Paul MacLean is executive director of Potentials, a sort-of church think tank, based in Toronto.
I wouldn’t characterize these [urban church things] as problems. They’re challenges and I think a lot of it comes down to changing populations and demographics and changing social norms. The context for churches has not been stable for most Canadian cities; there has been enormous change in population and in changing social norms so these things creep up on you.
They’re not something the churches are particularly focused on because they look after their internal life, their worship, the people who are in their pews and their constituency. Canadian religion is pretty tribal. There’s the Presbyterian brand and the Anglican brand, etc. It’s quite different from Europe and the United States in the way religion is handled.
So, take for example the United, Presbyterian and Anglican, churches in Scarborough [eastern Toronto]. Scarborough was built in the 1960s and it was almost entirely white middle class folk and they’ve got their churches. The generation that built the churches (along with their homes) grew up there and spent 40 years or so in that church. Now more than 50 per cent of Scarborough residents are immigrants. Guess what, they aren’t all Presbyterians and they aren’t all white. So this is a dramatic example of the inner suburbs but it becomes much more obvious when you look at them because I think they’re going through the greatest challenges now.
They’ve got congregations who have aged and their children have grown up in the church but have moved away and probably aren’t going to church in the way their parents did either. Suddenly on top of that the Protestant majority is in a minority. Suddenly you have halal butchers popping up and you go to the library and nobody looks like you. At some of the churches I’ve worked with there are people afraid to go out their door because of the mass of change, and it doesn’t feel like their neighbourhood anymore. Because people are coloured and is not what they’re used to anymore. Going from a church which was at the centre of the neighbourhood, something you didn’t question it just seemed natural.
You needed to have a church for Presbyterians to come to and for Scouts and Brownies and Cubs and Guides to happen and for other neighbourhood organizations to use the space. You’d be connected and you’d have good relationships with similar churches near you. And suddenly you’ve gone from a little enclave, and you’re now in the minority and aging as a congregation and all these other things are happening as your resources are going down.
Sunday schools, which once had 80, now have six kids. Many churches have zero kids and you can see what that does to your identity. You can see being a good church as a church that is pretty full and you have lots of stuff happening during the week and programs running and lots of kids; that’s who we are and the kids are more than children, they’re a group of people the congregation cares deeply about and they embody the future. It’s a strong emotional and spiritual component to a church, along with music. Then these things are suddenly absent—I mean it’s not sudden, it slowly drifts away but people aren’t noticing it until suddenly they look around. You can begin with the idea of changing demographic but the key thing is a major challenge to the identity of the church.
It’s no good just to say to a church, ‘You’ve got to change. You’ve got to adapt to the new realities.’ Well yes, you do, but give the church a break, too. Think of that absolutely massive, bewildering blow to the identity of that congregation.
In these suburban churches in the inner ring of suburbs, you’d be surprised; for many (not all, but certainly many) no one in the congregation lives in that neighbourhood anymore. They are coming back. The people have moved out of their homes and are living five kilometres north in a condo, but they’re still coming back to that church. And these churches, which look like community churches, are actually serving a group of people who to a large extent are not living in the neighbourhood anymore.
Identity to me is number one in the health of a church. But then are things like the capacity of the church (the number of people, the income, what they’re capable of doing as a collective congregation). Then you have the resources of the church, which are not only the people but the building and whether they have endowments, etc. Those are things you would look at to assess the church and its ability to take next steps, make changes, reconnect with the neighbourhood.
Some churches have got that capacity to do that. They may have had a history of being a go-to sort of church and are always wanting to change in order to connect with the neighbourhood. Even though their numbers are diminishing, they still want to live out this identity that they’ve got as an active group of people who are not only worshipping together but are trying to do good in the community.
Some churches do not have that capacity. Looking back at some of my earlier examples in Scarborough, the shellshock is just too much. They may wish to revitalize their church and connect with the neighbourhood but they really don’t have the wherewithal to do it. Say your congregation is mainly people in their 70s or 80s; they’re simply not going to have the energy or connections or all the social capital to actually move forward very much even though there may be the desire there.
