Declining Church attendance in Kawartha Lakes

By Ian McKechnie

Rev. Linda Park of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Lindsay, sits in one of the church's pews. Photo: Sienna Frost.

In 1937, the Rev. J. Cunningham Grier gathered on the front steps of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay with members of the church’s Bible class for a group photo. Save for leaders like Grier himself, most of the 100 or so faces smiling for the camera range in age from their late teens through their twenties and thirties. This cohort represented almost 20 per cent of the congregation’s 520-strong membership in 1937 – impressive, but nothing compared to 1962, when the church’s membership had swelled to 634 and its Sunday School was seeing an average of 150 children every week.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Bible Class, 1937. Courtesy St. Andrew’s Church, Lindsay.

Today, in 2023, the average number of Millennials and members of Gen Zed attending St. Andrew’s on a weekly basis is less than 20, while attendance overall hovers at anywhere from 50-100 people.

Similar stories of decline are being told across our area. In towns like Lindsay, buildings originally designed to accommodate 600 or more people look sparse on Sunday mornings, and rural churches are now closing their doors on an annual basis. Recently, Kawartha Lakes has seen the closure of Christ Church Anglican in Omemee (2021) and Knox Presbyterian Church in Glenarm (2022), with Peniel United Church scheduled to shutter its doors for good in 2023.

Do fewer people believe in God? Or are people simply too busy to set aside a couple of hours on Sunday morning?

Individualism, demographics, and a pandemic

According to Dr. Stuart Macdonald, professor of church and society at the University of Toronto’s Knox College, church attendance began a slow and steady decline in Canada after peaking in the early 1960s. In 1961, says Macdonald, census data revealed that less than 1 per cent of the population self-identified as having ‘no religion’ while over 93 per cent of the population identified as ‘Christian.’

This changed throughout the next two decades as the mainline churches struggled to adapt to seismic shifts in the cultural and societal landscape – shifts that led them to reckon with their positions on questions ranging from the role of women in church leadership to human sexuality. Other factors played a part, as well.

“Where churches were specifically affected was in terms of the growth of individualism,” Macdonald notes. “Churches are about community. They are about joining. But what if you don’t want to join, or commit? This was one of the changes that happened in this period. Fewer and fewer people were willing to commit to organizations, or their commitments changed.” According to Macdonald, it wasn’t just churches that were affected by this, either – political parties, fraternal organizations, and recreational leagues were all faced with the same difficulties.

The larger Protestant denominations (Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, and United) were hit the earliest and hardest by these changes, as were Roman Catholics in Quebec. “Over the last two censuses, what has become clear is that all identifiable Christian groups are seeing their numbers decline in terms of identity,” says Macdonald. “People might say they are ‘Pentecostal,’ but the census does not measure attendance or belief.” According to the 2021 census, 35 per cent of the population identifies as having no religion, while only 53 per cent of Canadians identify as ‘Christian’ – but they may or may not attend church.

The Rev. Linda Park has had a front-row seat to changes in church attendance over the last two decades. When she was first appointed as associate minister at St. Andrew’s in 2002, about 320 people were attending on Sunday morning. That figure later slipped to about 175, but rebounded as the church expanded its facility in 2009 and celebrated its 175th anniversary the following year. “There was a real rallying around the building of our new addition, because we wanted our space to be accessible for everyone,” says Park. Sunday morning attendance increased again, with well over 200 people warming the pews – but this has since plateaued and declined.

Rev. John Boyachek of Lindsay’s Fairview Baptist Church. Photo: Sienna Frost.

The Rev. John Boyachek has noticed similar trends in his 15 years as pastor of Lindsay’s Fairview Baptist Church. “We were probably pushing 280-300 on a Sunday morning when I started; now we’re probably around 200,” he says. Like his counterpart at St. Andrew’s, Boyachek points to demographic changes as a possible reason – not least an aging population that is not being supplanted with younger members.

“I’ve buried a lot of people over the years,” he said. Although Fairview continues to have a vibrant youth ministry, Boyacheck also takes note of how church attendance figures can take a hit as young parishioners grow up and move out of the area.

Jurgen Rausch, the senior pastor at Calvary Pentecostal Church in Lindsay, has noticed that weekly attendance is no longer something he can take for granted as people come to his church every two or sometimes every three weeks. Echoing Dr. Macdonald’s observations about the trend towards individualism, Rausch explains that “on any given Sunday, we have about 60 per cent attend – none of which takes away from the commitment but is reflective of competing interests.”

Church attendance is occasionally boosted by transfers of membership from one congregation to another, as has been the case over the last five years at Seagrave United Church, southwest of Lindsay. Even so, says the Rev. Stephanie Richmond, “our numbers are in decline, and we have people who have died or who for health reasons are no longer able to attend services.”

Richmond has also observed that requests for baptism – the sacrament through which infants are welcomed into the church – often are now initiated through a child’s grandparents. “In many cases, parents are not regular attendees (at) church. They may have attended church as a child with their family, but have ceased to attend for various reasons,” says Richmond. “They feel that baptism is an important sacrament, but attending church on a regular basis is not something that is a priority.”

