Looming surge in vacant United Church buildings

As congregations disband at a rate of one a week, an award-winning magazine's poll reveals dramatic changes ahead for Canada’s largest Protestant denomination and the communities it serves.

September 11, 2013 | Web First
Staff reports | United Observer

The United Church Observer, an award-winning independent monthly magazine published for the country’s largest Protestant denomination, is revealing the results of “Imagine: Your Church in 2025.” The national survey asked readers to envision what and where their church will be when The United Church of Canada celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2025.

The survey results confirm that many respondents are coming to grips with declining membership. Although just over half say their congregation’s membership is currently staying the same in size (37%) or increasing (16%), close to half (46%) say it’s shrinking. Looking to the future, one in three respondents think it’s unlikely that their congregations will be using their current building in 2025.

“With United Church of Canada statistics showing that congregations are disbanding at a rate of one a week — and our own survey indicating that members predict a future of continuing decline — the findings add up to a lot of potentially empty churches,” says Observer editor David Wilson. “It’s not just a problem for churches; it’s also a looming crisis for municipalities. How should lawmakers and we as Canadians deal with hundreds of surplus buildings on often-valuable land?”

However, as many parishioners prepare to leave their buildings behind, the spirit and resolve to maintain the denomination remains.

“Our survey findings show considerable pride in the denomination and hope for its future,” says Jane Armstrong, of Jane Armstrong Research Associates, the firm that conducted the survey. “The United Church will remain, but our research suggests that by 2025 there could be some significant shifts to new and different ways of ‘being church.’ And respondents seem ready for these changes.”

When it comes to changing demographics, the majority of respondents (58%) say people in their family who are currently under the age of 30 are unlikely to be part of a United Church congregation in 2025. The survey also indicates that while a majority of respondents are opposed to worshippers using mobile devices during services, the opposite is true among younger respondents.

“Blogging and tweeting during church services isn’t a welcome idea for older respondents,” says Wilson. “With the prevalence of mobile technology skyrocketing and congregations aging, our survey suggests United Church leaders will have to do some soul-searching about the role of technology in years to come.”

“Imagine: Your Church in 2025” is the latest in a series of annual surveys conducted by The United Church Observer. An in-depth analysis of the survey appears in this month’s edition. The complete survey results are available on The United Church Observer’s website (www.ucobserver.org). The survey results are based on a hard-copy and online self-administered poll, conducted among a sample of 1,107 Observer readers during April 2013.

Jane Armstrong Research Associates is a full-service research consultancy that conducts survey research for clients in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

With roots dating back to 1829, The United Church Observer is an independently incorporated magazine that is affiliated with The United Church of Canada but is not an official voice of the denomination. In 2012, the Observer won 35 awards in North American church press competitions, including the Canadian Church Press first-place award for general excellence in the magazine category.

--Sept. 10, 2013

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