Saturday, December 08, 2007

The State of the Canadian Church -- Part I: A Nation of Believers?

By Jim Coggins @

This is the first of a series of articles on the Canadian church. In this series, we will be drawing on the expertise of a variety of researchers and church leaders, including sociologist Reginald Bibby, pollster Andrew Grenville, Regent College professor John Stackhouse and many others.

Church attendance in Canada is declining rapidly. Atheism is rising. Christian moral values are being replaced by secular ones. Canada is no longer a Christian nation, and Canadian Christians will soon be a persecuted minority.

These are among some of the understandings -- and, in some cases, misunderstandings -- prevalent among Canadians.

But what is the actual state of Canadian Christianity? That is the question that we hope to address in this series. The reality is that the situation is far more complex than it seems at first.

Church attendance

Let's begin with church attendance. This has been analyzed by the Canadian government in censuses and in the General Social Survey, by polling agencies such as Ipsos Reid and by various scholars, most notably Dr. Reg Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge. While there is always some variation in statistics, the most obvious trend over the last half-century or so is that weekly church attendance has declined very considerably.

The first systematic survey, a Gallup poll, placed weekly church attendance at 60 percent in 1945. Some surveys place the figure even higher in the 1950s, approaching 70 percent. However, in Bibby's words, weekly attendance dropped "to just over 30 percent in 1975 and to around 20 percent by 2000."

The assumption has been that the percentage will continue to drop as Canada becomes more secularized. That is, it has been expected that church attendance in Canada will soon reach the levels of Western Europe, where it has dropped below 10 percent in most countries.

However, Bibby has argued that this is not necessarily the case. Bibby's detailed research into the Canadian religious scene has been outlined in numerous articles and books, including Fragmented Gods (1987), Unknown Gods (1993), Restless Gods (2002) and Restless Churches (2004). Bibby's most recent major survey, in 2005, pegged weekly church attendance at 25 percent. Moreover, attendance among teens aged 15 - 19, which had dropped to 18 percent in 1992, had increased to 22 percent in 2000.

It is probably too early to tell whether weekly attendance has really turned the corner. Andrew Grenville, formerly of Ipsos Reid and now Chief Research Officer with Angus Reid Strategies, told he remains unconvinced. While he saw some evidence of church attendance plateauing about the year 2000, a 2006 Ipsos survey showed weekly attendance had dropped further, to 17 percent.

Other measures

Further, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether weekly attendance is the best measure of Christian faith in Canada. Bibby has pointed out that if we ask if people attend church at least monthly, instead of weekly, the decline is far less drastic. Monthly attendance dropped from 41 percent in 1975 to 37 percent in 1980 and to 30 percent in 2000 but rebounded to 34 percent in 2005. In other words, in the 25 years between 1980 and 2005, monthly attendance dropped only 3 percent.

The decline is even less drastic if one looks at yearly attendance. A 2007 Ipsos study found that 67 percent of Canadians attend a religious service at least once a year. This level is supported by other research.

Thus, the question is not so much why half of Canadians have abandoned the church -- as the drop from 70 percent weekly attendance to 20 percent weekly attendance seemed to suggest -- but why this half of the Canadian population now attends church only sporadically.

It could be argued that the decline in attendance indicates a decline in Christian commitment. It could also be asked why the institutional church has failed to retain the loyalty of so many Canadians who claim to believe what the church believes. (These issues will be discussed more fully in later articles in this series.)

The decline in weekly attendance may also partly represent a change in Canadian culture and society. More people work on Sundays now, for instance.

"Canada is a nation of believers but not belongers," said Grenville. It is not just churches that are losing members. Fewer Canadians now belong to Boy Scouts, labour unions, political parties or service clubs such as Kiwanis or Rotary. Robert Putnam analyzed this North American trend in his book Bowling Alone. There has been not just a privatization of religion but a fragmentation of society.

Belief is a different question

Bibby has pointed out that the percentage of Canadians who claim to be atheists is only 7 percent, virtually unchanged from 6 percent in 1975 -- and even some of them attend church occasionally.

The General Social Survey discovered that those with "no religious affiliation" rose from 12 percent in 1985 to 19 percent in 2004, but most of these people still claim to believe in God.

This is in sharp contrast to the situation in Europe, where belief in the existence of God has dropped from about 80 percent to close to 50 percent over the past 30 years.

Two-thirds of Canadians still identify themselves as Christians. Ipsos studies reveal that 64 percent of Canadians believe the Bible is the Word of God, 62 percent believe in forgiveness through Christ, 45 percent pray daily, and 41 percent say they have committed their lives to Christ.

Because of this residual faith in God, compared to the situation in Europe, both Grenville and Bibby have argued that it is possible for the church to reconnect with a majority of Canadians.

Over the past 60 years, church attendance in Europe has experienced a steady and dramatic decline. Over the same period, church attendance in the United States has shown remarkable stability, remaining at about 40 percent. In Canada, church attendance has shown considerable volatility, ranging from 70 percent to 20 percent. In fact, the 70 percent in the 1950s represents the 'high water mark' and is perhaps the harder figure to explain -- the data we have suggests that the percentage was considerably lower in every period before this.

Given this volatility, it is impossible to predict where Canadian church attendance will go in future, said Grenville. Referring to the 1950s surge, he stated: "There is no reason it can't or won't happen again."

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