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Canada Loses When Church Going DeclinesCanada Loses When Church Going Declines

Canada Loses When Church Going Declines

Canadians who shrug off the loss of organized religion need to be made aware of the vital role churches and other faith-based institutions play in our national life, writes Convivium contributor John Longhurst.

John Longhurst
6 minute read

It’s no secret that many denominations are struggling today. Congregations are getting smaller and older, giving is down, churches are closing. 

To which some Canadians might say: “Who cares?”

For me, the answer is: Lots of Canadians should care, including governments at all levels.

And why is that? 

As it turns out, it’s just not religious people who benefit from churches and other places of worship. A lot of what we take for granted in Canada depends on them, too.

Take charitable giving, for example. One of the best predictors of whether someone gives to charity is religiosity.

Research in England, the U.S., and in Canada shows that the more religiously active people are, the more they are likely to donate to charity. Not only that. Religiously active people also make larger donations than those who aren’t as religious. 

According to Statistics Canada, in 2010, 93 per cent of religiously active people had given money to one or more charitable or non-profit organizations. Their average annual donation was $1,004. In comparison, 83 per cent of donors who attended less often or not at all had donated. Their average annual donation was $313.

“Studies have shown that people with strong religious convictions also often have stronger pro-social and altruistic values, which motivate them to give more of their time and money to others,” Stats Can says.

As for where they give, religious people don’t only give to religious causes. They also contribute significantly to non-religious charities.

Why do religiously active people give so much? 

They do it out of a sense of duty, obligation or compassion. One of the most common things I hear is they give because they feel blessed, and want to share their blessing with others.

Going to church plays a role, too. Hearing about the needs of the world in sermons, songs, prayers, announcements and bulletins can prompt people to be generous.

But as church membership and attendance falls, fewer people will get those reminders—or not have an opportunity to put money in the offering plate. 

In other words, the decline in religiosity in Canada isn’t just a concern to religious groups. It’s a society-wide concern.

Nor will just charities feel the pain as churches and other places of worship close. The changes will also affect how people learn to be engaged citizens.

In their book Leaving Christianity: Changing Alliances in Canada since 1945, authors Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald note that “churches have traditionally served as one of the chief entry points—if not the chief entry point—to civil society.” 

Historically, they write, churches were the places most Canadians learned how to be civically engaged through things like speaking in public, leading meetings, being part of boards or committees, discussing issues with people with differing viewpoints, giving to charity, and doing service in the community.

Declining church attendance means “fewer Canadians will have the chance to learn the skills necessary for civic engagement that they used to learn in church,” they write.

Of course, they note, other groups also contribute to society’s social capital. 

But “for whatever reason,” churches “are unique in the ways they empower people to become active members of Canadian society. The decline in churchgoing, then, is a societal issue.”

The role of religion in creating engaged citizens was affirmed by a 2017 Angus Reid survey done in collaboration with Cardus’ Faith in Canada 150 initiative. It found that the more religious someone is, the more they are involved in the community.

People who are religiously committed were over twice as likely as members of any other group to say they are “very involved” or “quite involved” in community activities.
 The non-religious by contrast, were the most likely to say they are “not at all involved” in the community.

The pollster also discovered the religiously committed were twice as likely as members of any other group to say “concern for others” is one of the most important things for them. 

They also indicated they are less concerned with success and having a comfortable life than non-believers.

A poll released earlier this summer by Cardus and Angus Reid showed that 65 per cent of recent newcomers to Canada say they connect with churches. 

As an editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press put it, the refugees “describe warm welcomes from church people who are already established in the community and are willing to befriend newcomers, helping them learn English and find a job.”

Sure, the editorial acknowledges, there is no shortage of bad news emanating from faith groups these days. 

“Amid the chorus of criticisms, it's easy to lose sight of the good churches continue to do, but the newcomers know.”

What these newcomers know, the editorial says, is that places of  worship or a faith-related group is often their first main and most important contact in a new country.

These are the people who file the copious paperwork, deal with red tape, raise the funds, find an apartment and furniture and ferry people around to appointments once they arrive.

They also typically provide a circle of support for a period of time to make sure the newcomers get a good start.

With all that in mind, “is it any wonder newcomers like churches?” asks the Free Press.

And if those refugees should ever need food, where would they go? To a food bank. And where are many food banks found? In places of worship.

In Winnipeg, where I live, 58 per cent of the groups that distribute food provided by Winnipeg Harvest, the main supplier of food for the city’s poor, are faith-based.

That number would be higher if programs outside of Winnipeg were included, according to former Harvest spokesperson Donald Benham.

“We continue to count on those [faith-based] groups and those volunteers to provide a vital link to the people we serve, in the neighbourhoods in which they live,” Benham says.

It’s not just in Canada that religion plays a role making things better; it’s also true internationally.

That’s the conclusion of Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam in Great Britain.

Green is a self-declared atheist. But he says that aid groups, and the governments that support them, need to pay more attention to the role of religion if they want to eradicate global poverty.

Religion, he says, “is central to the lives of poor people in a way that governments, aid and NGOs are not. All the research shows that poor people trust religious organizations, turn to them in times of need.”

It is also important when it comes to development, and changing the structures that keep people in the developing world—including women and girls—from reaching their full potential.

“As we think harder about how change happens, religion keeps cropping up,” Green says, adding that religion plays a key role in social norms around things like the role and education of women. 

As a result, he says, it is easier for faith groups, which are already accepted and respected by people in developing countries, to change behaviours of their adherents than it would be for secular aid agencies.

Religion is also important in fragile and dysfunctional states, he says, i.e., places where government services are absent.

Green’s conclusion? “If we [aid groups] are serious about development, we need to understand much more about the diversity, divisions and debates within each church on things like women’s roles,” he says.

In other words, if the Canadian government is to achieve its ambitious goal of assisting women and girls, they will need help and input from organized religion—especially church-related NGOs.

From the global to the local, religion plays a role in making the world, and Canada, a better place by serving as community gathering places, hosting concerts or seniors’ programs, or letting youth use their parking lots to play basketball.

But as religion declines in Canada, all these things will be in danger. Unfortunately, few outside of the religious world seem to be paying attention—as was evident in May, this year, when Canada hosted a major civil society summit in advance of the G7.

The summit, dubbed the C7, brought together representatives from all G7 member states and the European Union, along with representatives from civil society groups in Canada, to discuss ways to create a fairer, more sustainable and safer world. The Prime Minister also was there.

One group that was missing was organized religion. Nobody from a faith group was invited to speak or be part of a panel.

So: Who should care about the state of organized religion in Canada? Everyone. And for those Canadians who say they don’t care if religious groups disappear, I can only say: “You’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

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