Empty pews at neighbourhood churches more likely due to lack of entertainment than to politics

One of the small pleasures in life is to stop in at a Second Cup café somewhere in town for a coffee and a cinnamon-laced piece of coffee cake, and then to sit and read for a while.

That is, if you’re lucky enough to get a piece of coffee cake. “It sells out fast,” the smiling server told me helpfully on a Saturday evening visit.

I settled down into my seat, thankful to have secured my cinnamon fix, and started to read a copy of the Winnipeg Sun. Soon enough, I ended up at Michael Coren’s column.

I’m not much of a fan of Michael Coren’s writings. They’re too ideological for my taste. Having flirted with ideologies in my youth, I’ve grown wary of them, both left and right. I prefer to examine the evidence myself and arrive at my own conclusions, thank you very much — an attitude that political ideologues and religious fundamentalists tend to find irritating.

But, despite the dose of ideology, I found something interesting about Coren’s recent commentary on the problems that the United Church of Canada has had with declining attendance and internal dissent — problems that Coren suggests are rooted in the United Church’s left-wing reputation.

Offhand, I see no reason to doubt Coren’s claim that at least some of the United Church’s former parishioners have ended up attending suburban megachurches because of dissatisfaction with their original neighbourhood churches.

I’m not so sure, however, if church politics is the sole or even dominant factor in this shift.

One could just as easily make the argument that suburban megachurches — with their charismatic speakers, high-tech productions and multi-million dollar budgets — have learned to compete with television, the Internet and other distractions by becoming entertainment destinations in their own right. Cash-strapped traditional neighbourhood churches, with their more traditional services, have not learned how to do this.

Rising numbers of Canadians with no religious affiliation and declining attendance among the young — a vital change Coren didn’t note — are also certainly contributing to the emptying of the pews at traditional neighbourhood churches.

In the 1981 census, about seven percent of Canadians had no religious affiliation. Over the next twenty years to the 2001 census, this figure more than doubled to 16 percent.

Unless there has been a dramatic change of course since 2001, the proportion of Canadians with no religious affiliation should be about 20 percent when the next census is taken in 2011.

By my own estimation — based on the dates of the 1981, 1991 and 2001 censuses and the changes in each religion’s market share over time — those Canadians who say that they have no religious affiliation should outnumber those who identify themselves as Protestants from about 2013 onward. Catholics, who are losing market share at a much slower rate, are expected to remain the single largest grouping for many years yet.

Declining commitment to religious observation among the young is an important factor in this change in the country’s theological landscape.

In 1990, 1,723 Canadians aged 15 years and over told pollsters how often they attended religious services. At that time, 15-29 year olds made up 17 percent of weekly parishioners.

In 2006, when 2,130 Canadians answered the same question, 15-29 year olds only made up eight percent of weekly parishioners.*

Without a younger generation in place for aging parishioners and clergy to pass the torch to, many neighbourhood congregations will eventually no longer be viable.

There will always be young urban people who happen to be religious. But when it comes time for them to choose a church, which type will many of them choose: one that keeps them engaged and entertained, or the one their family traditionally attended?

Those that choose entertainment and engagement over family tradition, plus those who simply don’t have a religion, are a big part of the reason why it’s increasingly easy to get a good seat at many traditional neighbourhood churches in Canada.

It’s a problem that those churches won’t be able to solve with either a swing to the left or a swing to the right.

Disclosure: Readers will probably wonder what perspective I’m writing from. Fair enough. I am an agnostic and was formerly nominally Catholic prior to my defection in 2008.

* – Source: World Values Survey, Canada 1990 and 2006

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Empty pews at neighbourhood churches more likely due to lack of entertainment than to politics

  1. Michael says:

    I think that there is some validity to the comment about entertainment value in the mega-churches but consider this…men in particular, like technology. They can get more in less time and it is in tune with their typical daily activities in the workplace and where they play.

    They can attend a church without submitting to worship that is limited to singing without amplified music to drown out their embarrassed voices.

    Where the men go, the church thrives. The UCC has become so feminine in character starting with dis-engendering sermons and prayers and moving away from foundational teaching to feelings-based spirituality (or even spiritism in some cases)

    It is chasing the men away and so the church flounders as the determined, goal-oriented, active spirit leaves and the introspective and nurturing spirit thrives. No balance means no growth. The plants are being watered to death and there is no pollen left for fertilization and growth and the sun is growing dimmer with weaker and watered-down sermons aimed at a progressively liberal audience.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Interesting comments, Michael! Thanks for sharing them.

    Men and women often do have different views on what makes for an enjoyable outing, so maybe there is a market for three types of services: a general family service, a service targeted at men and a service targeted at women.

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