Church attendance dropped faster during the pandemic, but parishes are adapting: Statistician

Canon Neil Elliot, statistics officer for the Anglican Church of Canada, says the church needs to start planning for a future of smaller communities and new expressions of church life in response to the pandemic's acceleration of already declining attendance. Photo: HenriqueWestin/Shutterstock
Published July 21, 2023

Data for 2021 confirm attendance in the Anglican Church of Canada declined by about 10 per cent that year, after a similar drop in 2020, the church’s statistics officer says, while preliminary findings from 2022 suggest it continued in a steep decline into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In 2019, statistics officer Canon Neil Elliot released a report that described a downward trend of 2.5 per cent per year—a rate that would see the church’s membership depleted entirely by 2040 if it continued. An update with data from 2020 showed the downward trend had accelerated to about 10 per cent that year, with data that was preliminary at the time suggesting a similar rate of decline for 2021. The latest numbers confirm the latter, Elliot says. 

Elliot’s latest statistics report was submitted to General Synod this summer but was not put on the agenda for discussion. It includes figures for 2019-2021, intended to compare pre- and post-pandemic data. These show the number of workers employed by parishes down 17 per cent, the number of people on parish rolls down 14 per cent and even more dramatic declines in the numbers of baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals (down 56, 71, 44 and 24 per cent respectively) from 2019 to 2021. 

It also shows figures for two dioceses for which 2022 data was available at the time the report was prepared. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of people in attendance at 30 churches surveyed in the dioceses of Kootenay and Fredericton dropped by around 32 per cent on an average Sunday, with drops of 49 and 41 per cent at the usually heavily attended Christmas and Easter services. If the pattern continues as other dioceses send in their 2022 numbers, Elliot says, an overall drop in attendance at those services of around 37 to 40 per cent for those years nationwide is likely.  

While it may be tempting to blame the shrinking numbers on pandemic lockdowns and expect them to bounce back up at some point, Elliot cautions that may not be the most likely scenario. 

“Last Christmas, there was no reason for people who wanted to be in church not to be in church,” he says, referring to the fact that by winter of 2022, pandemic restrictions had been scaled back across most of Canada. Instead, he says, it’s more likely numbers will continue at their steady rate of decline from this new plateau. 

The reduction in attendance doesn’t tell the whole story, however, he adds. 

For one thing, Elliot says, his findings suggest the number of identifiable donors across the church has been falling more slowly than the number of people in attendance. So while there are fewer people in the pews, he says, those who were already attending seriously enough to financially support their parish seem to be more likely to stay. That’s a softer blow for the church’s financial situation, at least. 

But more importantly, says Elliot, the church has shown that it is able to adapt. First, with the explosion of online services, implemented in response to lockdowns. 750 out of 1550 churches recorded holding an online service of some kind in 2020 and 550 of those maintaining them through 2021. Then there are the host of different types of non-standard church services many parishes have begun offering in increasing numbers and varieties, including things like messy church, fresh expressions or eucharists performed in long term care homes. While these types of services have been around for a while, Elliot says, anecdotal data leads him to suspect that as churches begin to struggle with attendance and building upkeep, they are experimenting more and more with them. He hopes to work out exactly how much with the next phase of research. 

Tracking attendance across online and nonstandard services is complicated, as many people who attend one of these are also going on regular Sunday mornings, making it hard to avoid double counting. But Elliot says the church is beginning to collect data on how many of these alternate forms of church life are being held in Canada. The goal is to track how widespread they are as part of a long-term effort to consider how the church can continue to reach people even as continued shrinkage makes traditional building-centred communities harder to maintain in every parish. 

He says these are a sign that when pushed, the Anglican Church of Canada is able to come up with solutions that let church life survive and even thrive even if it sees a decline in some of its traditional structures. Especially important will be how parishes respond on a local level to the needs of their communities. 

“I think the church needs to be looking at the way it does things soon—now,” he says. “We have evidence through COVID that particularly at the parish level, [the church is] nimble and able to respond quickly … We are understanding ourselves more and more in terms of the people in the community and less in terms of the building.” 


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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