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Leaving and Not Coming Back?

Leaving and Not Coming Back?

Next week I head to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion annual meeting in Indianapolis. I will present a paper titled, “Dwindling Demand: Abandoning Religious Involvement and Affiliation in Canada.” This material arises from the second to last chapter in the book manuscript (An Individual Faith: Don’t Push Religion) that I am currently putting the finishing touches on, based on interviews with active religious affiliates (identify with a religious group and attend religious services nearly every week), marginal religious affiliates (identify with a religious group and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage), and religious nones (do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services).

80% of the marginal affiliates and religious nones that I interviewed once attended religious services on a regular basis. What contributed to their diminishing levels of religious involvement, and in some cases to abandon religious identification altogether?

  • Reject Exclusivity – religious beliefs and practices (e.g. regarding gender or sexuality) are too exclusive relative to Canadian values of inclusivity and tolerance

  • Life Transition – a geographic move, a divorce, or a death in the family

  • Teenage Choice – parents increasingly give their teenage children the option to continue attending, and most teens opt out at that point

  • Too Busy – two-parent working family, multiple extracurricular activities for children, tending to the basic necessities of life (e.g. groceries and laundry)

  • Scandals and Hypocrisy – sexual and financial scandals, beliefs that fail to align with practices, religious inspired violence

  • Intellectual Disagreement – cannot reconcile religious beliefs about the world with science, religious diversity, or evil in the world

  • Interpersonal Tension – conflict with others in their religious group, lack of warmth and welcome in their church, and attempts to get involved but church leaders do not return calls

  • Social Ties – friends and family frown upon their involvement in the religious group, friends in their church move away, or hanging out with the “wrong crowd”

Do these individuals desire greater involvement in a religious group? Most do not, but for those who do, here are the things that might bring them back:

  • Community

  • Family Factors (get married, have children, good programming for children, or children move out)

  • Religious groups that are less exclusive

  • How church is “done” (relevant preaching, leaders who are dynamic communicators, better music)

  • Religious groups/individuals that live their faith out on a daily basis (e.g. help the marginalized)

  • Church located closer to where they live

  • Less busy

But will these things really bring people back? I probe this with interviewees, and most admittedly have not exerted any effort to locate a religious group that meets their “wish list.” Moreover, when one looks closely at the reasons for diminished involvement, or the things that might lead to greater involvement, many of them are beyond the control of religious groups. For instance, aside from scandals and hypocrisy or interpersonal tension, people are leaving due to personal or cultural variables that religious groups do not have much control over. Yes, religious groups can (and should) dialogue with individuals amidst their queries and frustrations and busyness, but at the end of the day people are not leaving mainly because religious groups are driving them away. When I share this interpretation, some are quick to say ‘yes, but if religious groups change their views on women in leadership or homosexuality, then people will attend more.’ Based on my interviews, and posing these exact questions, individuals are quick to agree, but then why don’t they pursue greater involvement in the increasing number of congregations that have changed in these directions? If this question is applied to the lists above, as I did with individuals who said they would attend more if a church was closer by – and then I noted the three churches I passed inside of two blocks from their home – we discover that the desire for greater involvement is not that strong.

The conclusion? Contrary to some sociological research and countless books that church leaders read, the ‘build it and they will come’ and ‘just do church better’ narratives need to be set aside (if ‘they’ do come, it’s usually from other churches, which is great, but…). Churches do need to ‘do church well,’ yet the fact is that most of those who are not regularly involved are fairly content with their levels of involvement and any lip service paid to desiring greater involvement is just that (for many, but not all) – lip service. There are always anecdotal stories to suggest otherwise, but on the whole I don’t think the demand for religion or religious involvement is as great as many think. Ironically, coming to grips with this reality could be very freeing to realize.

What implications arise from this discussion? That is for another blog or invitation to speak with your group…

Have additional thoughts or reflections on this topic? Send me an email at and stay in touch via my website at

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