United Church turns to web in its biggest effort to reach out to non-churchgoers

Toronto, Canada - The United Church of Canada is harnessing the Internet in its biggest effort ever to reach out to people beyond its doors in hopes of filling empty pews.

A research team has spent the past year developing a website aimed at persuading more 30-to-45-year-olds to consider making the church their spiritual home. A prototype of the site, www.emergingspirit.ca, is now up and running.

The church plans to spend at least $9 million on the initiative, which also includes ads in national magazines and training programs to help congregations develop their welcoming skills, says Rev. Keith Howard, executive director of Emerging Spirit, the group overseeing the project.

"In terms of actually trying to meet people beyond the church itself, this is our biggest undertaking ever," said Rev. Jim Sinclair, the church's general secretary, who is responsible for day-to-day operations.

Recent figures from a Statistics Canada study, Who's Religious, suggest that more than 40 per cent of 30-to-45-year-olds don't attend church or other religious institutions. However, as many as 50 per cent take part in personal religious activities at least once a month.

The church wants to engage in a conversation with people in this age group "who we find share many of the values of the United Church and are very interested in the spiritual life in their own way," said moderator Rev. Peter Short, the church's top official.

To get this conversation going and to help structure the website, the church hired pollster Environics Research Group to conduct an online survey and to do less formal interviews with people on the street.

Participants were asked why they don't attend church, what they are searching for, what is important to them, what they don't like about organized religion and how they view the United Church, said Short.

"They don't tend to have a happy view of institutional religion," he said. "They tend to view churches as being judgmental, unwilling to listen."

The United Church, Short said, feels it has the right mix of policies - openness, welcoming those with various sexual and relationship preferences, and an approach that challenges traditional teachings - that this group should find appealing.

Statistics Canada's 2001 census indicated there were about five million people in the 30-45 age group.

"We'd like to offer an opportunity for them to try out a contemporary church congregation, and see if (their unhappy) impression might not be changed" through the website, said Short.

Now that the site's development stage is wrapping up, the next step is approval by General Council, the church's governing body, to extend the project for another three years. That's expected to happen at its next national meeting - it meets every three years - beginning Sunday at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., said Short.

Other items on the nearly 700 delegates' agenda will be the election of a successor to Short as moderator and the appointment of new general secretary. Sinclair is stepping down after serving in the post since 2002.

General Council will also consider proposals on how to best to implement the denomination's profile-raising campaign. Church members are excited about Emerging Spirit, said Sinclair.

"The reception across the church has been very enthusiastic. People have really seen it now transition into a considerable effort to work with congregations enhancing their ministry."

To grab people's interest, the site has a "much more community feel to it" than the church's regular website, www.united-church.ca, which supplies information about the church's structure, positions on hot topics, forthcoming events, and resources.

The Emerging Spirit site "will not have an overtly recruitment kind of orientation," says Howard. "It will offer people of that age group a place where they can discuss life ... moral ... spiritual issues" through blogs. There will also be polls on major issues, opinion pieces and links to spiritual sites.

Five nominees for moderator of United Church of Canada

The United Church of Canada will choose a new moderator to replace retiring Peter Short at the Aug. 13-19 national meeting of its General Council. Here are the five nominees named in advance of the meeting. Others may be nominated from the floor.

Jim Angus - A hereditary chief of the Gitxsan Nation in British Columbia and chair of the Gitxsan Treaty Society.

Patty Evans - Missionary nurse from Sutton, Ont., who served in Africa and is now a trainer for the church.

Rev. David Giuliano - Pastor from Marathon, Ont., and member of the General Council executive.

Rev. Peter Scott - Pastor who just retired as executive secretary of the church's London, Ont., conference.

Rev. Colin Swan - Director of the School of Theology at Iona College in Windsor, Ont.