Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Mainline Denominational Switching in Canada: Comparing the Religious Trajectories of Growing and Declining Church Attendees

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Mainline Denominational Switching in Canada: Comparing the Religious Trajectories of Growing and Declining Church Attendees

Article excerpt


Growing Mainline Protestant congregations are an anomaly within their overarching denominations. In the United States, national research data shows Mainline congregations are experiencing year-over-year decline in membership and attendance; between 2007 and 2014 alone their number of affiliates dropped about 5 percent (Pew Research Center 2015). Out of a pool of over 30,000 Mainline congregations, Wenger and Reese (2006: 6; Reese 2008) found less than one half of one percent met their criteria for growth. While no comprehensive study has determined what percentage of Canadian Mainline congregations are growing, it is clear that the majority are in steep decline. Canada's four largest Mainline Protestant denominations--the Anglican Church of Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (2), Presbyterian Church in Canada, and United Church of Canada--saw membership in their churches drop by about half since peaking in the mid-1960s even while the population of Canada nearly doubled over this same period (Clarke and MacDonald 2011).

This study explores the denominational history of attendees from a purposeful sample (Patton 1990: 169-174) of growing and declining Canadian Mainline Protestant churches. Church by church, it traces the religious path that brought attendees to their current Mainline congregation. As a means of identifying the unique characteristics of the growing church attendees in the sample, we compare their religious trajectories to those from declining Mainline churches--a group representative of the majority of Mainline Protestant congregants. As detailed in the Methodology section of this paper, over 1000 attendees from growing and over 1000 from declining Mainline Protestant churches were surveyed. The results of the survey demonstrate that the switching patterns of the growing Mainline Protestant church congregants are more akin to those of Canadian Conservative Protestant church congregants. In the Discussion we offer explanations as to why this may be the case.

And while one purpose of this paper is to highlight the differences in the religious trajectories of growing and declining Canadian Mainline church congregants so as to advance understanding of each group, it also has a secondary goal. It seeks to identify the patterns of denominational switching of our sample's attendees and compare them to patterns reported in more general, previous research. Doing so helps achieve greater clarity on the twin issues of religious identification and religious switching in Canada.


It is popularly held that most actively religious people, if they persist in their faith, stay in the same denomination in which they were raised (Bibby 2004; 2003; 2002; Demerath and Yang 1998; Roof and McKinney 1987; Sherkat 2001). However, there are those who leave one denomination for another; this process is often referred to as religious switching (Bibby and Brinkerhoff 1973). More formally, the process has been termed reaffiliation, defined by shifts within a particular religion (Stark and Finke 2000: 114). For example, a move within Christianity from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism would be considered switching/reaffiliation. Typically, a move across religious traditions--that is, from one world religion to another, such as Islam to Christianity--is not considered reaffiliation but instead is termed conversion (Stark and Finke 2000: 114). Religious switching is of interest to those researching religion primarily for the role it plays in the growth and decline of religious organizations. Religious groups, such as churches, that retain current members and enjoy a net gain of members moving from other groups into their own will prosper while, ultimately, churches on the losing end of the switching process will founder.

In the United States, the most current Gallup poll found that 15% of Americans say that they have switched from one religious preference to another over the course of their lives (Newport 2006). …

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