller put it in the 1950s: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence…”