Demographic, Cultural Changes Key to Declining Church Membership: Sociologist of Religion: Research Also Finds Common Threads in Growing Congregations

By Gardner, Matt | Anglican Journal, January 2020 | Go to article overview

Demographic, Cultural Changes Key to Declining Church Membership: Sociologist of Religion: Research Also Finds Common Threads in Growing Congregations


Gardner, Matt, Anglican Journal


SHIFTING IMMIGRATION PATTERNS and broader social changes are key factors in declining membership within the Anglican Church of Canada, according to a sociologist who studies religion in Canada. But while many Protestant denominations face similar challenges, growing congregations also exist within these traditions that share a number of common features.

JOEL THIESSEN, a professor of theology at Ambrose University, a Christian university in Calgary, has written four books that deal with the sociology of religion. As director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, Thiessen has also studied thriving congregations in various Christian denominations.

For Thiessen, recent statistics showing the Anglican Church of Canada's continuing membership decline were not unexpected. He says they reflect a wider trend from the last half-century that continues to afflict many churches.

"It's a common reality across mainline Protestant traditions; Thiessen says. "Your Anglicans and your Lutherans and your United Church and Presbyterians are confronting all of these similar realities, so [the Anglican statistics are] not surprising in the least."

Though he would not "necessarily" come to the same conclusion as Anglican Church of Canada statistician the Rev. Neil Elliot--who said in his report to the Council of General Synod (CoGS) that the current rate of decline would lead to zero Canadian Anglicans by 2040--Thiessen acknowledges that membership is falling across all mainline Protestant churches in Canada.

"There's no doubt that the trend is downward," and all indications, he says, suggest that trend will continue. Thiessen cites the 2017 book Leaving Christianity by Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald, which documents how Canadians began moving away from organized religion in the 1960s and how that process has only accelerated in recent years.

In the particular case of the Anglican Church of Canada, Thiessen believes that changing immigration flow has been the leading factor behind the drop in membership. Several decades ago, he says, the Anglican church benefitted greatly from mass immigration to Canada from Western Europe, particularly England.

"Christianity remains the number-one religion among immigrants to Canada today, and that is declining and changing," Thiessen says. "But I think specifically for the Anglican church in the mid-20th century, many of our immigrants came from Western Europe, England, Scotland, Germany, etc.... The Church of England was directly feeding the Anglican Church of Canada via these high immigration patterns.

"What we've seen since the 1970s or '80s is this shift towards immigration from the global South and East, that are not dominated by the Anglican church. They're perhaps led by Pentecostalism, Islam, the Catholic church--these are some of the big winners, if you will. So the Anglican church hasn't benefitted in ways that it once did."

The second demographic factor behind the decreasing number of Canadian Anglicans is the church's aging membership, he says. The proportion of young people in the church shrank over the last generation.

"The Anglican church doesn't have a strong track record of actually retaining their youth; Thiessen says. "This mass decline we see in part is driven by an aging denomination, and as people die, there isn't a younger cohort that is actually replacing [them]."

Declining birthrates across Canadian society, compared to high post-war birthrates that produced the baby boom generation, are another factor, he says.

Broader social trends have also contributed. Thiessen says the rise in people who identify as having no religion is partly a reaction to "the perception that religious groups are far too conservative." Many Canadians, he says, identify Christianity with conservative white evangelicals in the United States and lump all Christians together as having the same views.

"As society in Canada has become more liberal and progressive over time, what has happened is people have become more resistant to some conservative elements within Christianity; Thiessen says. …

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