TORONTO — More Canadians, especially young people, are sitting in church pews these days, says Reginald Bibby, one of Canada’s best-known pollsters on religion. And all the groups from Protestant to Roman Catholic to non-traditional are showing “important signs of new life.”
Attendance is up by as much as “four or five percentage points” since the late 1990s, says the University of Lethbridge sociologist who has just published a new book, Restless Churches, in which he argues his case through a blizzard of statistics. “What we’re looking at is fairly modest stuff. But it’s consistent.”
Lots of people are hurting, struggling to find meaning and worried about their kids, said Bibby. “People are saying, ‘Well you know, jeez, I’d like my kids to turn out OK.’ ” If they can find meaning in a church, “that makes people feel good about the organization.”
Taking children to church helps “set values,” says Rob Ward, who along with his wife Bonnie, daughter Clarissa, 10, and son Brandon, 6, regularly attends Sunday service at Maple Grove United Church just west of Bowmanville, Ont. “It brings the family closer together.”
In a survey Bibby completed in 2003, 26 per cent of Canadians said they attended religious services about once a week, up five per cent from a similar poll in 2000. Another 50 per cent or so indicated that they just needed a good reason to get involved. Bibby attributes the trend to religious groups “doing a better job of ministering to younger people,” he said in an interview. For instance, the churches are moving away from spectator-style services to participatory worship, adding day-care facilities and producing more visually driven materials for Sunday schools.
Ward said his kids have lots of fun and learn “very good” values when they attend Sunday school. “They do a lot of crafts and they are very excited” by the experience. A gift basket they did for needy people helped them “to understand how well off they are” compared to some people in the world.
Surveys by the Catholic archdiocese of Toronto are finding that between 43 and 48 per cent of those who say they’re Catholic are going to church each week, said spokeswoman Suzanne Scorsone.
But nationally, says Bibby, the number of church-going Catholics has levelled off at about 20 per cent after declining, especially in Quebec.
Across Canada, Protestant attendance has not slipped in 25 years, he says.
For the United Church, the country’s main Protestant denomination, there are pockets of growth within major urban-suburban regions like Calgary and Toronto, said Glenn Smith, program officer for congregational mission and evangelism. Meanwhile, attendance in rural areas is “not changing a lot.”
Bibby says the one-in-four level of involvement among Canadian adults in weekly church services is higher than the numbers for any other group activity in the country. That’s five million people, plus lots of children, he said, which surpasses such things as a Grey Cup or Super Bowl TV audience.
Although Bibby doesn’t cover non-Christian faiths, religious diversity in Canada is growing. The number of Canadians declaring themselves Muslims more than doubled in the decade between 1991 and 2001, from 253,000 to 580,000, says Statistics Canada. Among Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, the census numbers were all up by about 80 per cent in the same period. Most of this growth was due to immigration and birth, not conversion, said the agency.
For years, the media and religious academics have reported that the number of Canadians professing no religion was climbing. But that number, said Bibby, represents only 16 per cent of the population, mostly young people who more often than not become religious within 10 years.
In a national survey of youth aged 15 to 19, those passing through a church door on a weekly basis fell to 18 per cent in 1992, but rose to 22 per cent in 2000 – a surprise for Bibby, who had thought the number would continue to drop.
Among adult Canadians who attend less than once a month, 55 per cent indicated they would consider more involvement if they found it rewarding. Among teens who don’t attend regularly, 40 per cent said they were open to more involvement. This has “got to be good news” for churches, said Bibby.
The pre-post-boomer syndrome is also at work, said Scorsone. “The pre-boomer people tended to be much more religious.” For those who are part of the baby boom generation, “the rate (of attendance) tends to be lower.” Then following them “it goes up. Their kids are coming out.”
She thinks younger people – 18 to 35 year olds – are looking for meaning in their lives. They’re faced with the ultimate questions, such as what they’re supposed to be living for.
The critical issue for religious groups is whether they can have a positive impact on these new church-goers. The United Church is working to meet this challenge, says Smith.
Through new church hymn books with more lively and inclusive songs and other new approaches to worship, it is encouraging members of its congregations to become more involved in the services, he said. Churches “are beginning to implement more visually driven worship with images, art, colour, movement.”
The United Church is also working to become more sensitive to the culture that kids live in 95 per cent of the time, and to use meditative practices to help those who experience a disconnected, chaotic and noisy life. One method, called Taize, focuses on quiet repetition of song with silence in a darkly lit atmosphere.
And the United Church is looking at ways to reorganize member congregations, especially in fast-growing areas like Brampton, northwest of Toronto, where a regional church is being discussed, said Smith. Churches in the area would be encouraged “to fold themselves together for the sake of a larger future.”
Whether the return to religion among Canadians is permanent won’t be known for 10 to 15 years, said Bibby. “It’s very embryonic. At least at a minimum … things have halted as far as the decline” in regular attendance goes.
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