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 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.
Thiessen says he seriously doubts whether marginal affiliates and religious nones (even though they might go to a candlelight service at Christmas or want to get married in a church) continue to give much thought to faith issues. In his research only about 35% of marginals and nones said they might consider greater involvement in a faith community -- more than half said they had no interest at all. So he asked those who expressed some interest in greater involvement, what would actually lead them to increased attendance in a faith community?
- 18% of those who don't participate actively in any faith community said: if they could find and experience a true sense of community, they would consider greater involvement. By this they meant -- if I wanted to find new friendships I might consider a faith community, or if some of my present friends were to take greater interest in a faith community I might join them, and if I knew more people at a church I might participate more actively ("as soon as I have that belonging I think I would definitely be more likely to go").
- 16% of those who don't participate actively said: family factors of some sort might prompt them to greater involvement -- such as getting married, having children, finding good programming for children, and even rethinking things when the kids leave home. Some sense of church as a place that might give appropriate moral grounding for children -- that the parents don't feel adequate for. One reason for not following through on this was fear of beliefs being taught that the parents no longer adhere to.
- 11% said: if religious groups were less exclusive they might consider greater involvement -- ie., don't judge others beliefs or behaviours, keep faith out of politics, don't proselytise, and let people think for themselves.
- 11% said things about the way church is "done" -- pointing to more relevant preaching, charismatic leadership and engaging music.
- 10% said if religious communities were seen to live out their faith in more concrete terms -- i.e., active participation in humanitarian efforts, public service, etc.
- 6% said if there was a church they could relate to within closer proximity.
- 6% said if their life was less busy they might consider greater involvement.
Important to remember from this info -- these are factors just for the small sector (35% of marginals and none) who said they "might" consider greater involvement if...
And Thiessen's point -- most of these factors, including the most substantial ones, are largely beyond the control of church "strategies" for increasing attendance, they are intangibles that are dependent upon 1) authentic disciple-making, creating an environment of caring koinonia and outward-oriented, authentic friending; and 2) family life factors that have nothing to do with people "in" church.
Thiessen also makes the point that, for the most part, people will continue being in the future, what they have been in the past -- something significant would have to intervene for most of the marginal affiliates and religious nones to make any changes to their present approach to faith issues.
(1 more post to come on thoughts about, for me, the most important reflection on Thiessen's research -- the role of Christian community in shaping belief, belonging and behaviour, that might have any hope of catching the attention of the majority of the Canadian population.)