They Came and Did Not Return

In the flood of interviews that accompanied the launch of WonderCafe, reporters often asked whether church attendance had increased in recent years because of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. At that time there were not a lot of hard numbers around and my impression was that, in Canada, there had not really been a significant spike.

Lovett Weems writes that the situation in the US was different.

“Where there were gains in 2001, they were relatively modest. People in the United States flocked to houses of worship in unusually high numbers following the September 11, 2001, attacks. While not all denominations showed an annual attendance increase in 2001 as a result, many did. Some say this attendance surge lasted about five weeks. However long it was, it did not result in long-term attendance gains. The opposite has actually happened among many denominations, including the traditional mainline denominations.”

In many ways Weems’ observations are not surprising for they, unfortunately, mirror the response of many to the initial Emerging Spirit magazine ads. We had high visibility which sparked a lot of curiosity. Many of those curious thought they would give church another look. When they did they found that things really had not changed that much.

I remember a conversation in Halifax with a woman who reported that when she returned, after a twenty year absence, even the paint and posters were the same! Many of those who came to look again did not stay; they sought more of the open, playful, ready for conversation and experimental tone of the ads.

Many congregations saw this was the reaction. The ads, the research and the conversation sparked by those who came, saw no difference and felt no welcome has provided for many leaders the excuse for the conversation about what kind of church are we then really? If people do not experience us in the way that we imagine ourselves to be, what is going on? The fact that these questions and the conversations they provoke are still current fan the spark of hope.

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