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Church Attendance Highest Since 1985
Weekly worship reaches 30 percent, sociologist claims.

Canada's best known surveyor of religious trends says something new is happening in our churches: an increase in attendance.

Maybe—just maybe—God is relating directly to people.

In Restless Churches, his seventh book on the subject, Reg Bibby says "Organized religion is making a comeback."

Attendance has been dropping steadily since the 1950s, but Mr. Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, says weekly attendance has crept up to its highest level since 1985.

By 2000, weekly attendance had hit a low of 21 percent of Canadians, but surveys in 2002 and 2003 by Mr. Bibby, Vision TV, and Allan Gregg's Strategic Counsel pegged weekly attendance at levels ranging from 26 to 30 percent.

Yet a survey released this week by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada at Queen's University reported that only 29 percent of Canadians agreed that religion is important, as compared to 59 percent of Americans who gave it a high priority. Barely 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Canadians said religion was somewhat or very important in their lives.

Mr. Bibby said assessments of Canadian religiosity "depend on the glasses you want to wear.

"Attendance in Quebec is close to 20 percent among Catholics, yet over 50 percent say 'religion is an important part of my life.' In any other business, numbers like that would be pretty encouraging."

Across Canada, "there has been an increase in attendance by Protestant adults under 35, and the number of teens attending services has bounced back from the low of 18 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2000. Things are healthier than people let on," he said.

Mr. Bibby has surveyed more than 20,000 Canadian adults and teenagers in ten surveys dating back to 1975, and says the apparent turnaround "is not an accident. The churches are taking a lot of these things seriously."

He said more and more Catholic and mainline Protestant churches are emphasizing youth ministry, Catholic churches are encouraging the laity to read the Bible, and educational centres are talking about personal transformation, Bible study and prayer.

When Mr. Bibby was writing his previous book, Restless Gods, in 2001, he said he wasn't aware of such widespread changes.

"On any weekend, one of four Canadians attend services. That is five million adults, plus children.

"There is no other group activity in Canada that begins to compare with such a level of involvement. It's more than the total number of fans our six Canadian NHL teams combined draw in an entire season with a fraction of the marketing, publicity and corporate support," said Mr. Bibby.

His new book also differs from his previous works. For the first time, he openly treats religion as more than a human phenomenon.

"If Canadians continue to claim, in numbers that readily exceed the number of people who are active in religious groups, that they experience God, it is worth considering that the sources of these experiences may not be limited to observable and psychological factors. Maybe—just maybe—God is relating directly to people."

Mr. Bibby, 61, was a part-time Baptist pastor of churches in Alberta and Indiana while studying sociology, and says Restless Churches "represents me trying to pull together my life's work in terms of religion. I'm trying in a stark and honest way to bring together the research and elements of personal faith, and the valuing of God."

One in two Canadian adults and one in three teenagers between 15 and 19 report they have experienced God's presence. One out of five people with no religion also report such experiences.

Bob Harvey is the religion editor for the Ottawa Citizen.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 12, 2004.




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