In Canada, as in the U.S., lots of people don’t attend church. About 80 percent of Canadians and 60 percent of Americans do something else on Sunday mornings. Why is that?
Joel Thiessen, a sociology professor at Calgary’s Ambrose University, decided to find out. Through interviews with non-churchgoers in Canada, he discovered eight main reasons.
At the top of the list was the feeling that the church is too exclusive in its beliefs and practices — that it is out of step with Canadian values of inclusivity and tolerance. This would especially be true of things like not allowing women to be leaders or not being accepting or affirming of people who are gay.
Next was life transitions. People today move a lot, and many find it hard to put down roots in a church.
Teenage choice was third. Parents today increasingly let their teenage children decide whether they want to go to church or not. When that happens, Thiessen says, “most teens opt out at that point.” And once they stop going, it’s hard to go back.
Busyness was fourth. Most families have two working parents today, and their kids are involved in multiple extracurricular activities. Many people barely have time to do laundry and buy groceries. Who has time to go to church?
Clergy sex scandals came in fifth, along with religiously inspired violence.
Sixth on the list was the inability to reconcile religious beliefs with science or with the presence of evil in the world.
A bad experience at a church was seventh. This can be anything from not feeling welcome or included to feeling not cared for in a time of need.
Last on the list was social ties: If friends and family frown upon involvement in a religious group, chances are people will stop going.
The challenge for church leaders is that many of the reasons on the list are beyond their control to fix. And even for the ones they can fix — being more welcoming or caring for people better — it won’t make much difference, Thiessen said.
In Canada, “demand for greater involvement is not strong,” he said. “Most of those who are not regularly involved are fairly content with their levels of involvement, and any lip service paid to desiring greater involvement is just that — lip service.”
Thiessen has detailed his findings in his new book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Its central premise is that Canada is “becoming increasingly secular, and there’s no reason to believe these trends won’t continue. . . . Simply put, fewer Canadians identify with a religious tradition or desire to attend worship services regularly.”
But that’s Canada. Could the same be true for the U.S.? Canadians and Americans are similar in many ways and different in others. When it comes to not going to church, I wonder what the answer will be.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.