Keeping the faithful

In times of crisis non-believers often discover religion, but some scholars think the COVID-19 pandemic might drive fringe members away


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How is COVID-19 affecting organized religion in Canada? I asked a few scholars who study Christianity in this country what they think the impact might be.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/04/2020 (1037 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How is COVID-19 affecting organized religion in Canada? I asked a few scholars who study Christianity in this country what they think the impact might be.

For John Stackhouse, professor of religious studies at Moncton’s Crandall University, the pandemic is showing many churches put too much time and energy into Sunday mornings — or the “One Big Thing,” as he called it.

“If ever we had a moment in which to learn that the main business of being the church is not summed up in the once-a-week main meeting, this is it,” he said of how the church should be engaged in activity with its members and serving the community the other six days of the week.

Churches that invested in small groups prior to the pandemic will find themselves better prepared to weather this crisis, he noted, adding they might “emerge stronger and happier than ever.”

Some might think the pandemic will cause people to return to religion. The consensus among the scholars is no.

Joel Thiessen, who teaches sociology at Calgary’s Ambrose University College, and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, who teaches sociology at the University of Waterloo, are studying the rise of the nones — those who are unaffiliated with any religion — in Canada. They don’t expect a return to religion by that group when the pandemic is over.

“We are not holding our breath for a large religious revival among the nones anytime soon,” they said, noting only eight per cent of the 18-35 year-olds in North America who say they have no religion indicate they would be open to more involvement with a faith group.

On the whole, they say, “I don’t think the overall trajectory will change (because of the pandemic). People will not suddenly return.”

Added Sam Reimer, professor of sociology at Crandall University: “I really doubt that people will flock back to organized religion once they can,” he said. “If they are not looking to organized religion to deal with their anxieties now, they are unlikely to do so because of COVID-19.”

Those who already had weak connections to churches will fall away, the scholars say.

“Many of those barely bothering to attend will stop bothering at all,” said Stackhouse, of how the interruption to in-person services may affect attendance.

Those who already have “a fairly low spiritual temperature” for going to church could find it dropping “a few more degrees,” he added.

Kevin Flatt, a professor of history at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, agrees.

“Many marginal affiliates and some regulars will fade away from regular involvement as they get used to having no services,” he said. “This will happen across traditions, but will probably hit the mainline Protestants the hardest.”

Evangelicals will also experience some attrition, he said, especially those that haven’t “developed the individual and small group spiritual disciplines and habits that can sustain them without the “big event” of Sunday mornings.”

For Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme, the groups most in danger of seeing numbers fall are the liberal Protestant traditions such as Anglicans, the United Church of Canada, and Presbyterians.

Not all is doom and gloom, the scholars say.

A “small sliver” of the population may turn to religion because of the pandemic, said Flatt — people whose “sense of self-control of their destiny is shattered and they become more intensely aware of the fleeting, unpredictable nature of life.”

For Thiessen, a positive may be increased collaboration between churches, especially around technology. “This could be the best thing for them,” he said. “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

The crisis is also a chance to learn some things for the next pandemic, they say.

This includes investing in technology and training people to use it — and having good websites and someone around to update and troubleshoot them; finding alternative ways to collect offerings; and thinking about what it means to be the church scattered.

The experience may also be giving clergy new insights into what being faithful is like for shut-ins, said David Guertzki, executive vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

“I’ve seen anecdotal evidence that disabled people and shut-ins are actually enjoying, ironically, new accessibility to their church homes,” he noted, adding the crisis “could be a good wake-up call to us all that people can so easily fall between the cracks.”

Who knows if these ideas about the impact are right? But whatever happens, the important thing according to Stackhouse is to “not waste a good crisis.”

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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