Barbara Kay: Across North America, seeds of a religious rebound

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children and their rabbi go the Western Wall to celebrate a prayer book ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem on July 12.

My grandparents, immigrants from Poland and Romania, were Orthodox Jews and deeply observant. My parents, born here, joined a Conservative shul (mixed seating), and kept a traditionally Jewish home. My husband and I joined a Reconstructionist synagogue (liturgically traditional, theologically agnostic, anchored in Jewish “peoplehood”), and mainly express ourselves Jewishly through community volunteerism and Zionism. My children both married non-Jews and almost never attend any synagogue. It is quite possible that some of my great-grandchildren will have no attachment to Judaism or Israel altogether.

We’re par for the North American Jewish course. A Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project did a major survey of American Jews three years ago, and found that assimilation is sweeping through every branch of Judaism, with intermarriage reaching a high of 71 per cent for non-Orthodox Jews (lower in Canada), a huge shift from before 1970 when only 17 per cent of Jews married “out.” The survey also found the percentage of “Jews of no religion” rises with each generation; a full 32 per cent of Jewish millennials claim they have no religion. Of them, two thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way.

Mainline Protestant churches echo these trends. In America, a 2015 Pew Research Center report concluded that the total number of Mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. — United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches — decreased by about a million a year between 1980-2015. Canada’s four largest mainline Protestant denominations — Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Church — peaked in the mid-1960s, and then dropped by half in the same period tracked in the American study.

Is a continuing trend away from religion in general and from orthodoxy in particular inevitable? Perhaps not.

A new study out of Wilfrid Laurier University, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy,” surveyed and interviewed clergy and 2,200 regular attendees from a mix of Ontario mainline churches, half from growing churches and half from declining. The study authors defined a growing church as one with annual average growth of 2 per cent or more in attendance over the preceding 10 years, and declining churches as those with an annual average 2 per cent net loss over the same period. 

They found that the more robust churches were led by theologically conservative pastors — that is, pastors who took Jesus’ resurrection literally, who believed that God answers prayers with miracles and who read their Bibles daily.

Growing church clergy and congregants “are more focused on bringing new members into the Christian faith” (i.e. evangelical). And 100 per cent of the growing church pastors agreed that “It is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” a sentiment agreed to by only 50 per cent of declining church clergy. Moreover, when asked to describe the purpose or mission of their church, growing church attendees most often spoke of evangelism, while declining church attendees were more likely to name “social justice activities” as the purpose without reference to religious motivation or outcome.

Surprisingly, attendees at growing churches are younger than at declining churches — two thirds of the former are under 60 years of age, two thirds older in the latter. Growing churches tend to use innovative techniques like drums and guitars in services, where declining churches depend on organ and choir. Growing churches also emphasize youth programming. But the study’s main conclusion was that liberal doctrines lead to decline, while the “conservative theological positioning of clergy and attendees is a significant predictor of church growth.” 

The same trend is evident in the Catholic Church. Liberal Catholic churches are losing adherents, but numbers are growing in non-Western countries and the Church they are choosing is the one Pope Benedict XVI presided over: firm on dogmas and indifferent to ideological trends. The next generation of Catholics will be more traditional, but more ethnically diverse. 

The Jewish future holds similar seeds of promise. The Pew study found that when Jews leave the branch they grew up in, they tend to go in a less traditional direction (see first paragraph). On a brighter note, while abandonment of Orthodoxy was common in my parents’ and my generation, the Pew study also found that the Orthodox today, representing 10 per cent of the Jewish population of some six million in America (about 350,000 in Canada), are, unlike the liberal branches, retaining the younger generation. As Orthodox Jews marry young and tend to have large families, they represent the only growing segment of the community whose Jews consider themselves strongly religious in character. 

It may be that the zeitgeist is anti-religious. But materialism and secularism’s substitute for God, “social justice,” cannot satisfy people’s inherent spiritual hunger with the empty calories of righteousness forever. So perhaps a few of my great-grandchildren will be keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath after all. I can live with that.

National Post