Demographic, cultural changes key to declining church membership: Sociologist of religion

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"The Anglican church doesn't have a strong track record of actually retaining their youth," says Joel Thiessen, a professor of sociology whose research focuses on the sociology of religion in Canada. "This mass decline we see in part is riven by an aging denomination, and as people die, there isn't a younger cohort that is actually replacing [them]." Photo: Contributed

Shifting immigration patterns and broader social changes are key factors in declining membership within the Anglican Church of Canada, according to a sociologist who studies religion in Canada. But while many Protestant denominations face similar challenges, growing congregations also exist within these traditions that share a number of common features.

Joel Thiessen, a professor of sociology at Ambrose University, a Christian university in Calgary, has written four books that deal with the sociology of religion. As director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, Thiessen has also studied thriving congregations in various Christian denominations.

For Thiessen, recent statistics showing the Anglican Church of Canada’s continuing membership decline were not unexpected. He says they reflect a wider trend from the last half-century that continues to afflict many churches.

“It’s a common reality across mainline Protestant traditions,” Thiessen says. “Your Anglicans and your Lutherans and your United Church and Presbyterians are confronting all of these similar realities, so [the Anglican statistics are] not surprising in the least.”

Though he would not “necessarily” come to the same conclusion as Anglican Church of Canada statistician the Rev. Neil Elliot—who said in his report to the Council of General Synod (CoGS) that the current rate of decline would lead to zero Canadian Anglicans by 2040—Thiessen acknowledges that membership is falling across all mainline Protestant churches in Canada.

“There’s no doubt that the trend is downward,” and all indications, he says, suggest that trend will continue. Thiessen cites the 2017 book Leaving Christianity by Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald, which documents how Canadians began moving away from organized religion in the 1960s and how that process has only accelerated in recent years.

“What we’ve seen since the 1970s or ’80s is this shift towards immigration from the global South and East, that are not dominated by the Anglican church.”

In the particular case of the Anglican Church of Canada, Thiessen believes that changing immigration flow has been the leading factor behind the drop in membership. Several decades ago, he says, the Anglican church benefitted greatly from mass immigration to Canada from Western Europe, particularly England.

“Christianity remains the number-one religion among immigrants to Canada today, and that is declining and changing,” Thiessen says. “But I think specifically for the Anglican church in the mid-20th century, many of our immigrants came from Western Europe, England, Scotland, Germany, etc.… The Church of England was directly feeding the Anglican Church of Canada via these high immigration patterns.

“What we’ve seen since the 1970s or ’80s is this shift towards immigration from the global South and East, that are not dominated by the Anglican church. They’re perhaps led by Pentecostalism, Islam, the Catholic church—these are some of the big winners, if you will. So the Anglican church hasn’t benefitted in ways that it once did.”

The second demographic factor behind the decreasing number of Canadian Anglicans is the church’s aging membership, he says. The proportion of young people in the church shrank over the last generation.

“The Anglican church doesn’t have a strong track record of actually retaining their youth,” Thiessen says. “This mass decline we see in part is driven by an aging denomination, and as people die, there isn’t a younger cohort that is actually replacing [them].”

Declining birthrates across Canadian society, compared to high post-war birthrates that produced the baby boom generation, are another factor, he says.

Broader social trends have also contributed. Thiessen says the rise in people who identify as having no religion is partly a reaction to “the perception that religious groups are far too conservative.” Many Canadians, he says, identify Christianity with conservative white evangelicals in the United States and lump all Christians together as having the same views.

“As society in Canada has become more liberal and progressive over time, what has happened is people have become more resistant to some conservative elements within Christianity,” Thiessen says.

“We do see, for example, some who have left the Anglican church and other churches over some of [their] orthodox beliefs on various topics and issues,” he says. “At the same time…there is a growing capacity within the Anglican church, not just in Canada but worldwide, to try to provide a broader tent that accounts for a broader theological spectrum from conservative to liberal.”

Along with the widespread view of Christianity as conservative, the decline in people who identify as Christians since the 1960s may have been affected by perceived scandals and hypocrisies within the church, Thiessen says.

“As society in Canada has become more liberal and progressive over time, what has happened is people have become more resistant to some conservative elements within Christianity.”

Could declining church membership also be reflecting a more general drop in participation in civic and community organizations? In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, U.S. sociologist Robert Putnam described a reduction across the United States of in-person social interactions and civic engagement over several decades.

The most recent study by Statistics Canada on civic and political engagement, published in 2015, actually showed a rise in the percentage of Canadians who are members of a group, organization or association. While the study covers only the period between 2003 and 2013, it reports that nearly two-thirds of Canadians (65%) in 2013 were members of such groups, up from 61% in 2003. However, participation in religious-affiliated groups decreased from 17% to 14%.

Martin Turcotte, senior analyst at Statistics Canada and author of the 2015 report, emphasizes that the study covers a broad range of organizations, from trade unions to religious groups to sports teams. He notes that Putnam’s book used only American data, and that it also covered a much longer period of time.

