Can theologically liberal churches succeed? Charleswood in Winnipeg and Hillhurst in Calgary say yes.
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 implication of the research seemed to be that if a church wants to grow, it should be more conservative.
But a United Church in Winnipeg disagrees.
I’m talking about Charleswood United Church, a theologically progressive congregation that finds 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 that people from other denominations 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, for example, Charleswood’s worship style. It is still liturgical, he says, but it is also “adaptable and flexible”—the church has a traditional choir, but it also has a worship band.
Leadership plays a big role, says Wilson, who has been at Charleswood for 22 years.
“Leaders need to create a culture of permission,” he says. “We have to not get in the way when people feel called to do something new and different.”
This doesn’t mean that anything goes, he says, “but if it feels right, and people are enthusiastic, let them go to it.”
This can be scary for some churches, he notes, since it means giving up control. But thriving churches, he believes, don’t have “a small group determining how things are done,” but rather are “dynamic, organic, fluid.”
The key, he says, is to be always asking the question: “What is God calling our congregation to do?”
This can also mean going against the way things have always been done, either as a church or denomination.
“There has traditionally been a United Church way of doing things, having to operate in a certain way,” he says. “But revitalized churches are doing it their own way.”
Even though Charleswood is liberal and progressive, Wilson says that he is “surprisingly orthodox. I’m Trinitarian, and I believe in the authority of scripture. I’m progressive in interpretation.”
Ultimately, he says, “it’s not about being liberal or conservative, but paying attention to people and their needs, honouring people where they are at, affirming them, creating a safe place, being welcoming.”
“The common denominator is that people who come here, like coming here.”
One of the places Wilson draws inspiration from for his ministry is Hillhurst United Church in Calgary.
Unlike Charleswood, which had been mostly stable over the course of its history before increasing, Hillhurst “died and was born again,” says its minister, John Pentland.
When he arrived, in 2005, the congregation was down to about 50 people, and talking about closing.
Today about 500 people attend two services each Sunday, he says, noting that a third of the congregation are United Church, a third are from other denominations, and a third claim no church background at all.
To what does he attribute the turnaround?
It takes time, he says, and “leadership that casts a vision” and isn’t “afraid to let some things die.”
Pentland believes many people are looking for what liberal and progressive churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst offer.
“The culture is starved for what we are doing,” he says. “People are trying yoga, meditation—they want something spiritual. But the church isn’t providing it.”
That, he says, is why many aren’t growing. “They aren’t paying attention to the culture.”
For 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.
For more on this topic, see my blog post What Role Does Theology Play in Church Growth or Decline? Maybe Not as Much as Thought.