Religion, but no church required
53% engage in religious activities on their own
`Think of it as a spiritual potluck’
May 3, 2006. 10:40 AM
FAITH AND ETHICS REPORTER
After dinner each Thursday evening for the last three years, Rad Zdero would set out cookies, tea and coffee as he waited for a few of his neighbours to arrive. Around 7:30, they would gather, exchange pleasantries and compliment him on the spread he had laid out.
“Then someone pulls out a guitar and the music gets passed around,” says Zdero, 36, who ran a small church out of his Mississauga apartment.
“It’s a lay movement of churches meeting in homes.”
The five to 10 participants in his weekly meeting brought a mix of music, Bible readings and prayer requests to the gathering, with no leaders and no set liturgy to follow.
“Think of it as a spiritual pot-luck. Everybody brings something different,” he said.
Zdero’s modest sessions, now looking for a new home, represent a growing trend across the country, a study released by Statistics Canada yesterday found, as worshippers shun conspicuous displays of their faith in favour of small gatherings with friends and family, or even private prayers and meditation.
“Public religious behaviour, religious affiliation and attendance have been declining among much of the population, but this captures only one aspect of people’s religiosity,” the StatsCan report says.
Zdero, who wrote a book about the home church movement, estimates there are between 300 and 400 such churches across the country, with networks forming in most regions to help the groups get organized. The StatsCan study would seem to bear this out.
“While only about one-third (32 per cent) of adult Canadians attend religious services at least monthly, over one half (53 per cent) engage in religious activities on their own at least monthly.”
Another 11 per cent do so a few times a year, the study says. Among those who rarely attend church, 21 per cent said they take part in private religious ceremonies, including home church.
“Canadian adults attach a higher degree of importance to religion than attendance figures alone would indicate,” the study says.
Such trends seem to be having an impact on established religions. Over the weekend, the Diocese of London announced the closure of 36 of the 153 Catholic churches across southwestern Ontario due to declining attendance. Another 10 parishes will merge and 26 more are still under review for future closure.
Nearly half the church buildings in the diocese are more than 100 years old and with 20 priests set to soon retire, a dearth of young priests poses serious trouble.
Still, across the spectrum, the StatsCan study also found that the decades-long decline in church attendance that has been a concern of all organizations may have begun to slow.
While the 32 per cent of people who attend church at least monthly marks a decline of 9 percentage points from 1985, it is a 1 percentage point increase from 2000 and comes close to meeting the 33 per cent mark of a decade ago.
The study attributed much of that rebound to an influx of immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines and regions such as the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Four in 10 of those who immigrated to Canada in the last 20 years were found by the study to have a high level of religiosity, an index developed by StatsCan to measure a person’s allegiance to a faith group, compared with 26 per cent for those born in Canada.
For Zdero, the move to home churches was a natural progression from the Bible study club he joined at his Hamilton high school.
His parents did not attend church, so neither did he. But after his little sister brought home a copy of the New Testament from school, he read it and wanted to study it more.
So, under his parents’ radar, he began attending an after-school Bible study group.
“They were afraid I was going to join a cult,” he says. “Now, they get it.”
Zdero attended a formal church while at university in Kingston, but even there found himself drawn to organizing home Bible study sessions, and eventually left the church in favour of home worship.
He likes the idea that there are no leaders, though the unpaid hosts of the groups tend to act as facilitators of the discussion or suggest Bible passages to be read if no one else does.
Regional networks are organized to help home churches with logistical questions of how to organize a weekly gathering, and to pool resources for charity work such as helping developing countries or the disadvantaged closer to home, Zdero says.
But the networks make a point of not acting as spiritual guides, handing down spiritual interpretations or edicts, as might be expected from a church’s central organization.
“Each home church remains a self-governing unit,” he says.
People are attracted to home churches because they allow people to explore their faith on their own terms, he says, with people who share their views. Costs are shared, but rarely add up to more than it would cost to have a few friends over for dessert once a week.
The size of the groups depends on the size of the home, says Zdero, adding that when a gathering gets too big it will split into smaller groups.
“Once you reach the limits of your living room, the question isn’t `When do we start building?'” Zdero says.