“We have to remember it’s only a 10-year-period, so we have to be careful about overinterpreting the trends over time,” Turcotte says. For participation in all kinds of organizations, “we can’t deny that there’s a slight increase for participation overall. But it does vary by [the type] of organization, and as you see for the Anglican church, there was a slight decline for participation in religious-affiliated groups for Canada as a whole.”

The main trend Turcotte identifies in the report for participation in religious groups is the decline among people aged 55 to 64, or older baby boomers, from 20% to 15%. He notes that Statistics Canada will conduct a new general social survey on social identity next year, likely to be released in 2021.

“It is known that religious participation was higher among previous generations, and those people were aged 65 and over in 2003,” Turcotte says. “We see that for these people, it’s pretty stable over the period…. It will be interesting to see what happens with the new data when these baby boomers enter…the so-called senior group, [of] people aged 65 and over.”

Thiessen also cautions against painting with too broad a brush in looking at civic organizations in Canada, considering the wide diversity of groups and demographics who participate in them. “There are some very distinctive reasons that are contributing to declining involvement in religious groups,” he says.

However, while researching a recent book on millennials in Canada, Thiessen and his co-authors did find a general trend from in-person to online interaction.

“We know, for example, that people might talk a lot on social media about different causes within society…that people have high levels of talking online,” Thiessen says. “But levels of actual involvement with physical human beings and organizations are fairly low. So I think one of the things we see has shifted is that people are transferring some of their involvements to an online atmosphere, and less face-to-face activity.”

The Flourishing Congregations Institute, Thiessen says, has found a number of factors that thriving congregations tend to have in common. While some Anglicans could feel discomfort around Thiessen’s findings, these factors may offer a glimpse of how some churches have bucked the societal trends.

One is emphasizing leadership and intentionally developing the next generation of leaders by creating “meaningful opportunities for young people to lead, to train and to mentor them.” Congregations that do this, he says, are better able to retain young people while also building long-term organizational stability.

Outreach is another common element in growing Christian churches. Engaging with the local community to improve people’s lives can greatly strengthen congregations, Thiessen says.

“There are massive amounts of people worldwide, and still not an insignificant number of Canadians, who find great resonance with their churches’ teachings and with their religions’ teachings that are extremely impactful, that are a critical source of meaning for them to interpret their day-to-day life and experience.”

A third quality is discipleship—or what Thiessen describes as “forming people’s spiritual lives and taking that as the core business of what congregations exist to do…creating opportunities for people to meaningfully deepen their spiritual life,” and helping disciples teach other disciples.

Finally, successful churches offer worship experiences that draw people in, he says. They employ effective communicators to deliver sermons that are relevant to people’s lives, and provide music that appeals to them.

The question of how to get more young people involved in the church is one that often preoccupies Christian denominations with aging memberships. Thiessen credits many conservative Protestant congregations with being particularly successful in retaining youth.

“One of the things we know is religious groups who have more conservative religious beliefs and practices tend to take their faith more seriously, and tend to take their transmission of faith to their children more seriously,” he says. “Therefore, they’re actually more active within the home, they’re more active in taking their children to church, they’re more active in seeking out churches that have these youth programs and youth outlets, those kinds of things.”

Increasing the number of young people in the church, Thiessen says, “starts with having some younger demographics in your church to begin with who are having children and reproducing, and then actually taking faith socialization seriously within the home. That’s your starting point.”

Subsequent steps include having programs for children in the form of Sunday school that are fun, but also theologically significant in developing a young person’s faith; offering youth programming in later years that can provide enjoyment for teenagers while further socializing them into a Christian tradition; and providing liturgy and music that appeal to youth.

“The style and form of music actually makes a really big difference for young people,” Thiessen says. “The kind and style and quality of preaching and teaching that engages young people, that speaks to the current issues of the day, and can convey things in compelling ways that maybe draws on social media…. I think these are some of the things that we know from traditions that are…retaining young people.”

The number-one reason a person joins a faith community, he says, is that someone they know has personally invited them. When young people who are part of a subculture invite their friends to participate in shared activities, such as a youth hangout at church on Friday night, their enthusiasm can be contagious.

Thiessen says there remains much more to religious life today than might be suggested by statistics showing membership decline in some denominations.

“There are massive amounts of people worldwide, and still not an insignificant number of Canadians, who find great resonance with their churches’ teachings and with their religions’ teachings that are extremely impactful, that are a critical source of meaning for them to interpret their day-to-day life and experience,” Thiessen says.

He encourages the church to learn from other Christian traditions that are faring well in Canada, such as Pentecostalism, which, he says, offers to its members “a highly experiential expression of religious life.

“It is helping individuals to connect their beliefs and practices with their daily experiences, is speaking to culturally relevant issues of the day, is creating spaces and places for involvement for leadership development for young people to get involved,” Thiessen adds. “All these kinds of things would suggest that there still is a great opportunity for different religious traditions to engage individuals in meaningful ways.”

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Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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