I think urban outreach is one way forward. I would say first of all, the church needs to be clear about who it is and why it’s there. Having a strong worship life is essential; it’s the main reason for most churches’ existence, and a strong worship life would include paying attention to all age groups and having good programs for kids (even if you’ve only got a few kids) and a good community life. Do good worship, love kids, and be an open and inclusive community even if you’re only seeing a few new people in a year.
Then the second thing is definitely urban ministry and outreach. Most churches need this but also they need to be seen to be doing this: making a difference, doing something that is responding to human need. And in their neighbourhood is probably the best. Partnerships are not completely easy; over half of them fail. But it’s definitely the way to go because it brings you into a relationship with equality, and you have to explore with others what’s needed from a partnership and project. You have to pay attention to the relationships, spending a lot of time sitting around a table and getting to know each other. More so than if we just got together from one church. Partnerships are very rewarding, but also something you really have to work at for them to become beneficial.
The Salvation Army is very good at partnering with the community, because a very strong emphasis for them is in their social programming. They have experience and work well in partnership with other organizations.
I don’t know the answer to what unique contribution the church can make. And the reason I don’t know the answer is that I’ve interviewed people asking that question, both those who are in the church and those who are not and have enough religious affiliation. I’ve had religious leaders, who have been involved in these partnerships, who have been astounded at the “faith” of the people that they are working with who have no affiliation with religion. That is, they’ve come to appreciate their dedication and commitment and all the things they thought might have been unique to a Christian; and they realize they’re not unique to Christians.
Then you interview people who don’t have any religious affiliation and they talk in glowing terms about how great it is to have worked with a person of faith. They may have come in with suspicions—is this about promoting a religious brand? But they come to discover that’s not the case, and people say that their lives were changed by the selfless commitment of the church people. It gave them a recommitment themselves.
I’ve been looking at a food bank that’s run by 13 churches, three mosques and a Buddhist relief organization who’ve joined together. Here you have three religions all working together. And then there are plenty of secular organizations that are also helping and they’ve all joined together to work towards this common cause.
I’ve been amazed by the number of social services in the 1920s and ‘30s which were started by downtown churches. You get a charismatic minister and he goes about persuading rich business people from his congregation that something needs to be done. The reason its important now is the question of resources. It’s very expensive running a congregation the way we do it in the historic Protestant denominations—staff costs are enormous, upkeep of aging buildings—it’s a very expensive proposition. Often new people coming into these churches aren’t coming in with the same levels of giving or the same ideas of giving as in previous generations. So just maintaining the operation of a congregation requires considerable engagement from people who have the resources to put in. One of the reasons the church has to have a clear sense of purpose and vision and looking forward is because you’re not going to engage rich people with ‘well, we’ve got to keep this place going. We’re not sure too why we’re here but we’ve got to be here and we’d like you to give at the level of $20,000 a year.’ That might have worked back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when people had a sense of obligation towards their denomination, but that will not work today.
I see congregations that are vibrant and engaging people are ones with vision and purpose. And that is connected to the people. It’s not just a small group of leaders who’ve got it; all the people feel involved in it. It plays out in many ways. We’ve talked about social ministry but there are many other aspects of ministry where people feel like this place is important, it’s got a sense of purpose and I’m getting something out of it in my life.
I see a lot of inward looking in church. To me that’s just natural. A sociologist would use the term ‘social capital’ to talk about this stuff. A sociologist would say there are two types of social capital: there is closed social capital and bridging social capital.
Closed social capital is where you have an organization such as a club and it’s building relationships within its own group. That’s something good within itself because it’s helpful to those people in the group. It may help people get jobs, for example, with networking. Or if they’re in emotional distress, they have a congregation they can turn to. This is a major resource to a community in and of itself; it helps maintain human relationships and encourages human flourishing, at least for those people that are in. However the downside is that if we stop there we are creating silos or ghettos. So sociologists talk about the need for bridging capital where you create relationships between organizations and between people who are not those closest to us.
Often it is the minister or other church leaders who, if they are community minded, are out there connecting with other people, with politicians and social service agencies. If people are stuck in that closed capital system they are not going to see the opportunities and see the larger picture. They’re not going to ask the question, ‘what difference can my church make to the larger community in which it is placed’ and ‘does this matter or is it just a building I come to see my friends and worship in.’
