Canadians Seek 'Spirituality,' But Not Always in a Church

SHAKEN by nearly 10 percent unemployment, a worsening national-unity crisis, and an inability to find solace in church, many Canadians are seeking and finding ''spirituality'' on their own.

In a poll of 1,500 Canadians by a national magazine last month, nearly half said that they had become ''increasingly spiritual'' in the last few years. And in another survey of religious attitudes last fall, 22 percent of Canadians said their interest in spirituality had grown in the past five years.

While rising interest in the ''spiritual'' - from New Age philosophies to charismatic Christianity - has been widely reported across the United States, Canada's experience is different.

For one, the percentage of Canadians who attend church weekly has dropped since World War II from 60 percent to just 25 percent today - a historic low. In the US, churchgoing has stayed at about 45 percent since the 1930s.

''We are seeing a population saying that their traditional material aspirations are not realizable,'' says pollster Allan Gregg of Toronto-based Strategic Council Inc. ''At the low-income end, people are becoming increasingly disillusioned. Upper-income earners are asking: 'How many VCRs do I really need?' ''

Americans tend to adopt a new church or religion if their old one isn't cutting it. Denominations compete to win converts. But Canadians are different. If they don't find what they need at church, they stop attending services altogether, pollsters and pastors say.

''In Canada, we put so much emphasis on coexisting and downplaying competition that when mainline groups falter, we're not that interested in others coming in,'' says Reginald Bibby, a sociologist who has tracked Canadian religious attitudes for two decades. ''It's not the Canadian way.''

Craving for spirituality

Canadians often keep their church affiliation, even if they never attend. Yet 25 to 30 percent of the 5 million Canadians who ''never'' attend religious services say they have ''spiritual needs'' and ''highly value'' spirituality, says Professor Bibby, who teaches at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

To fill the void, many Canadians appear to be embarking on their own personal searches for spirituality.

Among Canada's hottest new trends are Bible study breakfasts and prayer groups made up of business professionals. Discovering this interest among the briefcase-and-suit set, several downtown Toronto churches are opening their doors to welcome the lunch crowd for a few minutes of solitude.

Personal journeys

For Stephen Clark, a partner in one of Canada's largest law firms, a craving for spiritual nourishment propelled him to join a 7:30 a.m. Bible discussion group with other executives. The group meets once every two weeks in a downtown Toronto office tower.

''It has brought God closer to me personally,'' he says. ''It's that simple.

''It is not something you see on Sunday from the formality of the religious service. These meetings have brought me into a direct relationship with God so He is there, with me, all the time.''

Mr. Clark's personal journey also resulted in him attending services at the Anglican church he grew up in. Though he enjoys the services, he won't give up his business Bible group, he says.

The Rev. Timothy Elliott, the Anglican priest at Christ Church, Deer Park, in downtown Toronto, was happy to receive Clark back into the fold.

''People are drawn in, but it's like a vacuum cleaner without a bag,'' he says. ''People come, they like what they see, but we don't always know how to involve them. It's a real challenge to harness the people.''

In a bid to stem the tide moving out its doors, the United Church of Canada, Canada's largest Protestant denomination with 750,000 weekly attendees, is aiming at the growing segments of the population. Song books and liturgies are being published in Korean and the Cree Indian language, for example.

If current trends hold, Canada's religious portrait will be very different by 2015. Bibby predicts attendance at mainline churches (United Church of Canada, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran) will be surpassed by attendance at evangelical churches.

That category, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Mennonites, the Salvation Army, and Nazarenes, is seeing only modest overall growth in numbers. But that growth will still be enough eventually to outnumber all but Canada's Roman Catholics. Though dominant in numbers, the Roman Catholic Church is looking at continuing huge losses of active members in Quebec in particular, Bibby says.

Set against this backdrop, Canadians continue to find ways to fill their spiritual needs that do not include Sunday churchgoing.

Stan Buda, for instance, ran the Canadian arm of a large multinational advertising agency, living a fast-paced corporate life, travelling, meeting lots of people, and working long days.

''My priorities were my clients, the company, and making money,'' he says. ''I was a carnal Christian.''

Today Mr. Buda is a changed man. Four years ago his daughter was killed in a skiing accident. The tragedy led him to quit the ad agency and begin a full-time search for God. What he found, he says, was solace in a renewed dedication to Christ.

Buda, who regularly watches Sunday religious broadcasts, rarely attends church now.

''I attended churches,'' he says. ''I think in the last year I've attended them all. But I read the Bible daily. I pray daily. I'm searching. And I have come to believe that you don't need a physical place to go to.''

But when people like Buda say they have ''spiritual'' needs, what exactly do they mean? One question in polling on spirituality in the US and Canada has been just what people mean when they use the word ''spiritual.''

Despite wide publicity given to New Age books, music, and personalities like John Denver or Shirley MacLaine, Bibby's research shows 53 percent of Canadians use the word ''spiritual'' in reference to ''conventional beliefs'' in God, Jesus, life after death, heaven, angels, and so on. Bibby also says that 74 percent of Canadians believe that spiritual healings occur.

Although 47 percent of Canadians described spirituality in ''less conventional'' ways - such as a ''belief that somehow there is some influencing force'' - that sort of broad definition has not translated into a big boost for New Age philosophies.

''There is little evidence,'' Bibby says, ''that sizable numbers of Canadians who are not involved with traditional groups are actually turning elsewhere.'' Only 3 percent of people polled, for instance, described themselves as involved in New Age movements.

'Gone public'

Interest in spirituality has always existed, Bibby says. The difference today is that it has been ''freed from its institutional context.'' In a sense, he says, ''spirituality has gone public.''

Others, like Tom Harpur, a professor of religion at the University of Toronto, says there is a deep ''groundswell of revolt, a spiritual awakening'' that includes Canada, the US, Europe, and other countries. ''I don't deny that we live in a market-driven, money-driven world,'' Professor Harpur says. ''But there is a search going on. People are trying to fill the gap left by the demise of the old-time faith.

''The dogmas of the past just don't suit today. They were for a different age. They don't speak to people that have seen men walk on the moon.''

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