What does it mean to “be church” in the 21st century?
It’s a question that will be addressed during the Thanksgiving Day visit to Oak Bay United Church by the Right Reverend Gary Paterson. The newly elected Moderator of The United Church of Canada; the timing of the question couldn’t be more appropriate.
Paterson and the entire United Church is being challenged by a sometimes fractious membership, a rise in fundamentalist dogma across North America, and an erosion in United Church membership that is nothing less than precipitous. At slightly less than a half-million members nationwide, United Church membership is about half of what it was 40 years ago, and those numbers continue to decline.
That decline has been linked, by some, to the church’s strategy of blurring the lines between religion and social conscience. The United Church has led the way in taking positions on a plethora of social issues, including the ordination of women and homosexuals, the environment, homelessness, the treatment of prisoners, First Nations rights, and even the boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements. The election of Paterson as Moderator is, in itself, a statement of the socially progressive nature of the church. He is the first openly gay man to serve in that position.
Paterson feels that the church has to reach out to the growing cohort of Canadians who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”
He believes that the church is following the word of God, and that it’s time that people rediscover “what ‘being church’ really means.”
“What are the practices that sustain and shape our faith?” asked Paterson. “How can the church model a different kind of community so that people want to be a part of that?”
It’s a question that David Ewart, a retired United Church minister addresses regularly in his blogs. Ewart stops short of blaming the social activism of the United Church for the decline in membership and acknowledges that it is a problem faced by virtually every mainstream Christian church in the 21st century. He maintains that the United Church’s current course will see a further halving of membership by 2025.
Paterson recognizes the challenge but insists that the church is on the right track.
“In the book of Michah, we’re asked the same question: ‘What does the Lord require of you?’ The answer is to do justly, love mercifully, and walk humbly with God. We’re trying to live up to that challenge,” he said.
He said that churches have a responsibility to address social issues and to put them within the context of Christian faith. In the absence of that approach, he said, the church will ultimately lose its relevance. “Jesus spoke out about social issues,” said Paterson. “He invited tax collectors and others who had been shunned to share his table. He drove money lenders from the temple. What is that if not social activism?”
Paterson is confident that people will find relevance in the United Church’s socially conscious approach to faith. “But it’s not about us getting them back,” said Paterson. “It’s about going to where they are, physically and philosophically, and engaging them.”
The Reverend Keith Howard, one of the ministry team at Oak Bay United Church, says that Paterson’s approach matches the approach of the Oak Bay congregation. “There’s no magic answer,” said Howard. “We are a congregation that is trying to make the switch to being relevant to the young families who left the church.” Howard said that his congregation is trying to make connections through a flexible schedules and innovative ideas for services and by ensuring that newcomers, especially those with children, are made to feel comfortable and included in the congregation.
“A survey … I think it was in 2010, showed that people between 30 and 45 felt that traditional churches were judgemental, arrogant, and unwilling to listen. We don’t want to be any of those things,” said Howard.
Whether the course of the United Church will ultimately right the ship or whether it will prove to be the undoing of the United Church of Canada is yet to be seen, but Paterson is confident that the church is on the right track.
“Traditional methods are not working,” said Paterson. “We have to demonstrate that the centre of ‘being church’ flows from the sense of being filled with the Spirit.”
It’s that sense of engagement and excitement that Paterson hopes to inspire as he delivers the service on Thanksgiving Sunday.
The service begins at 10 a.m. and will be celebratory in nature – a reflection, said Paterson of his faith in God, his belief in the work of the United Church of Canada and of his confidence in the course that church has charted into the future.
Information regarding the Oak Bay United Church can be found at oakbayunitedchurch.ca.