An Endangered Species: The Casual Church Attender

Canadians are usually quite good at finding differences between themselves and their southern neighbours. Our congregation (the Tintern Church of Christ) has played host to a mission team from the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock Arkansas for three years, and most recently a group of teens from the Northeast Church of Christ in Kingsport Tennesee.  Each year the week is full of playful jibes and curious questions about Canadian customs and American behaviours. Both groups revel in finding the differences between our two countries: geographically close but culturally miles apart.

Canadian church leaders however do not make a regular practice of noticing or understanding the differences between the Canadian church experience and that of our sister congregations in the US.  While similarities exist, particularly between the Northern states and Canada, church growth and evangelism literature typically addresses the needs of the Southern churches (by nature of their larger size) and do not address the unique Canadian cultural experience.  Most writers within our brotherhood and those from other church fellowships as well seem to operate on the assumption that what’s good for the “Canadian” goose is good for the “American” gander but the needs of the churches in the two countries are very different.

Recent research shows that the Canadian Evangelical experience is different than that of the United States, especially when it comes to the attendance patterns of young adults. Reginald Bibby is a Canadian ethnographer who is the authority on the statistical study of church and faith in Canada.  In his book, The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice, he reveals that over the past twenty-seven years the proportion of weekly worship attenders among teens and young adults (ages 13-19) has remained relatively stable, hovering around 21%.  The big change has been in casual attenders.  In 1984 49% of responders to Bibby’s study said they attended a worship service occasionally (once or more a month but less than weekly).  That number has fallen to 32% in 2008 while those who said that they never attend worship services has risen from 28% in 1984 to 47%  in 2008.  (Bibby, The Emerging Millennials, p. 178)

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What does this mean?  It means that in Canada there are fewer and fewer teens who are casual attenders at worship services.  I think most leaders within churches of Christ in Canada would agree that the number of regular attenders have remained relatively stable but casual attenders are vanishing. What about in the United States? Have they found the same trend there?

Weekly church attendance for teens in the United States has remained relatively static since 1990.   The percentage of Twelfth Grade students who attend weekly worship services has remained around 30% for the past 20 years. (Child Trends (2011). Religious Service Attendance)  Christian Smith is a researcher in the United States who has studied the intersection of faith, religion and youth culture for almost 30 years.  He reports in the Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion that from 1976 – 1996 the percentage of twelfth grade students who were regular worship attenders fell slightly from 40% to 32% while casual attenders rose from 47% to 51%.  Twelfth grade students who never attend worship services rose from 12% to 16% during the same time frame.  (Journal For The Scientific Study of Religion (1996). Mapping American Adolescent Religious Participation) Later, in his book, Soul Searching he reports in 2003 that 25% of teens ages 13-17 attend worship services once a week or more.  45% of teens attend worship casually while only 29% report that they never attend a worship service (from the National Survey of Youth and Religion 2002-3).  More teens in the United States are casual or regular attenders than in Canada and subsequently there are far fewer teens who report never attending church.

Casual church attenders in Canada are becoming extinct while they remain a large proportion of teen populations in the US. This distinction becomes significant when you consider large scale approaches to evangelism.  An evangelistic strategy that appeals to a casual church attender is going to have far less traction in Canada (and the Northern US) than it will in the south.  In Canada there are far fewer casual attenders to appeal to.  Whether your approach is more relevant sermon topics, more vibrant worship, a more active children’s ministry or any other attractional growth model, they assume that there are people out there that will be interested in a better sermon, better kids classes, better young married’s ministry.  The statistics are telling us that in Canada there are fewer and fewer people out there to be appealed to.  Almost 50% of young people in Canada never attend a worship service anywhere.  An appeal to them that draws on positive experiences of the past will get nowhere.

Whether you are convinced by the statistics or not, I think we can all agree that in order to be evangelistically successful we need to know our immediate context better than we presently do.  For those of us who live in Canada, we need to be aware of our country’s unique cultural perspective.  Wherever you live, your church family needs to be familiar with the needs in your specific community and the potential partners in ministry that are already there.  A propositional approach to evangelism trades on the assumption that basic foundational principles of Biblical authority, and Christian theology are in place.  I think we all know that in Canada that isn’t true.

An evangelistic approach that is based on service to our community has the greatest chance of reaching people for Jesus because it is the clearest demonstration of God’s nature we can give to a generation of people who have little or no Biblical literacy.  Serving the needs of others, without any expectation of getting some benefit in response is the most Christ-like think we can do.  Selfless service does not produce immediate results, but it begins a relationship that can one day produce a space where the gospel can be shared.

More attractive and more efficient presentations of Gospel truth will come and go but in a country of increasing religious polarity, our communities need servant hands and servant hearts to act out the gospel, before they will be willing or able to hear someone present it.


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