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 past month 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. He suggests 8 reasons why people have left active involvement in church community or were never interested to started with. These are weighted in that the first 4 reasons were most significant, while the last 4 descend in significance rapidly.
- The attitudes and behaviours of religious groups are seen as too exclusive -- a separation of "us" and "them." Thiessen frames this concern within the larger dialogue in Canadian society that continues to shape citizens around tolerance, and social and religious pluralism. As civil society builds these approaches through legislation, education and media, they become the underlying message that affects most Canadians values and decision-making practices. Some of Thiessen's subjects left religious involvement as an act of rebellion against "staunchly conservative" home environments, or adopted more inclusive and tolerant approaches after leaving such homes when going off to university, etc.
- Life transitions -- a move away from a setting where a family or individual was actively involved in a church community, the death of a parent or spouse who was more actively committed, divorce in a family and break with a faith community, struggle for meaning following a death or divorce. Just never returned to active involvement after the loss of a sense of community.
- Opportunity for teenage choice -- typified by "my parents said I could choose, so I did, I walked away." Again Thiessen frames this as thoughtful parents wanting to echo societal values of independence, choice and tolerance. Some viewed this as demonstrating the marginal significance of religion to their parents.
- Too busy with other things. There are so many options for children, extracurricular activities, a 24/7 lifestyle that active faith community involvement takes a marginal role, again suggesting that faith involvement was not too deeply held in the first place, so leaving isn't a big issue.
- Scandals and hypocrisy play a role for some. Inconsistencies between teachings, words and actions in parental homes, among church members and on the part of church leaders.
- Intellectual disagreement regarding place of science over religion, questioning the existence of God, and religious pluralism -- how can there be one true god?
- Interpersonal tensions mostly on the part of adults who were once actively involved but through offence or church conflict left.
- Lack of social ties -- no one in social circle is involved, active family members move or die, leaving no meaningful connection to a faith community.
Thiessen's point is that most of these reasons that people give for their lack of involvement, or actually having left active involvement, don't have a lot to do with issues of "supply" or a certain kind of attractive product, they have to do with broader societal issues, personal choice, religious socialisation in families and subjective responses to factors largely beyond what churches can control.
This is a simple glimpse at several of Thiessen's observations. Not particularly hopeful on the surface... But there are several other issues Thiessen discusses that offer some insight: what would be attractive to "marginal affiliates" and "religious nones?" and how could "religious socialization" (disciple-making/discipleship) be conducted differently in home and church communities? Stay tuned for posts on these topics.