Christmas crowds soar but churches pass up opportunities

A new poll suggests nearly a third of Canadians plan to attend a special Christmas service, but some question whether churches do enough to retain the big holiday crowds.

More Canadians plan to attend a Christmas service than watched the Grey Cup

Canadians flock to churches across the country during Christmastime, but experts question whether they do enough to keep them coming back.

Nearly a third of Canadians plan to go to a special Christmas service, a new poll from Angus Reid suggests.

But Reginald Bibby, a scholar who has studied religion in Canada for decades, suggests few churches take advantage of the opportunity offered by the big holiday.

Churches expect the Christmas throngs every year and hold numerous extra services. Many draw hundreds of people, with some parishes even forced to shut doors to latecomers.

“You’ve got a tremendous opportunity but some of them have the outlook that these are just the seasonal people,” said Bibby, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge. “And they don’t want to take them seriously. They almost act like they’re annoyed."

The Angus Reid Global online survey, conducted in early December, suggests that a huge swath of Canada’s population may take part in religious services of some sort.

About 14 per cent of Canadians attend church either weekly or monthly, according to the survey of 1,508 Canadians, but that turnout is expected to more than double for the holiday season to 32 per cent.

That’s about 10 million people, several million more than watched either the Grey Cup or Super Bowl.

‘Religion à la carte’

The largest attendance surges are expected at Catholic, United and Anglican churches, suggests the survey, which has a margin of error of 2.5 per cent.

Canadians attending services

Here's a breakdown of what respondents said about their general attendance: 

  • 38 per cent never attend church.
  • 29 per cent seldom do.
  • 15 per cent go a few times a year.
  • 5 per cent attend monthly.
  • 13 per cent go on a weekly basis.

But when it comes to Christmas time, the number of people saying they will attend rises to 32 per cent.

Source: Angus Reid Global survey

Evangelical churches — which already see strong all-year-round crowds — may see the most modest leap, with only a 15-percentage point increase. But those churches could also see the highest turnout of them all, with nearly 60 per cent of those surveyed who identify with the religion planning to attend.

When it comes to Christmas-only attendees, many are younger than those who regularly attend, the survey notes. For Bibby, that shows they’ve not completely abandoned the religions they grew up with.

He acknowledges that some want nothing more from the church in what's been dubbed "religion à la carte."

But he sees great possibility in the large crowds.

“They clearly have access to a larger number of people than they’re going to see on a given Sunday,” said Bibby.

“The question is: are they going to be able to convey they’re doing things that could actually  have an impact on the lives of these people in a significant way so it’d be worth their while to show up more often?”

‘Not a hard sell'

A United Church in the small community of Norval, Ont., west of Toronto, plans to hold six services on Christmas Eve, but they're not strategizing on how to retain those sizable crowds for year-round attendance.

"Ours is not a hard sell," said Paul Ivany, one of the ministers. "But we see it as letting the story grab hold of people.

"We have a very simple service. Everybody comes in and they end up lighting a candle. And there's something about lighting a candle at Christmastime and remembering your past," said Ivany. "There's something really powerful about that that really touches people in their soul."

This year's busy schedule poses extra challenges. An ice storm walloped the region, leaving the entire community without electricity, the church included.

"It's become a tradition," said Ivany. "People want to be here on Christmas Eve so we'll do what we can to make it happen ... and make it a Christmas people remember.

Ivany says often those warm memories of Christmas services translate to returnees or newcomers down the road. 

Another United church in Winnipeg, however, is taking a more active approach.

Rev. Karen Lumley plans to sneak a little brochure into Christmas programs in hopes newcomers feel welcome enough to come again.

The pamphlet advertises a new event hosted at the church once a month called Messy Church that serves as an alternate crafts- and games-filled alternative to typical Sunday service.

“The kids just love it because it’s informal and it’s church but it’s not really church,” said Rev. Lumley. “I look at it as church at its best because it meets the needs of people.”

Invitation to come again

Last year around Christmas time, the Archdiocese of Vancouver spent $5 million in advertising — money specifically donated by parishioners for the cause — on a Catholics Come Home campaign. The three-month-long promotion was aimed at trying to remind those identifying as Catholics to come on by.

“It was an invitation to take another look at the faith that a lot of people have set aside for a while,” said Paul Schratz, the archdiocese communications director. “Christmas is a great time, a popular time for people to think about these things."

Many Catholics leave the church not for dogmatic reasons, but rather because life gets too busy, said Schratz.

That finding is also borne out in Bibby’s research over the years. Though an increasing number of Canadians identify themselves as non-religious, a number of undecided people still identify with a certain religion and are open to more involvement, says Bibby.

But that return to the church is contingent on it being worth their time.

“Religion is not going away,” Bibby says, despite many doomsayers predicting its slow death.

And that’s evident at Christmas more than ever.

"It’s always a busy, crazy time," laughs Lumley. "And then we all collapse."


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