Longhurst: Liberals who thrive
Last fall, researchers from two Ontario universities set out to discover why mainline churches in Canada are dying. Of the 22 Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches they surveyed, all in Ontario, nine were growing and 13 were declining.
Based on that research, they concluded that the more theologically conservative a church is, the more likely it is to be growing.
The takeaway for many people was that if a church wants to grow it needs to be conservative. But is this always true?
One church bucking that trend is Charleswood United Church here in Winnipeg, Man., a theologically progressive congregation that has about 350 people attending services every Sunday.
According to minister Michael Wilson, the church is doing well because it is a “friendly and welcoming place, warm and active.”
Being the only United Church in Charleswood also helps, he acknowledges, but he says people are attracted by the church’s gay-friendly, progressive and liberal stance.
For Wilson, it isn’t as much about whether a church is conservative or liberal “as much as it is a willingness to change.”
Many churches, he says, “wait too long to make needed changes. The congregation shrinks to a size where it isn’t sustainable. Changes need to be made when it is still healthy.”
He cites Charleswood’s worship style. It is liturgical but also adaptable and flexible. The church has a traditional choir and a worship band.
“Leaders need to create a culture of permission,” Wilson says. “We have to not get in the way when people feel called to do something new and different.”
This doesn’t mean anything goes, he says, “but if it feels right, and people are enthusiastic, let them go to it.”
This can be scary, since it means giving up control. But thriving churches, he believes, don’t have a small group determining how things are done. They are dynamic, organic, fluid.
The key, he says, is to be always asking: “What is God calling our congregation to do?”
Ultimately, he says, “it’s not about being liberal or conservative but paying attention to people and their needs, honoring people where they are, affirming them, creating a safe place, being welcoming.”
One of the churches Wilson draws inspiration from is Hillhurst United Church in Calgary, Alta. Like Charleswood, it is liberal, progressive and affirming.
When minister John Pentland arrived, in 2005, the congregation was down to about 50 people and talking about closing.
Today about 500 people attend two services each Sunday. A third of the congregation are United Church, a third are from other denominations, and a third claim no church background at all.
Pentland believes many people are looking for what churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst offer.
“The culture is starved for what we are doing,” he says of those looking for an open, accepting and progressive theology.
Pentland has written a book about Hillhurst’s transformation. Called Fishing Tips, it describes how the church grew by “throwing its nets on the other side of convention.”
Says Pentland: “There’s never a better time to be the church. . . . People are searching for meaning, and they want a place to belong. They want a place to question. Same old, same old doesn’t work.”
At liberal churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst, it’s a formula that seems to be working.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
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