The story behind the story of church membership

Published February 1, 2006

We would like to offer some clarification for our fellow scribes, many of whom picked up on a December Anglican Journal story that detailed a presentation at last fall’s meeting of the house of bishops about declining church membership. Starting with one national daily newspaper which, to its credit, did ask for background on the presentation, the story took on a life of its own. Wire services picked up the story and it quickly spread around the globe, many of the stories repeating the sensational assertion of presenter Keith McKerracher that given current declining membership trends in Canada, “the last Anglican will leave the church in 2061.” Mr. McKerracher’s research, gleaned from the Canadian census, the Anglican Church Directory and from mainline denominations that he contacted, took the form of a PowerPoint presentation to the bishops. Nothing more, nothing less. The few journalists who called the church’s national office to request a copy of the “report” were told, quite correctly, there was no such document. Ironically, Mr. McKerracher declined to provide copies of the presentation to the bishops, the Journal or other media for fear that others might put their own “spin” or their own interpretation on the data. That is precisely what happened. Indeed, as the story spread, it was variously described as a “study,” and a “report” (at least one writer – an academic and commentator for the same aforementioned Canadian daily who wrote about it nearly three months after the bishops’ meeting – lent even more weight to the presentation by calling it the McKerracher Report, the capitalization of the two words making it look even more official). The bishops who heard the original presentation must certainly have been wondering if the media were referring to the same information they had heard. That image of the last, solitary Anglican was certainly a sad, romantic and attractive one for the media. One conservative Web pundit asserted that the Anglican Church of Canada was so desperate that it had “called in a ‘marketing agency’ to figure out why they are losing members.” Another well-known writer and former priest used the data as a launch pad for his own views on the church, when asked for comment by a wire service. The church’s national office, hoping the story would die a natural death, did not issue a clarification about the nature of the presentation until this month’s letters (see the response by Vianney Carriere to the letter entitled Where is leadership). Officials probably surmised that it would appear reactionary to do so and did not wish to appear to be attacking the messenger who brought the bad news. None of this is meant as an apologia for the church and its declining membership. The church in many quarters has indeed been slow off the mark to respond to emptying pews. Part of the problem is that the solution is neither obvious nor simple. While some would argue that membership decline is directly attributable to the church’s departure from “traditional” Christian teaching, just as many are certain that it is because the church has not kept up with the times that it has become irrelevant to younger generations. One group says the answer is for the church to return to its biblical roots, while another says that a church that does not keep current (in its worship, in its teaching) will sink in quicksand. Are the data that were presented to the bishops reliable? Without a doubt. Then, what about the conclusions? Those are best left to the experts, and Mr. McKerracher never claimed that church growth was his field of expertise. Certainly, there are researchers who have considerable experience in tracking church growth. Reginald Bibby, one of this nation’s better-known commentators on religion, wrote in Restless Churches, his 2004 book that was subtitled How Canada’s Churches Can Contribute to the Emerging Religious Renaissance, that the mainline churches – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, United, Lutheran – “have long histories and recuperative powers.” The sociologist from the University of Lethbridge recommended that churches be more deliberate about reaching out to both former members and those people who identify themselves as “Anglican” but who do not attend services. All churches – and that includes clergy and congregations – would do well to think about what they can offer to those who are not in their pews on Sunday morning. This church holds many ideas for evangelism and church growth and crying poor is no excuse; one diocese last year called on all Anglicans to invite a friend to church on one particular Sunday. Ideas like that do not cost a dime. Other dioceses, faced with declining mission funds from the national office, are examining and testing different models of local ministry and non-stipendiary ministries and not focusing their energy on trying to pay clergy salaries. The church is made up of people, not buildings, not robes and wooden pews. The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (celebrated last month in many parts of the world) was “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” (Matthew 18:20). It is a healthy reminder of what church really is, and what it can be at its core.


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