Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The church family and changing demographics
Families in Canada have changed. How are Winnipeg churches affected by the changes?
In September, Statistics Canada released a snapshot of Canadian families based on the 2011 census. Among other things, it showed the traditional family, made up of two married parents with children, is in decline. In its place there are more single-parent and blended families, more singles and more couples without children.
The changes are being felt in Winnipeg congregations.
Although the majority of families at Charleswood United Church are headed by two parents, "I would say that all manner of households in society are represented within our church community--single, married without children, common-law, widowed, same-gender, blended," says Michael Wilson, minister at the church.
For Wilson, this means that Charleswood needs to be a place "of nurture, teaching, comfort, security, and above all, love for everyone who comes here."
Things are similar at Church of the Rock. "There is really little difference between what the family looks like within our church as compared to outside the church," says pastor Mark Hughes, noting the church offers ministries for people who are divorced, children of divorced parents, parents who have adult children living at home, singles, seniors and others.
One of the ways the change is noticed at St. Benedict's Table, an Anglican church, is the large number of singles who attend the church.
"Many of our single people are of university age, so still making decisions as to how they might move toward marriage and family--or not," says priest Jamie Howison.
"I would say that the old assumption that getting married is the next logical step after graduation is not much in play."
Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren Church also has a large number of singles. One way they try to accommodate them is by how they set up for meals.
"One simple thing we do is set out nine chairs, instead of eight, around the round tables we use for fellowship meals," says pastor John Unger. "It's an intentional signal that singles are welcome."
One way the changing family affects churches is in how pastors do their preaching.
When Hughes preaches, he keeps in mind people who are "outside traditional domestic relationships."
Marvin Dyck, pastor of Crossroads Community Church, does the same thing. Since his church also has a large number of single adults, "it's not meaningful to simply apply the Bible's teaching on relationship to people and their spouses," he says. "Instead, I apply biblical truth to people's relationships with those who share their home."
Changing families are also having an effect on a traditional church institution: Sunday school.
Unger says his church sees an increasing number of "every-other-Sunday" children whose parents are divorced and who alternate weekends with their mothers and fathers.
"Our programs simply have to deal with and adapt to that pattern of attendance," he says.
The same thing is happening in Lutheran churches says Elaine Sauer, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.
"We are seeing less and less families with children in Sunday-morning worship," says Sauer, noting that, along with divorce, the busyness of daily life is having an effect on attendance.
"As the norm becomes two-income families, people are using their Sundays as additional days to do other activities as families or regular or additional chores that couldn't be done during the week," she says.
For those running children's programs, it means being "more flexible so that people can miss occasionally and not feel totally left out of the loop."
The changing Canadian family is also affecting schools that train pastors.
"Professors of my generation need to understand that life is not the same today as it was when we were younger," says David Johnson, interim president of Providence University College in Otterburne, Man.
"Because of the changing demographics, I find that I have to explore the Bible with new questions like what is a family and how Scripture addresses singleness."
The need to change also comes from the students themselves.
"One of the outcomes of the present situation is that students often come to us out of non-traditional family situations," he says. "Many of them can identify with the changes in family because they are a part of those changes."
This is different than his generation, where the two-parent family with children was more the norm.
"They have had very different experiences of the church from that which I had," he says.
What does this all add up to? Churches today need to rethink how they minister to families, how they preach, what kind of services they offer and how they try to make everyone feel included -- even as they grapple with what a family looks like today.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 J13