Staying afloat in a sea of change

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January 11, 2017 | Viewpoints | Volume 21 Issue 2
John Longhurst, Special to Canadian Mennonite

For some in Mennonite Church Canada, this might be a frightening time, as the denomination faces an uncertain future. It might be cold comfort, but you are not alone; most denominations in Canada are facing the same uncertainties today.

I know this because last year I interviewed people who do fundraising for 15 Canadian denominational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that represent 30 denominations. Everyone I spoke with agreed that this is a challenging time for denominations and the programs they support.

And what are those challenges facing denominations today?

  • An aging donor base. Many Canadian churches are greying. As churches age, the best and most loyal givers—older people—are dying. The next generation has not yet shown it can, or will, be as generous.
  • A shrinking donor base. Along with growing older, many churches are getting smaller; the pool of donors is declining. The decline is more precipitous for the mainline denominations, but others are also seeing a downturn in membership and attendance.  
  • Waning denominational loyalty. Much denominational giving today is predicated on the old idea that members will give loyally to that denomination and its programs: You are Mennonite and we are Mennonite, so you will natu-rally give to us. That is pretty much over. People today give to agencies that match their values or ignite their passions, not because they “own” them.
  • Changing attendance patterns. Twenty-five years ago, if you asked people if they went to church regularly, they would assume you meant weekly. Today, many churchgoers are what Reg Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist, coined as “monthly plus”—people who attend once, maybe twice, a month. They are still religious, but if they aren’t in church they can’t be reminded about the financial needs of the church—or put any money in the offering plate.
  • Increased competition. The number of churches and donors is declining, but the number of charities seeking money from them seems to be rising. Para-church agencies, such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and Compassion Canada, are especially aggressive—and sophisticated—in seeking donations in this shrinking market.
  • Growing secularism. The fastest growing religion in Canada today is the unaffiliated, also known as the “nones.” That figure is now at about 25 percent of the population, or 7.5 million people, up from 12 percent in 1991. While many are deeply spiritual, they have no interest in organized religion.
  • Other challenges include internal competition within a denomination itself—between the different ministries, programs and schools; changing donor expectations—more people want to give to projects, not ongoing programs; the narrowing of giving, as churches decide to keep more funds at home for local programs; and the general economic uncertainty—giving is falling in general in Canada.

The result? Less money to support longstanding programs, ministries and agencies, putting their futures in jeopardy. Some of the first to feel the effect are publications; last fall, two historic church publications, the Presbyterian Record and the Western Catholic Reporter, closed due to falling circulation and lack of funds.

Of course, the church is about more than money. But a drop in giving is a sign of something going on, something that leaders need to pay attention to. And sometimes a good old-fashioned financial crisis can be the thing that sparks new and creative ways of imagining a new future. If the old way of doing church is no longer working, what would a new way look like?

One person who wrote about this challenging time was Phyllis Tickle. In 2008, she published The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. In the book she posited that every 500 years the church has a garage sale—a time of upheaval and transition when it gets rid of things it no longer needs.

The last sale, she said, was the Great Reformation. We are due for another one today. In an interview in 2009, she told me that during these times of rearrangement and upheaval, three things usually happen:

  • First, a new, more vital form of Christianity emerges.
  • Second, the organized and dominant expression of Christianity is reconstituted into something new.
  • Finally, she said, “Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity are broken open, the faith has spread dramatically, thereby increasing the range and depth of the church’s reach.”

Are the challenges facing the church in Canada a sign of that great garage sale? Maybe. Is it terrifying? Certainly. Do we know what is next? Not yet. Will it be the same as what was before? Probably not. Is there hope? Absolutely, since God seems to be doing a new thing.

Now we just need to wait to see what that is, and when it will happen.

John Longhurst directs fundraising, communications and public engagement for Canadian Foodgrains Bank. He also puzzles aloud about the challenges facing church NGOs on his blog at makingthenewscanada.blogspot.ca/.

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