Recapping my first post on "The Meaning of Sunday" -- It is no surprise to most Canadians that Christian religious presence is dwindling in our society. In fact the fastest growing sector in Canadian society is those who identify as having "No Religious Affiliation" -- now at 24% of our population (Census 2011). Over the pastcouple months I have been digging into the research of Canadian sociologist Joel Thiessen in his book The Meaning of Sunday(2015). Thiessen's work is based on qualitative social research that he conducted with 90 participants, 30 each of whom he describes as: "active affiliates" (those who regularly participate in a Christian community), "marginal affiliates" (those who rarely participate but still identify as some sort of Christian), and "religious nones" (those who have no involvement in a religious community).
While some in the Christian community want to make the issue of dwindling numbers a matter of "supply" -- that is, if we had a better product, whether preaching, music, programming, spiritual vitality, etc. -- numbers would return, Thiessen's research encourages us to take a broader look.
Although reported almost as a sub-text, Thiessen gives us a glimpse into why "active affiliates" pursue their spiritual convictions so ardently, and, also a glimpse into why young adults might remain as "active affiliates" when their generation is increasingly identifying as having no religious affiliation.
Active affiliates gave the following reasons for why they feel "rewarded" by active participation in a faith community:
- the greatest benefit is the sense of community they experience with fellow believers -- things like: encouragement in common beliefs and practices, honesty, vulnerability, emotional and physical support, accountability, mutual aid
- a sense of meaning, direction and purpose that they receive from their faith; common belief, public and private practices, provide a source of meaning in life. A dependable God and a dependable faith community are mutually affirming in staving off anomie and alienation
- allows for development and affirmation of their faith via ongoing learning opportunities, corporate worship experiences and commonly invoked prayers -- there is something about collective activity that maintains and sustains this perspective differently than solitary religious expression.
Thiessen uses the language of "master status" to describe this kind of religious expression that informs all aspects of one's life.
Thiessen identifies religious socialization as the key determinant in whether a young adult identifies as a "none" -- i.e., no religious affiliation. This makes sense in the increasing number of young adults who have been raised in families which likewise have no religious affiliation. For several decades now (1960s-2010's), each generation has raised more children who have no religious identification in their family of origin (and therefore no formation in any particular beliefs or practices). The result becomes exponential at a certain point (hence 2001/16% -2011/24%).
What is perhaps most challenging about Thiessen's findings (again, as a bit of a sub-text) is the number of marginals and nones who were raised in "active" homes but chose to leave the faith expression of their parents. He firmly places the essential cause as "lack of religious socialization" -- parents did not form their children in the beliefs and practices of their faith. "Lack of religious transmission in the home is an important contributor to declining levels of religiosity across cohorts..."
When parents share the same faith, they are more likely to pass on their faith to their children... Young people are prone to maintain the faith when their parents are actively involved in their religious group, when parents bring their children to religious services, when young people are actively involved in a religious group and maintain personal religious practices, when they have good relationships with older mentors who are religious and when they are given responsibilities in their religious group.
Thiessen goes on to describe a few more societal factors that have shaped the worldviews of even "active affiliates" that have led active, believing Christians to fall prey to practices and viewpoints that produce the outcomes now being described in statistical terms as "dwindling demands" for what churches offer.
In my view there are clear "takeaways" from Thiessen's research that impact:
- our disciple-making practices (Christian formation) for the adults/parents in our congregations.
- our support for parental Christian formation of their own kids; rather than "out-sourcing" that responsibility to local churches
- our understanding of corporate worship and gathered community -- does this experience pay attention to, and include the participation of, the children and teens among us?