Declining church membership is an issue

Published March 1, 2006

In light of the continuing interest in my presentation on declining church membership to the house of bishops last October, and the controversy it is generating, I think some clarification is in order.

I have been criticized for not releasing my “report.” There was no report. My presentation consisted of a series of PowerPoint slides, eight of which were statistical, showing membership declines in six Protestant churches. The remainder of the slides were “bullet points” to which I spoke extemporaneously, and they would make little sense to others who might see the slides.

I did not release my slides fearing that various people would use my work to support their own political views, which came about anyway from the unexpected widespread coverage in the mainstream media.

Critics of Anglican policies have used the issue of declining attendance to blame it on positions taken on same-sex issues, on the ordination of women, or policies they don’t like. These critics fail to recognize (or ignore) that the decline in church attendance in Canada began to occur at least a decade before any of these issues arose.

My presentation provided an analysis of the annual loss in congregations and money to the Anglican Church, obstacles that I could see in turning the trends around, suggested methods of overcoming those obstacles, the selection of someone to lead the effort, and how that person might work.

The impetus for my research was driven by two factors. The first was the agenda of the communications and information resources committee, which, as a member, I had seen in two separate four-day meetings. During those meetings there was not a word about the serious problems facing my church. Discussion focused on housekeeping issues that had nothing to do with the elephant in the room: the decline in church membership.

The second factor was more forceful. Several priests, one of them on the committee, when I asked what they thought should be done about the decline, denied that there was any problem in the church. One of them directed me to read Reginald Bibby’s book, Restless Churches.

So I read the book. He concluded that since two million Canadians still claim to be Anglicans, but only about 640,000 are on parish rolls, the church has a huge audience that could be won back. My long background in marketing makes me skeptical of that idea. People who reject a “brand” are far more difficult to win back than people who have never used the product.

As part of my presentation to the house of bishops I undertook a survey of 100 Anglican priests across Canada; 43 responded. I wanted to find out how many felt that there were no major problems facing the church. Almost half of them believe that the Anglican church is ignoring the issue of decline, and are crying out for a lot more to be done. About 20 per cent held the view that everything is OK. The remainder sat on the fence.

The bishops did have a long, animated discussion about my presentation. That discussion almost didn’t take place. One bishop rose after the lunch break when the regular agenda was about to resume, and asked why it wasn’t more important to discuss the presentation. A special evening session was suggested in the belief that a handful of bishops would attend and the discussion might last up to half an hour. All of the bishops turned up and an animated discussion ensued for over two hours.

Since the presentation, there has been no response from the church hierarchy. I can understand why. All bishops and the primate are busy trying to respond to overfilled schedules, and having to work with shrinking resources. The most probable reason, however, is that everyone is waiting for someone else to claim leadership on the issue, for each potential leader sees his or her personal agenda as already too crowded.

It was absolutely appropriate that the primate and others devoted huge energy in the recent past to issues like the residential schools settlement. Legal fees alone threatened to bankrupt the church, and did bankrupt one diocese. Now that that crisis is largely past, perhaps now might be a good time to move on.

Before anyone at church house opines that “the national office” hopes that the declining membership issue will go away, it might check with others before making that conclusion. I would be very surprised if the primate shares that view. From the enthusiastic response of the house of bishops to the presentation, I would guess that very few of them would hope that the issue dies.

If The Framework, and Letting Down the Nets, the stewardship and gift planning initiative, is going to be the church’s total response to its decline in membership, I would be inclined to bring forward my somewhat tongue-in-cheek estimate of the date by which the church will have to close its doors by a couple of decades. We must keep in mind that almost half of the Anglican clergy does not seem to regard those worthwhile programs as a substantive answer to the question of declining membership, else they would not have responded as they did in my survey.

I will continue refusing to believe that nothing can be done to turn membership in our church around until there has been a robust agenda addressed solely to the issue. I also refuse to believe that the church’s fortunes will turn around on their own, “because they always have,” which seems to be a view of many. Keith McKerracher is a marketing expert and a member of the Anglican Church of Canada’s communications and information resources committee


Keep on reading

Skip to content