12/10/2012 05:53 EST

Generation Y And Religion: As Church Attendance Falls, Young Believers Ponder The Future Of Faith

Emma Crawford seemed like a church girl.

She attended youth group every Friday night and went to church on Sundays. She played drums, bass and guitar in the church band.

But now, she says it was all a cover for being gay.

Crawford came out to members of her Pentecostal church at 18. But instead of the support she sought from the community in Niagara Falls, Ont., she received a handful of hateful emails.

One said they could not support her lifestyle. One told her she was turning away from God. Another said that she was slapping God in the face.

Crawford said she had been taught by her church that Jesus didn’t judge, yet now there was plenty of judgment to go round.

She never returned to the church and says it’s for the better.

“I’ve found me. I’ve found my own happiness.”

Crawford, now 20, is one of many young Canadians who have stepped away from institutionalized religion, a trend that has been growing for the past 25 years.

An exclusive survey of 1,004 Canadian millennials conducted for The Huffington Post Canada found 51 per cent of respondents said they never attend a religious institution. Just 12 per cent said they attend weekly, with attendance highest among millennials in central Canada (23 per cent) and lowest in Quebec (3 per cent).

Weekly attendance was most common among Christian denominations, followed by Jews and Muslims, the Abacus Data survey, conducted Oct. 23-25, found.

In 2005, Statistics Canada found that 33 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 had never attended a religious institution, compared with 25 per cent in 1985.

“What we’re seeing … is that there is a significant percentage of Canadian teens and young adults who are abandoning religious orientations after being involved in them as children,” said James Penner, an author and sociologist based in Lethbridge, Alta.

In his 2012 report Hemorrhaging Faith, which analyzes why and when young Christian Canadians leave and return to church, Penner found that, for every three young people who attended church as a child in the 1980s and 90s, only one regularly attends now.

Moreover, he found that only 23 per cent of young Canadian Christians are “religious engagers,” meaning they still associate with the Christian tradition.

One reason for the drop in church attendance, Penner said, is that Canadian society has become more individualistic, while young people are more focused than ever on attaining the credentials, internships and education required for good jobs.

When Ian Vandaelle was 12, he started to referee hockey on Sunday mornings. He said he got the job specifically so he would not have to attend church with his family.

Vandaelle attended a United Church in Lacombe, Alta., a small town in what he calls “Canada’s bible belt.”

Now 22 and living in Toronto, Vandaelle has completely stepped away from his religious roots: He jokes that he will go to church only to make his mother happy.

“There’s a man in the sky, or a woman in the sky, or some kind of creature sans gender in the sky, that gave us free will but has already determined everything we’re going to do,” he said sarcastically.

“There’s this disconnect. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m a guy who likes to reply on what makes sense in my own mind.”

Penner said young Canadians often step away from religion to do what he calls “getting a life.”

“All the pressures of setting up your apartment, roommate relationships, finding a new community, new church. [Church] lifts off radar,” he said.

He cites a book called The First Year Out by Tim Clydesdale, which examines the identities of young adults just as they leave high school. The book explains that young religious people often keep their faith hidden.

“Many of these youth don’t say that their faith is not important, but they don’t want it tampered with as they figure out how to get a life. It’s back there, but it’s complicated having it out front when it’s an individualistic, credentialed, materialistic society,” Penner said.

Crawford, who felt rejected after she revealed her sexuality to her church community, said she looks back on those years as a missed opportunity.

“It was always like, ‘If I wasn’t in the church, I’d be gay. If I wasn’t in the church, I’d go do this,’” she said. “Along with the stress, like no drinking, you kind of feel like you’ve missed out on your young years.”

Crawford said she does not want to think about church right now, although she doesn’t rule out a possible return to religion.

Some do go back.

