Around 45% Attend Church Once a Year: A Hope Filled Message?

Around 45% Attend Church Once a Year: A Hope Filled Message?

Image of a cross in and a church parking lot.

In my 2015 book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age, I explored what explains higher and lower levels of religious involvement in Canada. One group of Canadians that I focused on – “marginal religious affiliates,” representing approximately 45% of the Canadian population – identify as Christian and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage. Yes, these are the individuals you may encounter anew this weekend at your own Easter service, particularly in Catholic and mainline Protestant settings; possibly even taking your parking spot or seat in church!

But why bother showing up “religiously” once or twice a year? Three reasons rose to the surface in my research: tradition, family, and sacred space. Tradition – “we have always attended on these occasions and we are not about to stop.” Family – “grandma would be disappointed if we did not all attend this religious service together.” Sacred Space – “though I connect with God in nature, there is something special and distinct about doing so in a religious building.”

There are mixed interpretations and questions about these data, among academics, church leaders, and lay people alike. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic that people are showing up on these select occasions? Should we have hope that marginal affiliates attend for “religious reasons,” or that they may desire to become more involved in a local congregation in the future? How hospitable should we really be to these “free riders” (a non-pejorative sociological term to describe those who take from an organization – such as expecting Easter services to be on offer for them – without contributing anything in return, in the form of volunteering or money, for example)?

Contrary to the perceptions and wishes of many, my own read of the data is that most of the reasons driving people to show up each Easter and Christmas are not overtly “religious” per se, nor do most desire greater levels of religious involvement (I develop this argument in The Meaning of Sunday). Though not an optimistic picture for some, this analysis is a realistic one in my view. And if church leaders wish to effectively minister, they must come to terms with reality first.

So, what is a church to do with this information, and how might congregations engage people this Easter service? Am I suggesting that they just throw their hands up in a state of helplessness and hopelessness? Not at all. Quite the contrary. As Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, I have seen many signs of life and vitality in Canadian churches across theological traditions. Some churches are thinking and acting innovatively, going out to meet people where they are at. And they are experiencing new life as a result.

Easter Sunday, which concludes the 40-day Lenten journey, marks a powerfully hopeful narrative. Among other things, Christ’s resurrection denotes transformation; an invitation to experience life-altering change in a person’s relationship with self, others, creation, and God. Sociological research is clear that Canadians do, in fact, desire a hopeful orientation amidst the brokenness and chaos of daily life. This does not mean that people will necessarily turn to the Church, Christianity, or God, but some do, and congregations have great opportunities to meaningfully engage others in these quests. Research also shows that some religious groups in Canada do a far better job of instilling hopeful messages in people’s minds versus others – and conservative Protestants lead the way in this regard. Theology clearly matters.      

So, this Easter Sunday, what space, environment, liturgy, and rituals will you create for people to reflect upon their lives? What questions will you raise that awaken a person’s consciousness to life’s deep questions, even if that person did not choose to attend Easter service with religious motivations in mind? What is the hope-filled message that you will communicate, and why should that message matter to individuals, families, communities, and society? And what opportunities, invitations, and community will you extend to those who attend beyond this Easter Sunday?

Surely, you have thought about these questions. After all, Easter Sunday marks one of those few services that church leaders consistently aim to “get right” and “go above and beyond,” given who is likely to be in the pews. While many marginal affiliates may not return to greater levels of involvement following Easter, some may. And then the more difficult work to “get it right” week after week begins; here we can learn much from flourishing congregations in Canada, as summarized in our recent article.

With upwards of 45% of Canadians choosing this Easter Sunday as one of the only church services that they will attend this year, is this a hope filled message for your church and denomination, and what hope filled message will you convey to those in attendance?

Faculty