The United Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, with over 3,300 local congregations across the country serving over 420,000 households.
The United Church of Canada wanted to find ways of reaching out to new constituencies, especially adults in their 30s and 40s who did not belong to a religious community. The United Church has a history of adapting to and even embracing social change: it was the first church in Canada to ordain women, has been a pioneer in interfaith outreach, and is accepting of gay and lesbian members and clergy. The Church was aware that exploration, openness to change, and acceptance of diversity might not be characteristics all Canadians associated with religious institutions. Therefore, the United Church wanted to find ways of presenting itself to Canadians as a place where they might explore their spirituality without encountering some of the more dogmatic stances they might have come to associate with religious communities. But this was not just a messaging campaign to invite people into the Church. Because the United Church was focused on deepening its relevance to Canadians, it wanted to understand what concepts and characteristics Canadians saw as desirable in a religious body—and then find ways of reaching out to those who were looking for a faith community that (whether they knew it or not) looked and felt like the United Church.
Environics designed a research process to help the United Church articulate (to appropriate audiences and in appropriate terms) the values and practices that made it distinct from other religious bodies. The process began by measuring Canadians’ interest in and perceptions of faith communities. When asked generically about their desire to join a religious community, Canadians with no religious affiliation expressed little interest. But when asked about the appeal of religious communities with specific characteristics (a church that reached out to the needy, for instance, or a church that helped people pursue personal transformation), interest was much higher. Environics measured interest in eighteen hypothetical church characteristics, and performed a regression analysis that grouped these characteristics into three main themes. One of these themes, “questing and embracing,” (defined by a church’s openness to challenge and change, and its willingness to adapt to a diverse contemporary society) contained many of the characteristics the United Church had been working to cultivate in the foregoing years. Environics then helped the United Church to examine the social values of people who were attracted to the “questing and embracing” church in order to better understand how the United Church might speak to them effectively. A segmentation analysis revealed that the United Church’s target constituency included Canadians who were at ease with the complexity and ambiguity of contemporary society, including diverse family structures and sexual mores. These Canadians prized autonomy and freedom of choice for themselves and others—and although they were skeptical of religion at large, they were intrigued by a “hypothetical” church that resembled the United Church in many important respects.
The United Church was glad to find that the quantitative research findings affirmed its hypothesis: there were indeed groups of Canadians who would be interested in belonging to a thoughtful, questioning religious community, but they were not sure such a thing existed. Equipped with this knowledge, the Church decided to invest in two major outreach initiatives. One of these initiatives was WonderCafe, an online gathering place that calls itself “the home of open-minded discussion and exploration of spiritual topics, moral issues and life’s big questions.” The other was an ad campaign that signalled in both its form and its content that the United Church was not afraid to face big issues in a spirit of openness—and even with a sense of humour. One print ad showed a photograph of a can of whipped cream in the door of a refrigerator and asked, “How much fun can sex be before it’s a sin?” An online video featuring “E-Z Answer Squirrel,” a squirrel that offers simple (and not always very convincing) yes-no answers to major religious questions was viewed over 6-million times. These initiatives were not intended to coax new members to the Church overnight; rather, they were among the first steps in a long-term effort on the part of the United Church to better understand its prospective constituencies and to signal its presence and its values to them. Environics Research helped the Church to confirm that there was an audience that was likely to be receptive to its outreach efforts. We then helped the Church to gain insight into this segment of the population in order to communicate with them effectively.