8 reasons Canadians don’t go to church

Mar 14, 2016 by

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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?

John Longhurst


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.

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  • Arthur Sido

    So the number one reason people don’t “go to church” is that the church is not sufficiently accommodating to the whims of the current culture. Ironically whenever a denomination decides to be more accommodating they end up dying (here in America see: the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, PC-USA, MC-USA, etc.). Maybe the church should focus on the truth and worry about attendance numbers later?

    • Charlie Kraybill

      Focusing on the truth is a great suggestion for the church. If the church were to do so, then churches would be places where the findings of modern science are acknowledged and accepted. Because all truth (including scientific truth) is God’s truth. Church would also be a place where children would be taught that many of their favorite Sunday School stories are myths and not historical fact, and that this reality does not detract from the lessons to be learned from the Bible. This is important so that when the children grow up and go to college they would not find their Sunday-School belief system to be an insufficient grounding as they make their way through the halls of advanced learning. How many crises of faith in young adulthood could be avoided if children were never indoctrinated with an unrealistic view of the Bible in the first place! In addition, if focusing on the truth became a priority for churches then seminary-educated pastors would have the freedom to pass along the knowledge they gained when they were given the tools of modern literary scholarship to study the Bible. Unfortunately, most churches aren’t willing or ready to embrace these truths yet. And this is why young people are finding church to be increasingly irrelevant.

      • Steven Stubble

        Interesting analysis, Mr. Kraybill, but it doesn’t go quite far enough. As our children make their way thru the halls of ” advanced learning” they are going to hear, not only that their favorite Sunday School stories are “myths” but also that God Himself is an illusion ! Here’s a hard question for you: how do you think the Sunday School teachers should prepare our children for this particular crisis of faith? How should we prepare them to hear that, according to the secular world, there IS no “Gods truth”?

        • Charlie Kraybill

          I don’t see why you can’t say that very thing to children. Kids can handle a lot more than most adults think they can. And do you believe children are not already aware that there’s a secular world out there? Here’s the real challenge to the church: How to show children that the secular world/viewpoint is not to be feared or condemned. Rather, it’s worthy of consideration and engagement. If God’s truth is real, then freethinking children will come to recognize that truth on their own.

          • Soghomon Ishkhanian

            “How to show children that the secular world/viewpoint is not to be feared or condemned.”

            But what do you mean by the “secular world/viewpoint” here? If it means rejecting the transcendence, then how can you reconcile it with the biblical and theological view of self-existing and eternal being (God)?

            “If God’s truth is real, then freethinking children will come to recognize that truth on their own.”

            Another vagueness and confusion. What is God’s truth here? How can freethinking children, without any direction from a revelation, find the truth? If you mean letting them to use their brains, i don’t see any problem with that. But if this is true, mainly that freethinking leads to truth (for us, Christians, truth lies in Christ Jesus), then why “freethinking” (for me there is no such thing as freethinking, everyone is at the end the product of her/his culture, traditions, education etc.) people are the most who reject any truth coming from the Bible and prefer the agnostic/atheist approach to life?

          • Steven Stubble

            As a father of 4, I can assure you there’s no such thing as a “freethinking” child! A child’s mind is a vacuum that is going to suck up something; if I as a Christian father won’t fill my children’s mind with biblical truth, then society will fill their minds with lots of secularist rubbish. Not everything a secularist says is wrong— we can surely engage them fearlessly. But the secular worldview, which processes information based on the assumption that God doesn’t exist, is most certainly going to arrive at some wrong conclusions at some point. I am preparing my children to recognize these wrong conclusions, in particular as they appear in the life of the church.

      • Conrad Hertzler

        So what’s wrong with having a “crisis of faith”? I would love for my kids to be able to wrestle with the hard questions about their faith and come out with a deeper, purer, stronger faith than ever before. I certain do not want for them to coast through life accepting common belief as absolute truth.

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