A major new EFC survey suggests half of Canadians are either agnostic, atheist or unreligious. And only a tenth attend religious services weekly. How will the church respond?
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I’m usually trying to lose a few pounds, especially after Christmas (anybody else?). There’s a new snugness around my waist and I see the need for change in my profile in the long mirror by the front door. But until I step on the scales I can delude myself into thinking, Who knows? Maybe my pants shrank in the dryer or the mirror needs a tune-up.
Polls are like that too. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada uses polls about every five years to measure church and faith trends. In August we used the polling company Maru to reach 5,014 Canadians over age 18.
Religious affiliation and service attendance are some of the trends we monitor. We use questions that basically ask, "Do you have a religion, and if so, do you participate?"
PHOTO: BEN WHITE
Of course, faith is far more complex than these simple questions, but they do indicate a lot. For example, we know from other research that religious service attendance is correlated with better health, more giving and volunteering (both inside and outside the church) and many other positive outcomes.
So in addition to its obvious importance to our spiritual lives, church attendance also impacts many other aspects.
In our poll we asked people about their affiliation and attendance at two points in their lives –when they were 12 and now at their current age. We chose age 12 because that’s just before many parents give up trying to get their kids to church on Sunday.
So what did we discover?
Let’s start with an oversimplification, then explain more.
First, we found half of Canada’s population say they are either agnostic or something similar. And second, we found about half the Canadians who went to church as a 12-year-old eventually switched to those agnostic categories.
The details offer more nuance –and are also really interesting.
The agnostic categories mentioned here are actually a composite group called AASN, made up of atheists, agnostics, those who say they are spiritual (but not religious), and those who simply say they have no religious affiliation. They are now the biggest religious affiliation block in Canada – more than all Christians combined.
Most of that 21 per cent were born after 1964. They were not raised to go to church. In all likelihood their parents had left church, if they had ever attended, by the time their offspring were 12.
What happened to all those church-attending 12-year-olds? Our research shows many of them becoming AASN. Regardless of Christian tradition just under half of former 12-year-old affiliates have relocated to the AASN camp.
What about evangelical churches? Don’t we do a good job sharing the gospel and attracting members of that AASN group to our churches? Not really, it seems.
There are small tributaries of new members flowing in from Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions (as there are also Evangelicals flowing in the other direction), but these new members do not compensate for the overall declining attendance in the churches of Canadian evangelicalism.
The 1996 God and Society in North America poll found 12 per cent of Canadians were evangelical affiliates. A 2015 poll found 9 per cent. Today that seems to have dropped to 6 per cent.
6% OF CANADIANS TODAY
ARE EVANGELICAL AFFILIATES
As for current attendance at religious services, 11 per cent of Canadians now attend at least weekly (all religious traditions, not just Christians). This is down from 67 per cent just after the Second World War in 1946 and from 30 per cent in 1996.
Are poor attendance numbers all about young people not showing up for church? Yes and no. Young people aren’t showing up, but neither are older people.
As these numbers show older people did once attend more often. But fewer still attend as adults.
Statistically speaking weekly attendance is around 10 percent among all the generations born since 1945. The biggest declines in weekly attendance are not found among younger generations, but in the Silent Generation and Boomers.
The biggest declines in weekly attendance are not found among younger generations, but in the Silent Generation and Boomers.
So how often do Canadians attend church these days? A few times a month is the new normal now, correct? People are just a little bit busier now, so they’re going just a little bit less.
Wrong and wrong.
The new normal is not having attended a single religious service in the last 12 months. Among those who attended as 12-year-olds (at whatever rate), half have moved to the "never" category. (That includes people who as children were in either the weekly, monthly or less often categories.)
ZERO – THE NEW NORMAL
IS NOT HAVING ATTENDED A SINGLE
IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS
Our poll shows there are nearly eight times as many Canadians who never attend religious services as those who attend once, twice or three times a month.
Affiliation and attendance numbers have clearly and strongly fallen. You probably had an inkling this was the case, but the reality is still jarring in the way that stepping on the scale after Christmas is shocking.
RESPONDING TO THE NUMBERS
Now what? Do we simply decide who will turn out the lights in a few decades and continue the same until then? Not at all. God has moved sovereignly to work revival in the past, and we should have every expectation He will do so again. Surely God loves Canada at least as much as He loved Nineveh (remember the story of Jonah?). We can pray. We can also consider what these numbers might mean.
