Editors attending the conventions of Canadian Church Press and the U.S.-based Associated Church Press in late April in Toronto heard the latest challenging statistics about religion in Canada and its effect on church publications.
Keynote speaker and researcher Jane Armstrong started things off by noting “the decline in religiosity [in Canada] has been nothing short of dramatic.” Some churches in this country are “losing members at an alarming rate.”
The drop in interest in church, and religion in general, is the result of a “perfect storm” of scandals and missteps by church and other faith groups that has “undermined public confidence,” together with “an erosion of social values underpinning religiosity.”
Those values, she said, include a sense of duty and obligations, respect for rules, regulations and institutions and deference for authority.
As a result, religiosity — which Armstrong defined as including church membership, church attendance, acceptance of beliefs, knowledge of doctrines and living the faith — “is not sustainable today.”
Adding to the challenge is that most nonchurchgoing Canadians see religion as “an out-of-date concept that offers little or nothing to contemporary people.”
As a person of faith herself, Armstrong knows this isn’t true for many churches. But, she added, most Canadians are “unaware of how denominations have evolved over the past decades . . . there is a gap, or disconnect, between how the church is evolving and how it is seen by many as out-of-step, resistant to change and against the new societal norms.”
Asked by an audience member what church publications could do to address the decline, Armstrong said they should let people know the church is addressing issues of social justice and show how it “has changed so much over the past couple decades . . . this is a message the general public needs to hear, that it hasn’t heard.”
The convention also featured a workshop on “What Your Publication Needs to Know About Today’s Canadian Church” by Rick Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism.
Drawing on his own and other research, Hiemstra showed a correlation between church attendance and the consumption of Christian media: The more often people attend church, the more likely they are to read a church publication.
With church attendance falling in Canada, there will be a negative effect on church magazines and newspapers.
“There has been a massive decline,” he said. “In a generation we have moved an awful lot. . . . It’s a big change in Canada.”
For some at the convention, the challenges facing their publications are invigorating. They look to the future with anticipation. Others lamented changes, longing for the days when people would regularly read their printed words.
But as speaker Nora Young, host of CBC Radio’s Spark program about technology and culture, noted, “the audience has moved” to digital, and it isn’t going back.
In conversations I had around the convention tables, most editors and reporters agreed that the next few years will be critical for church publications and also for their churches. How will they communicate with their members and the wider world in the future, and who will pay for it?
Maybe next year’s convention will have a few answers.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.