Updated:January 9, 2022

-Global News

It’s Advent Sunday and snow is falling thick and fast outside the front doors of the soaring, neo-Gothic bell tower of the Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.

A tiny crowd huddles around a black Weber grill, emitting brief puffs of smoke as a crackling fire battles the elements.

“Come, gather around the holy barbecue,” Reverend Jason Meyers jokes.

It’s a modern scene amid very modern challenges facing religious institutions in Canada.

Religiosity in Canada is at an all-time low, with recently released data from Statistics Canada showing only 68 per cent of Canadians 15 or older now report having a religious affiliation. It’s the first time that number has dipped below 70 per cent since StatCan began tracking the data in 1985.

In response, Global News has spent the past two months speaking to members of religious communities across the country and looking at historical data to determine why this is happening. This is part one of that series. 

It’s important to note that this decline is not across the board; the number of Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus is increasing, and StatCan predicts the number of Canadians reporting a non-Christian religious affiliation could double by the year 2036.

Christianity, however, is in sharp decline. In 2011, 67.3 per cent (about 22.1 million people) of Canadians said they were affiliated with a Christian religion. In 2019, that number had dropped to 63.2 per cent. Catholicism, Canada’s largest denomination, now accounts for 32 per cent of Canadians over 15, down from 46.9 per cent in 1996.

The decline is even more precarious for Canada’s United and Anglican churches.

In 2021, the first Sunday in Advent — the season that commemorates Christmas, or the birth of Jesus Christ — has fallen on Toronto’s first snow day, Nov. 28.

Just six people have come to congregate around the Weber grill, for Metropolitan’s Taddle Creek Wild Church, a more modern and nature-based service than the traditional Sunday service.

Being experimental, it tends to attract smaller numbers than the standard Sunday service held an hour earlier. But that one too had barely 50 people in attendance; two to three people per pew scattered across a cavernous church.

But membership in the United Church of Canada (UCC) has been decreasing for decades, far before a snowstorm and a global pandemic.