Could it be, however, that we … haven’t given enough attention to where people place their attention?
We used to depend on older folks to be more faithful, to hold the line when young people were falling away. What changed for the more mature members of our congregations? We used to say biblical orthodoxy was the key to holding people in our churches. But now evangelical churches seem to be losing people quickly along with our mainline counterparts. What happened for all those Bible believers?
Evangelicals are the entrepreneurial branch of the Church. We try new strategies and paradigms when the old ones don’t seem to work. We experiment. The revivalism of preachers like Charles Finney, efforts and strategies like the Church Growth Movement, Healthy Church and Missional Church, to name a few, all arose from evangelical entrepreneurialism. Yet despite our efforts there has been a steady decline in religious service attendance since the Second World War.
Perhaps the culture is changing too fast for us to reinvent church before the culture changes again.
Often our methods are different ways to "do church." What we do as a church is enormously important. Could it be, however, that we’re actually doing church pretty well (or reasonably well) but haven’t given enough attention to where people place their attention?
HOW PEOPLE SPEND TIME TODAY
Several of the Church Fathers thought of the eyes and ears as the servants of the soul. They imagined these servants bringing food (what they see and hear) to the soul, causing it to be nourished or poisoned. The eyes and ears are also the principal ways our attention is focused.
We can gain insight into how people are spiritually formed today by studying where they place their attention. How have our big blocks of time and attention moved over the last few decades? Maybe that is one of the questions we need to consider.
Economists talk about opportunity costs – those things you don’t get to do because you’ve chosen to do something else instead. Our attention choices also have opportunity costs. This is an important idea when we think about the exodus from Canadian churches.
The content on our devices might actually be good. But there’s an opportunity cost … that might be church, prayer, Bible reading and small group.
Certainly there are many people who quit going to any church because they disagree with its theology, have been hurt by someone or a number of other reasons.
We are all busy in so many different ways – working, commuting, sleeping, eating, grooming, visiting, cleaning, exercising, etc. But the biggest change in our time use has come through technology. Significantly smartphones and social media have both become part of our attentional ecology, and have become widespread for all age demographics. Technology is everywhere, all the time.
Technologies reach the tipping point of being culture changers when they become affordable consumer products. The internet and email reached this point in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Reliable high-speed internet ushered in high bandwidth social media platforms with Facebook (2004) pre-eminent among them. Smartphones, beginning with the iPhone (2007) and closely followed by the first Android phone (2008), were made feasible consumer products by wireless plans that were relatively affordable (ahem).
Adding free and low-cost social media apps resulted in the most successful attention-harvesting devices ever. Research shows the average iPhone user spends about four hours a day on their phone and they unlock it between 80 and 150 times a day. There is also time spent watching television, playing video games or using a tablet. (Even if people engage in some of these activities simultaneously, the numbers are still astounding.)
For the most part we don’t choose to use our devices this much. We’re nudged there by visual notifications, the fear of missing out, emails, gifs, buzzes, etc. The content on our devices might actually be good. But there’s an opportunity cost and it is important to consider that cost might be church, prayer, Bible reading and small group.
What if recovering our agency from the nudges – and consciously choosing the way our souls will be formed – could be a significant part of changing the trendlines? Clearly there is no easy solution to the problem of falling church attendance and affiliation, and many of the things we’re already doing are good things to do.
Why not try an attention audit? (This is like me getting on the scales.) You have 168 hours in a week. How do you use them? Be honest. How much time do you spend on your phone? You don’t have to guess. Your phone will tell you (look up Screen Time on iOS or Digital Well-Being on Android). What about video games? Netflix binge-watching? Regular TV? Facebook?
We never chose to have these digital distractions own our lives – it just kind of happened. And on the way to this happening we ran out of time for church. Could it be that the bigger threat to our faith is not the culture, but the notifications, the social media threads, the three-minute videos that erode our capacity to hear from God or be shaped by our churches?
Can we choose for it to be otherwise?
Rick Hiemstra of Ottawa is director, research and media relations at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Red leaf illustration at top of page: Superstock.com.
The print edition of Faith Today includes three more articles on this important topic.
- Behind the numbers. By FT staff
- Prioritizing vocation and stepping out in faith. By David Johnson
- Death and new life among resurrection people. By Jenna Smith
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Listen to our podcast discussion about this survey with Rick Hiemstra and Dr. Sam Reimer.