EIGHT REA­SONS FOR EMPTY PEWS

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FAITH - BY JOHN LONGHURST

WHY don’t peo­ple go to church? That’s what Joel Thiessen, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Am­brose Univer­sity in Cal­gary, wanted to know.

To get some an­swers, he de­cided to in­ter­view some non-church­go­ers. From the in­ter­views, he heard eight rea­sons why Cana­di­ans to­day don’t go to church.

At the top of the list was the feel­ing that church is too ex­clu­sive in its be­liefs and prac­tices — that it is out of step with Cana­dian val­ues of in­clu­siv­ity and tol­er­ance. This would es­pe­cially be true of aspects such as not al­low­ing women to be lead­ers, or not ac­cept­ing or af­firm­ing gay peo­ple.

Next was life tran­si­tions. Peo­ple to­day move a lot and find it tough to put down roots in a church. It can also be be­cause of tran­si­tions such as di­vorce or the death of the fam­ily mem­ber who made sure ev­ery­one went to church.

Teenage choice was third. When I was a teenager, stay­ing home on Sun­day morn­ings wasn’t an op­tion. But par­ents to­day in­creas­ingly let their teenage chil­dren de­cide whether or not they want to go to church. As Thiessen notes, “most teens opt out at that point.”

Be­ing busy was fourth. With most fam­i­lies hav­ing two work­ing par­ents to­day, and with their kids in­volved in mul­ti­ple ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, it’s tough to find time to empty the dish­washer and do the laun­dry — much less go to church. Plus, Sun­day morn­ing might be the only time you have to shop for gro­ceries or sim­ply re­lax.

Dis­il­lu­sion­ment over church sex scan­dals came in fifth, along with religious-in­spired vi­o­lence.

Sixth on the list was the in­abil­ity to rec­on­cile religious be­liefs with sci­ence, or with evil in the world.

“A church might say that God is love, but if your child dies of a dis­ease or ac­ci­dent, it’s hard to rec­on­cile that with your per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence,” Thiessen says.

A bad ex­pe­ri­ence in a church was sev­enth. This can be any­thing from not feel­ing wel­comed to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ten­sion with an­other church mem­ber, or just feel­ing let down by the com­mu­nity.

Last on the list is so­cial ties. If your friends and fam­ily frown upon your in­volve­ment in a religious group, chances are you will stop go­ing.

Many of th­ese rea­sons are be­yond the con­trol of churches to ad­dress, says Thiessen, who de­tails his find- ings in his new book The Mean­ing of Sun­day: The Prac­tice of Be­lief in a Sec­u­lar Age.

But even if churches tried to change the things they can con­trol — if they were less ex­clu­sive, friend­lier or have fewer scan­dals, it likely wouldn’t change things, he says.

“De­mand for greater in­volve­ment is not strong” among non-church­go­ers, he says, no mat­ter what churches try to do to fix the prob­lem.

He points to the United Church, which was the first ma­jor Cana­dian de­nom­i­na­tion to wel­come gay peo­ple. At­ten­dance did not im­prove be­cause of that de­ci­sion.

“The fact is that most of those who are not reg­u­larly in­volved are fairly con­tent with their lev­els of in­volve­ment, and any lip ser­vice paid to de­sir­ing greater in­volve­ment is just that — lip ser­vice,” he says.

There are al­ways anec­do­tal sto­ries that tell a dif­fer­ent tale, he notes, “but on the whole, I don’t think the de­mand for re­li­gion or religious in­volve­ment is as great as many think.”

The premise of his book is that Canada is “be­com­ing in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar, and there’s no rea­son to be­lieve (the) trend won’t con­tinue...

“Sim­ply put, fewer Cana­di­ans iden­tify with a religious tra­di­tion or de­sire to at­tend wor­ship ser­vices reg­u­larly.”

There are ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions from this change and not just for churches. Stud­ies in Canada and the U.S. show reg­u­lar at­ten­dance at wor­ship ser­vices is strongly tied to giv­ing and vol­un­teer­ing, and peo­ple who are more re­li­giously ac­tive tend to also give more than those who don’t at­tend wor­ship ser­vices.

For char­i­ties that de­pend on reg­u­lar church­go­ers for do­na­tions — both religious and non-religious alike — de­clin­ing at­ten­dance means they are go­ing to face big chal­lenges.

“If the donor pool is shrink­ing, it will ne­ces­si­tate some cre­ative think­ing about how to fundraise,” Thiessen says.

Thiessen will share his thoughts on the state of the church in Canada to­day, and what it means for com­mu­ni­ca­tors, fundrais­ers, de­nom­i­na­tional lead­ers and oth­ers, on March 11 at Go­ing Bare­foot 5, a bian­nual con­fer­ence at the Cana­dian Men­non­ite Univer­sity.

For more in­for­ma­tion about the one­day event, in­clud­ing about other speak­ers and work­shops, go to www.cmu.ca/ go­ing­bare­foot.

— so­ci­ol­ogy Prof. Joel Thiessen

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