Flock is returning to church

Published January 1, 2005

Sociologist Reginald Bibby says churches are missing an opportunity when they do not make the effort to retain unchurched people who come to them for baptisms, funerals and weddings.

Canadians are coming back to church, but a lot of churches cannot figure out how to respond.

This apparent paradox is at the heart of Restless Churches: How Canada’s Churches Can Contribute to the Emerging Religious Renaissance by Reginald Bibby, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta who has been tracking religious and social trends in Canada since 1975.

“It is time for us to open our minds to the possibility that something very unexpected is occurring in Canada: organized religion is making a comeback. What’s more, we may be seeing only the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” Mr. Bibby’s book begins.

This, he acknowledged, goes against current conventional wisdom – that although people possess great spiritual hunger, they are forsaking organized religion. The last census produced such widely-distributed stories as: the number of people indicating they have “no religion” jumped to 16 per cent from 12 per cent, census findings showed the number of members of non-Christian religions is growing and more than 20,000 Canadians identify with the Jedi “religion” of the science fiction Star Wars movies.

Mr. Bibby noted that people declaring “no religion” were actually responding to questions about religious identification, not belief. Although it is true, he also said, that non-Christian religions are growing, the proportion of people identifying with conservative Protestant sects was the same as it was in 1991 – and 1951 and 1871. And the Jedi question was prompted by an e-mail from a Vancouver individual who encouraged people who objected to the religion question to offer the Jedi response.

Mr. Bibby said his latest surveys find that “at a time when only about 20 per cent say they attend religious services just about every week, some 80 per cent of adults and teenagers asserts positive belief in God.” Some 75 per cent of adults and 70 per cent of teens say they believe in a God who cares about them personally, and that includes one in three people who say they have “no religion.”

Mr. Bibby dropped the researcher’s stand of objectivity in Restless Churches to say that he is a person of faith and that “for better or worse, there is good reason to believe that God is choosing to continue to try to work through Canada’s well-established Protestant and Catholic churches.” His surveys show that in recent years, for instance, service attendance by Anglican teens has gone up to 16 per cent in 2000 from 13 per cent in 1984, that attendance levels by 18-to-34-year-old Protestants and Roman Catholics is either growing or stabilizing (outside Quebec), that well over two-thirds of Protestant and Catholic congregations (excepting Quebec) report they are growing or remaining stable.

(For research purposes, Mr. Bibby classified Anglicans as “Mainline Protestants.”)

In an interview, Mr. Bibby said that although he has “always been a person of faith,” he was not tempted to skew the statistics.

“I would say that spanning three decades, we try to have some objectivity in studying religion over time. In fact, I was called Bad News Bibby for years,” he said, recalling that in the 1970s and 1980s, his surveys did seem to bear out the decline of organized religion and rise of secularism. His earlier books in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Fragmented Gods and Unknown Gods, tracked a steep drop in religious involvement.

In Restless Churches, however, he noted that the mainline churches – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, United, Lutheran – “have long histories and recuperative powers.” Not only that, but people who identify with religious groups change very reluctantly and retain emotional ties with their denomination. “They don’t bounce freely from group to group, like customers bouncing from one mall and one store to another,” he wrote.

One curiosity noted in the book is that churches have not figured out what to do with people who identify themselves as “Anglican” or “United” but have stopped coming to services. They don’t even bother to go after former members, even to the extent of reaching out in a pastoral way. Mr. Bibby gave the example of a Baptist husband and wife who gradually stopped coming to church and experienced some grave difficulties in their personal lives. No one phoned from their church “just to see if they were okay,” he said.

Another area where churches fail, noted the sociologist, is in retaining people who come to them for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Some groups “regard such requests for rites as irritating and define those who want them as exploitive religious consumers” he said. Evangelical churches tend to reach out to people more, but in many mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, “the onus is on the pastor to make contact.”

Mr. Bibby, who has a Baptist background, said he currently attends a Roman Catholic church with his wife, who is Catholic. Since non-Catholics are barred from communion, “I just sit there,” he said. “The idea of having a ministry to us, well, part of the culture is they just don’t do it,” he said. A little reaching-out, said Mr. Bibby, may well pay big dividends for mainline churches.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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