You know we’re coming from many, many parts of the city. I try to be fair and not induce guilt on this subject because you can see they’re natural human tendencies. But having said that, the health of a church requires strong closed systems also bridging out beyond themselves asking ,‘why am I here, what particular difference am I making to my neighbourhood, what are the connections we’re fostering?’ Because all of those things will ultimately be beneficial.
I think of one church I worked with. It was doing a vision planning exercise. The church was old, it had an aging congregation, but it had a heart for social justice. As part of their vision, one thing they really wanted to have was engagement with their community, and to make a difference in it, and meet people’s needs. The aim was not to get people in their church, but they were doing it because they knew it needed to be done—putting their faith into action. Well, they didn’t come up with anything. They had a vision they wanted to do, but when it came down to practicalities there wasn’t really anything that was grabbing them. So they were left with this desire and a vision but they weren’t able to immediately start implementing.
A local food bank closed down. They came to the church because the congregation had a reputation in the community for being community minded and they had a great location. They were asked if they’d open a food bank, so their social justice committee looked at the proposal. They got out there, spoke to other churches and groups in the community and very quickly realized we cannot do this on our own. So they formed a coalition of these 13 churches. Here was something that didn’t come out of the vision planning exercise but was a response from a request from outside that came out the blue. They now have a very impressive operation. They have a food bank, they’re feeding 400 people a week and they have other ancillary legal and health services. They’re serving mostly Muslims and are operating something with a strong sense of community and people caring deeply about their community. There is a question about asking people to pray before they eat. Some of the requests for prayer came from Muslim users.
The church opens its space up for Eid celebrations. Some of the Muslim users of the food bank are now volunteering at the church during church functions because they want to be able to give back. These volunteers are not members of the church but they want to help out at the church. This is on a very large scale as well. It’s one of the larger food banks in the city. Going back, one of the interesting things is how it started: no plans. It was like they tilled the ground but had no seeds to plant and out of the blue a year or so later this request comes and it leads to a deeper sense of community.
The urban context is one with enormous variation and the church has got to be connected to all the variations. It will have a lot of limitations in terms of what it can and can’t do. That changes a lot of what ‘church’ means.
Churches have different visions and one church might see itself as a sanctuary. For us that may seem negative. But sometimes if you are a gay, lesbian, or transgender youth and you’re getting bullied at school, you need a sanctuary. You want a place where you can go to school and not get bullied and be taught by people who understand. A place where your sexuality is not an area of ridicule. The one place in North America where this happens is in Toronto and it’s in a church and its a partnership between a church and the Toronto District School Board. It’s the only school that is not on TDSB property, Metropolitan Community Church. The church provides a big chunk of its space free of charge for this program; they’re providing a sanctuary. That church happens to be very engaged in society, doing refugee sponsorship, etc. Things which are ‘out there.’ But because of their ministry with gay people they were a natural fit for a request that came from school trustees.
It’s not something that springs to mind when you think of an engaged church, but the teachers consider this a sanctuary and say we need it. I would go back to the need for a church to be dynamically engaged and always working at who it is and why its there and what the spirit of God is doing within it. What is it being called to, what is its purpose and vision?
Worship has to be vibrant and engaging, then seen to be making a difference both for folks in church and outside. For the most part, we’re in a position of weakness by comparison to 50 years ago. This forces us to really think about what we’re bringing to the table. Acknowledge that there are people around the table who won’t share our beliefs, who won’t know what church is about, who might belong to another religion and we don’t feel like we have an affinity with. Its that sort of engagement that has got to be part of the urban church.
There’s a church program called What Makes a Good City. It looks at the place of the church in contributing to a good city and its something I would personally espouse. We should be thinking beyond our congregational boundaries. And the difference we make to a flourishing urban environment definitely includes a spiritual dimension. You have an urban setting where people are caring about each other, but in order to do that it’s not like it used to be. We can’t just send our well-known ministers down to city hall to twist the arm of the mayor. It’s one where we just have to be a participant in the urban conversations, whether its at a local level or another one.