United Church in decline
'Easygoing' church marks anniversary with falling membership
The Hamilton Spectator
13 August 2005
The Hamilton Spectator
Copyright (c) 2005 The
The United Church of Canada is marking its 80th birthday this summer.
This year's anniversary is significant, but for unhappy reasons. When the Methodist, Congregationalist, and two-thirds of the Presbyterian churches in
While it still remains the largest single Protestant denomination in
In many ways the decline of the
For example, the
In the 1930s it began ordaining women ministers. In the early 1980s the
In the 1990s leaders in the
In was in the 1990s that books like those of liberal theologian John Spong and the works of the Jesus Seminar -- a group of academics dedicated to demystifying Jesus -- started getting a lot of publicity and some Canadians began expressing doubts about the validity of the Christian religion. They saw Christianity's supernatural assertions -- such as the divinity of Jesus and his bodily resurrection -- and its claim to be the one true way of salvation as problematic: one conflicted with science and the other with the postmodern ideals of relativism and pluralism.
In a public declaration that received a great deal of media attention the head of the
He said that one did not need to believe in Jesus to final salvation; Jesus was not the only way to God. Regarding Jesus' resurrection from the dead he said in terms of "the scientific fact" it was not believable. And with regard to Jesus' divinity, Phipps concluded that Jesus was not God.
Phipps comments raised some controversy amongst conservative Christians--some were rank-and-file members of his own church. However, the majority of his denomination's clerical leaders gave him their full support.
This decade the
We know from the world of business and economics that a product will be successful if it meets the needs of consumers. Why isn't the new and improved
Some conservative Christians have suggested the denomination's dramatic decline is attributable to supernatural causes. They say that
That could be. But I've found that trying to pin down God's opinion is always a dicey prospect.
Fortunately, recent scholarship in the field of sociology provides a more accessible path to explore the issue. In particular, the studies and theories of American sociologist Rodney Stark offer fairly clear reasons why a religious behemoth like the
After decades of studying religious groups in the
He explains that on the whole people join and stay with a faith group only if they are convinced that that faith group alone offers the solution to their spiritual needs. Joining the group may come at a high cost. Members might be asked to abandon elements of their lifestyle that they really enjoy or be required to believe doctrines that can't be verified empirically. But in their minds they're getting a bargain because terrific rewards--like a transformed life in the present or the promise of eternal life in the future--accompany faithful adherence.
Stark says when a faith group like the
Stark says religious bodies that are more demanding and exclusive are also at an advantage because they tend to screen out members whose participation and commitment would be low. They are left with motivated individuals who are willing to show up to church regularly, give their time and money to the denomination, and actively recruit new members.
The commitment of members of hardline faith groups is further strengthened by a feeling of not belonging to the rest of society. Because their values and norms are at odds with the population at large, members of the faith group become more active in their church environment where they feel welcomed and "at home."
If Stark is correct, by closely aligning itself with the societal trends and dominant culture, the
It seems the old saying that "we're more likely to prize something we have to work for" also rings true for religion. I guess in some ways Groucho Marx's comment that "he wouldn't want to join a club that would be willing to have him as a member" fits too.
This isn't meant to be a judgment of whether the theological position of the
If membership trends in the
The future looks grim for the denomination but its members could always pray for a miracle. I know miracles aren't in keeping with "scientific fact" but in light of the situation, church leaders might be in a mood to reconsider their position on such things.
David Haskell is assistant professor of journalism at the Brantford Campus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His research interest is religion and media.
Photo: SPECIAL TO THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR / The inaugural service of the United Church of Canada was held June 10, 1925 at