by Joyce Madsen

The Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are 100 years old this year, and the United Church is 80. What do you suppose it was like here 100 years ago? Some of us recall stories our grandparents told us. There are many good books, some fiction, some non-fiction, that paint a picture of life in the early 1900s. One thing is absolutely apparent, life has changed dramatically.

Neither Clair nor I go back that far (we want that to be clear), but there is no question that life in the church in Alberta has changed just as dramatically. Clair and I lived our childhood in a time when going to church was the norm for most families. If you have a few grey hairs you no doubt remember what it meant to get all dressed up for Church on Sunday. You went to Sunday School, then to church, and if your family was a bit religious, you also went to church on Sunday evening. Children were to be seen, and definitively not heard.

Do you remember going to school? Canada was very rural back then. More likely than not, you attended a school that was smaller than the ones today, for some of us a one-room rural school with eight grades under one teacher.

More than likely, your friends were also your neighbours. Many of your activities would centre around the church and that small geographical circle of friends.

I went to school with my neighbours, sang in the choir with them, played ball with them, went to church with them - everyone knew who I was, who my parents were, where I lived, etc. My community was a safe place for me. Wow, how our world has changed!

Today our children mostly get driven to school, even if the school is within walking distance. Many attend school far from their neighbourhood. Extra curricular activities take families to surrounding communities on weekends. We travel further to buy groceries, go to the dentist, or find other services. Nowhere is considered really safe.


Technology has made incredible strides throughout our lifetime. Clair was talking a couple of weeks ago about the development of the transistor and how exciting that was back in the 50's. Joyce worked for IBM when they developed the Selectric Typewriter - what a break-through - and today you can't even sell one at a garage sale.

Technology has not only changed our work habits, but it has also changed the way we communicate and our language. A web used to be something a spider created. Software wasn't even a word, never mind e-mail, Internet, or search engine. Going surfing more likely meant a trip to the computer than to Hawaii.

The change in communication technology that let's us carry a phone around with us so we are never out of touch is still a wonder for me. My grandsons, however, will never likely use a dial telephone, and have no conception of those now long-gone rural party lines. I remember my grandmother's ring was two shorts and a long. You answered knowing any one of a dozen people could be listening in on your conversation, and probably were.

Culturally we now live in a global community - we know about famine in Africa, war in Israel, parades in Ireland, hurricanes in Mexico, terrorist attacks anywhere- immediately! We have access to hundreds of channels on TV. We can get movies on a DVD, or order them on demand from our local cable company. A number of channels provide news 24 hours a day.

The roles that we play have also changed. It used to be simple - on the farm men looked after the barn and the fields, women had the house and the garden. In town, the man's job was to "bring home the bacon", the woman's to cook it. Running the wringer washer and doing the ironing took two full days out of every week. The roles were well established and culturally accepted.

Access to the pill brought about a major change in the freedom women experienced. Industrial innovation produced a host of new appliances, and the electronics revolution was quick to follow. Immigration filled our streets with neighbours from around the world. Global travel became commonplace, and higher education for children a must. The good news is that we have entered an era when the freedom to choose our lifestyle has never been greater. The challenging news is the need for families to finance their lifestyle of choice.

The Church

What does all of this mean for the church? We have been coming together, supporting one another for years, and all of a sudden we have become aware of the fact that the younger generation is not following in our footsteps. Is the church no longer relevant in the eyes of our children? What we are offering isn't what they are looking for.

The key question we need to struggle with is ? what does it take today to share the message of God's love and Jesus' vision of community with the next generation and our neighbour?

Re-vitalizing, re-focusing, core competency, re-branding, back to basics. . . these are phrases we hear from the business community - businesses that are trying to adapt to the changing needs of their customers and community. We often think of them as a kind of flavour of the month because there seems to be a new concept popular every season. These labels are what our business community use to indicate that they are updating their image for their current customer. We watch malls renovate, stores come and go, McDonalds change their play areas and menu, Tim Hortons' offer new products to compliment their core coffee business ? but somehow we haven't made the necessary changes in our mainline churches and our customers are reacting. They are staying away because they don't see our message as relevant for them.

At our current rate of decline most of the mainline congregations in Canada will not be here 100 years from now. Is that the legacy we want to leave to our children? If not, then here are a couple of questions.

¨ What can we do to change this trend? We have to find a way to share our message that is meaningful for the people living in our communities today.¨

¨ How do we do that? John Kotter (Harvard Business Review, 1995) suggests there are 8 steps to transforming your organization. The first one is to "Establish a sense of urgency by examining your real situation, identifying the crises areas and finding the major opportunities." We begin by recognizing that the time has come for change.¨

Take a serious look at what has been happening over the last few years in your congregation. Is the number of people attending Sunday worship and weekly programs growing or declining? Are there fewer children and teens participating in programs? When you look at the people in the pew on Sunday, what ages are represented, and who is missing? Have you introduced any new ministries or programs in the last few years, and who is attending those? The answers to these questions will give you a picture of your real situation.

Then the challenge is to act on this information. What do you do as a leader when you realize the time has come for a significant change in the life and work of the congregation? You have to recognize that you can't do it on your own. You are going to need outside help. You have to budget for additional expense. You have to make an investment in order to have the future. That can be difficult if one of the reasons you have to change is because the congregation is in financial straits.

A few words of caution -

Having said these words of caution, let's remember why we are here in the first place. Jesus never suggested that when the pews were full and the budget balanced it would be okay if we quit sharing the message of God's love. He also never said that if the going got tough, we could quit. The alternative to creating God's new community for your congregation is that the old one is going to die. If you want to create new life in and for your congregation, the time to begin is now.

§ § §

Congregational News August 2005 Vol. 11 No. 5

Up to Top

Congregational Life Home Page