Josh Canning stepped away from his religion in his 20s (see video above). But in his last years at university, he was dragged to a religious retreat by friends, met his future wife and was reintroduced to the faith. At 32, Canning has dedicated his life to being a religious leader for university students as a chaplain at Newman Centre Catholic Chaplaincy and Parish at University of Toronto.

On a Sunday night, the Newman Centre’s St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Community is crammed with people. Most are in their 20s and sit shoulder to shoulder in the pews. The parish is loud with song. An usher points to empty spaces in the pews for latecomers. Free seats are scarce.

Canning says that university is for many young people the first time the dominant influence in their life is no longer family, but peers.

“As you went with the flow with your family, you might now go with the flow with your peers and not go [to church] anymore,” he said.

“I can see how someone who, in my case, growing up, didn’t have as good a handle on the tenets of their faith ... would say ‘Why bother then? I’m away from home and now I can do whatever I want.’ ”

He feels there is great potential, however, to bring back adults who once practised their faith as young people.

But for some, there’s no going back.

According to Penner’s study, 15 per cent of young Canadians classify themselves as atheists.

James Brown, a philosophy professor at University of Toronto, says a significant portion of the population are non-believers, as atheism is no longer frowned upon by society.

He says that when he was a child in the 1960s, some people denied that atheists even existed. “They were no more real than the bogeyman.”

But he says that once people realized atheists were not “walking on their knuckles, they’re not drooling, blood dripping from their fangs,” and that non-believers seem to live happy lives, atheism became just another an option for Canadians.

A 20-year-old Greater Toronto area woman, Laila Omar, who asked that her real name not be used, grew up in a devout Muslim household. Her family does not know she is an atheist.

Omar said her faith in God was shaken when she noticed that her sister, a fervent believer, would not salute the sun as part of her yoga practice because she found it a sacrilegious affront to God. To Omar, this seemed illogical and she began to doubt her faith.

“Being somewhat of an environmentalist … I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t salute to the sun. The sun is such an integral part of the entire Earth,” Omar said. “A lot of the reason why no one respects our Earth is because they’re too busy wondering what heaven is like, when heaven is right here on Earth.”

Omar still attends Friday prayers with her family, and she says Islam is full of wisdom.

“I’m turning more to religion to understand a little bit more of how people work… and a few more lessons. Not because of God, but because here’s a book and it has a lot of lessons in it and you might as well take what you can from it,” Omar said.

Penner said the church will need to change to keep young adults interested.

He said since young people grew up with the Internet, which is so interactive, they yearn for church to be the same.

“I want a place where my biggest questions get answered, and I want to be able to disagree and discuss this, and I don’t want to feel that I’m somehow lesser if I don’t agree with you,” he said. “The interactivity of the Internet is calling for churches to re-examine how they present what they consider true,”.

At the Anglican Parish of Seaforth in Nova Scotia, the church leadership is trying to do just that. Leading the charge is Kyle Wagner, 29, priest and amateur rapper.

Wagner listens to Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., and says rapping is a way he can express his faith. The priesthood was in his genes; his father was an Anglican minister, his mother a United Church minister.

He said the idea that church is a Sunday-only ritual just doesn’t cut it anymore.

“We need to engage not just youth, but everyone. It’s a busy schedule for people,” he said. “I think that the point of church is a discussion. Jesus himself… discussed and debated and questioned. I think the days when people didn’t question the church are thankfully over.”

Wagner said sometimes the 10 to 15 people in his youth group do not attend church on Sunday mornings. For them, the small group gathering is just like church. In the early years of Christianity, it was illegal to practice the faith publicly, Wagner notes. People used to gather in their homes instead.

“I think you’re kind of seeing church becoming what it used to be, which was small groups of people gathering together,” he said.

As youth attendance continues to drop across the country, many people, including Wagner, wonder what will become of these religious institutions in the next few decades.

“What will the church be? The church will still be around but it might look very different,” he said. “I’m not sure what it will look like, but it will look like what the people want it to look like.

This feature was produced by Victoria Stunt, a student in Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada.

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