Shifting age demographics have been observed and studied by church leaders for decades. However, the widespread introduction and ongoing impact of online services during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to all sorts of questions about church attendance that can’t easily be answered, says the Rev. Bonnie Skerritt, rector at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Lindsay.

Like their Presbyterian neighbours a few blocks away, St. Paul’s enjoyed considerable growth through the early 1960s. (In fact, the Anglican Diocese of Toronto bought land at the corner of Dominion Drive and St. George Street in Lindsay for the possibility of a second Anglican church in town during that period. Nothing came from this plan, and the land was sold in 1964.) Today, St. Paul’s maintains a parish register of over 400 individuals – but only about 50 have been attending weekly services, while some 200 watch online. The difficulty here, says Skerritt, is that this latter number may not be an accurate reflection of reality. Apart from the fact that some may not watch the entire duration of a service, the stats provided by YouTube don’t account for the possibility that there may be more than one person sitting in front of a computer screen or mobile device.

“There are too many variables,” Skerritt observes. She also points out that some of her parishioners are still uncomfortable with attending events in public spaces.

What turns people away from church?

Individualism, demographic changes, and the ongoing impact of the pandemic are among the factors affecting church attendance from the outside. Yet as clergy will attest, the Church as an institution has a lot to answer for when people have been deeply betrayed or hurt within or without its walls. This can thus be an uphill battle in a culture already suspicious of traditional institutions.

Asked what the church has done to betray its mission, Park points to the abuse scandals that have rocked the Christian church across denominational lines – not least through the Indian Residential School System. (The Presbyterian Church in Canada operated 11 of the schools from the 1880s through 1925, when the United Church of Canada assumed responsibility for all but two of these 11.) “Very rarely will the church be in the news for doing good in the community,” Park laments. Skerritt agrees and says that there has long been a problem with inclusion and ‘othering’ in her own denomination. (Othering is a form of exclusion and stereotyping.) “There is still much work to be done on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, with other cultures, with other religions, and with other denominations,” she states.

There is more. “The very loud voice of American right-wing Christians, which Canadians are very aware of, has led many outside the church to an even stronger opposition to churches and what they think all Christians believe,” notes Macdonald.

Whether this has had a direct impact on church attendance here in Kawartha Lakes can’t readily be ascertained. Still, Rausch, the Pentecostal pastor, agrees that hypocrisy in all its forms permeates questions of declining church attendance. “People are interested in message clarity and grace-filled outreach,” he says. “Anything that takes away from that reduces the effectiveness of the church.”

Rev. Stephanie Richmond of Seagrave United Church.

Purpose and hope

That effectiveness (or lack thereof) impacts not only those who attend church on a regular basis, but also the broader community – whether or not it identifies as Christian. “What is sometimes missed is all the work that churches do at the local level,” says Macdonald, when asked why non-churchgoers should care about declining membership in local churches. “Foodbanks, homeless work, providing a meeting space for community groups, supporting the local community – these are all important parts of the fabric of local communities, and in particular small towns and rural areas that don’t have the kinds of resources that larger urban areas do.”

This point is vitally important for Richmond, of Seagrave United Church. “When the Church becomes focused only on Sunday worship and sustaining itself, the walls close in and it is no longer seen as a viable church in the community,” she explains. “When the church reaches out, the community around it sees it as their church and will help support it and relationships will grow.”

Faced with shrinking attendance in their pews, what signs of hope do church leaders see in this season of challenge and change? “I really think it is this generation that is seeking truth and looking for depth in a world where everything is so transient,” says Park. “This generation is more open to conversation and is a little more philosophical.”

Boyacheck agrees, saying that “almost weekly, I have people seeking spiritual help – they’re seeking something more foundational and firm.” For Skerritt, the church should not expect to bask in days of endless sunshine.

“It is during the storms that people will come together and work together, making room for the Holy Spirit to move in new ways.”


  1. Tamara Schneider says:

    Many of the church activities are held during the day ie bible study which is catering more to the elderly as the younger demographics are unable to attend due to work.
    I have started to attend a church in lindsay and each time I have gone nobody has spoken to me, given me a program, or even said welcome. Not coming across as a real warm atmosphere. How are the people going to want to attend if it appears that the church is happy with the population that they already have and don’t reach out to those new people who may be interested in attending

  2. Marilyn Kuiperij says:

    Jennings Creek Christian Reformed Church has a Bible Study which meets every Monday evening and then repeats on Tuesday morning, which gives people opportunities to attend either time that is most convenient for them.. This church family aims to welcome newcomers. We are also on Cogeco for Lindsay and Peterboro on Sunday mornings. Come and visit us. You will be welcomed.

  3. BTerelly says:

    We reap what we sow, more than we sow, later than we sow.
    Charles Stanley.

  4. Wallace says:

    Look around the world– the most religious people on Earth are the uneducated . Educated people see through the scam that is religion. Why do you think the Taliban, and similar groups, ban schools and education ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.