EIGHT REASONS FOR EMPTY PEWS
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