Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend

An upsurge in new churches in Canada’s urban centres is heralded by some as a sign that religion is far from dead, but others aren't convinced.

Catholic churches in ‘enviable’ position while others struggle

Fewer Canadians identify with religion, part of a growing secularism around the world, but some churches are booming. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A five-metre white cross hangs on the front of the wooden frame that will soon become a new Roman Catholic church in Lower Mainland B.C.

The church's congregation is eagerly anticipating its first home of its own, after having met in a school for nearly 20 years.

“There’s obviously a lot of excitement. We’ve been raising money for 10, 15 years,” said Paul Schratz, communications director for the Archdiocese of Vancouver and a member of the parish.

The St. James Parish in Abbotsford hopes to celebrate its first major holiday this Easter in its new building. It’s one of four parishes under the Archdiocese of Vancouver that is building a church from scratch or expanding.

“We have a lot of good news in this archdiocese,” says Schratz.

So, too, does the Archdiocese of Toronto, which covers a 13,000-square-kilometre area of southern Ontario stretching from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. On average, it’s built one church a year over the past decade.

An upsurge in new churches in Canada’s urban centres is heralded by some as a sign that religion is far from dead, a fear often cited with the rise of secularism throughout the western world.

But others aren’t convinced — and recent figures from around the world, including Canada, suggest that the number of people who don’t identify with a religion has risen to unprecedented levels and shows no sign of abating.

Extinction on horizon?

Last November, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey issued a dire warning that Christianity was a “generation away from extinction” in Britain unless churches make drastic changes and bring young people back into the fold. 

The St. James parish has been meeting in a school for nearly two decades, but they hope to move into their newly built church by Easter. (Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Vancouver)

U.K. figures released last year suggest that a quarter of the population don’t identify with any religion, on par with Canada’s most recent survey. 

It’s a similar story in Australia where, in late December, one in five residents identified themselves as non-religious. New Zealand numbers are even more stark. There, two-fifths of citizens identified as non-religious, pushing Christianity out of its longtime spot as the clear majority.

In Canada in 2011, about 7.8 million people — 24 per cent of the population — cite no religious affiliation, up nine per cent from a decade prior.

For those who do identify with a religion, Catholicism remains the top choice, with 12.7 million Canadian followers, according to the most recent National Household Survey.

The Catholic church one of the few denominations to bring fresh faces into its congregations, thanks largely to immigration from Catholic countries such as the Philippines.

“The Catholics are numerically in a very, very enviable situation,” said Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociology professor.

Catholic churches are embracing the diversity of their followers. The Archdiocese of Toronto, for example, provides mass in more than 30 languages, including Arabic, Mandarin, Haitian Creole, Czech, Korean and Hungarian.

Bibby argues that Canada is undergoing a shuffling of the religious marketplace, with evangelical and Roman Catholic churches winning new adherents while many others suffer from declines.

Despite the increasing number of Canadians rejecting religion, he sees opportunity on the horizon for many churches to entice back numerous “undecideds” who might identify with their family’s religion but not attend church.

“The good news is a lot of people out there are saying they’re open to greater involvement. But there is a big asterisk,” said Bibby. “They’re saying they are open to greater involvement if they find it to be worthwhile.”

No sizable dent

Fellow religious scholar Joel Thiessen takes what he calls a "more realistic" view of Canada’s religious landscape.

It’s not really a function of religion becoming more popular.- Joel Thiessen

Pockets of urban church growth are just that, says Thiessen, but country-wide, Catholic church attendance is still falling, albeit more slowly than other religions.

The proportion of Canadians identifying as Catholics dropped below 40 per cent in 2011. It saw a 10 per cent decrease from 2001 proportions, compared to the 25 to 35 per cent decreases in those identifying with Protestant churches.

“On one hand, [the Roman Catholics] are doing well to hold their own but they’re not making any sizable dent in the overall Canadian landscape,” said Thiessen.

The associate sociology professor at Calgary’s Ambrose University College says basic population growth in Canada’s largest cities is causing the rise.

“It’s not really a function of religion becoming more popular,” said Thiessen.

“[That’s] definitely unlike the non-religion category that is growing numerically and proportionately,” he added.

Thiessen says his research, involving dozens of interviews with the non-religious, suggests Canadians are turning their backs on religion because fewer parents forced them to attend church as children and there’s less cultural stigma against the non-religious. Also, many found religion’s exclusive nature distasteful.

“Many of them talk about feeling free from the religious structures, the religious rules, the things that kind of tie you down,” said Thiessen.

‘Crummy job’ with children

Among denominations hardest-hit by the rise in secularism are mainline Protestant ones such as the United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, says Bibby.

United Church attendance, for example, has significantly declined over the decades. Its latest internal figures, which are from 2011, put national attendance at 166,936, less than half of what it had 25 years ago and a drop of more than 37,000 in just the past five years.

“One of the things that mainline Protestants, for example, have done such a crummy job of really for decades at least,” said Bibby, “[is] when kids show up for service, they don’t have anything for them or what they have is something that’s not particularly attractive to kids.”

Bibby suggests many churches need to rethink their roles and become more family-focused, something evangelical churches have done right for decades, leaving them as one of the few not experiencing substantial drops in attendance.

“Evangelicals take for granted that they need to have a top-notch Sunday school for kids so the little kids are going to look forward to coming to church,” said Bibby.

“If you have to struggle with your kids during the service, and you can’t concentrate … why would you, the next week, wake up and say… ‘Let’s do that again.’ ”

Some United churches are experimenting with ways to bring in young families.

Rev. Karen Lumley is dedicated solely to youth and family ministry at Winnipeg’s St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church. She organizes a new monthly child-friendly alternative church get-together and helps with outreach on events such as its carnival and other community events.

“It’s not like the old days where mostly everybody went to church and so you just did it,” said Lumley. “You have to reach out to people and go out — or offer something that people will come in for."

Lumley says her church saw its numbers declining over the years, but in the past three or four, they’ve been tracking back upwards, little by little, from about 150 families to closer to 200 nowadays.

“It says we’re doing something right,” said Lumley.


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