The State of the Canadian Church -- Part II: Shifting Traditions

by Jim Coggins

This is the second in a series of articles on the Canadian church, drawing on the expertise of a variety of researchers and church leaders.

CHURCH LIFE in Canada has always been dominated by traditional and institutional churches, but that may be changing. The situation in Canada is considerably different from the United States, where evangelicals have been a significant proportion of the population for two centuries.

The largest denomination in Canada is and has always been the Roman Catholic Church. Canadian census figures reveal that Roman Catholics made up 42 percent of the Canadian population in 1901. That percentage rose to 46 percent of the population by 1971, but fell to 43 percent in 2001.

Protestants made up 56 percent of the population in 1901. The vast majority of those belonged to three major 'mainline' denominations -- Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist -- with Baptists a distant fourth. Since 1921, the percentage of Protestants has slowly declined, falling to 29 percent of the population in 2001.

With another 1.6 percent of the population claiming affiliation with Eastern Orthodox churches and 2.6 percent claiming affiliation with other Christian churches, over three-quarters of the Canadian population still identify themselves as Christians.

A clearer picture

One of the problems with the census data is that it is still using categories from a century ago, which do not reflect current categories. In particular, the older categories do not reflect the current divide between evangelical and mainline Protestant churches. Over the past quarter-century, there has been a massive shift within 'Protestantism.'

Bruce Guenther, associate professor of church history and Mennonite studies at Associated Canadian Theological Seminaries, has compiled statistics on over 160 denominations, using data from Outreach Canada and other sources. While Statistics Canada asks Canadians directly where they belong, Guenther's approach is based on asking denominations to count their members and attenders. While the results are similar, they are not identical.

Generally, Guenther's statistics indicate that while there may have been a massive decline in church attendance from the 1950s through the 1970s, there has not been significant decline in the quarter-century since then. In 2001, Canadian denominations claimed 16,668,851 members -- about 56 percent of the Canadian population -- and actual attendance of 6,026,414, representing just over 20 percent of the population, a figure similar to those obtained by Statistics Canada and polling companies.

Roman Catholic strength

As University of Lethbridge sociologist Reg Bibby has pointed out, "The Roman Catholic Church continues to be a prominent player on the national religious scene -- indeed, the most prominent player."

Guenther's figures show the Roman Catholic Church claiming 12,624,403 members -- or 42.6 percent of the population, close to the census figure -- in 2001. However, attendance is only 3,451,874, representing 27 percent of Catholics.

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Catholic figures are skewed somewhat because close to half of Catholics are from Quebec, where attendance has declined more drastically. In the 1950s, Roman Catholics in Quebec boasted the highest rate of church attendance in Canada, at 88 percent.

Now, Bibby's figures show Catholic attendance has dropped to 20 percent in Quebec but is over 30 percent in the rest of country.

Thus, Canadian church attendance figures have been dragged lower by the massive secularization of Quebec society, which began later but has gone farther there than in the rest of the country. "Quebeckers are always late for the train but always go beyond the station," says Glenn Smith, general director of Christian Direction, a Christian ministry based in Quebec.

Guenther's figures show that the Roman Catholicism is continuing to grow, in numbers if not as a percentage of the Canadian population. Catholic membership grew from 10,320,024 in 1981 to 12,624,403 in 2001, and attendance from 2,759,910 in 1981 to 3,451,874 in 2001.

One of the main reasons Catholics are holding their own is immigration. According to Statistics Canada, one-third of immigrants to Canada in the 1980s and almost one-quarter of immigrants in the 1990s were Catholic.

A massive evangelical shift

Compared to Roman Catholics, Protestants count fewer of their non-attenders as members. Therefore, 'Protestant' losses seem much greater than Catholic ones.

In fact, Guenther's figures show that total Protestant attendance has not declined in real numbers over the last quarter-century but there has been a massive shift within Protestantism.

Guenther breaks 'Protestant' churches into 'mainline Protestant' and 'evangelical' groupings. Mainline Protestants are those in the former 'big three' denominations -- the Anglican, Presbyterian and United denominations -- plus Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Guenther's statistics show that mainline Protestants have declined very significantly, from 2,240,991 members and attendance of 965,534 in 1981 to 1,666,715 members and attendance of 723,673 in 2001 -- and evidence suggests that those numbers have continued to decline since then.

At the same time, evangelicals have increased from 974,295 members and attendance of 758,383 in 1981 to 1,341,897 members and attendance of 1,130,237 in 2001. That amounts to close to a 50 percent increase in attendance in just two decades. In terms of attendance, evangelicals now greatly outnumber mainline Protestants.

Moreover, evangelicals count membership more narrowly than other groups -- not counting children or regular attenders who have not formally joined -- and they count attendance by average Sunday morning attendance. Therefore, as Rick Hiemstra reported in the first issue of Church & Faith Trends, researchers such as Reg Bibby conclude that evangelicals represent about 8 percent of the Canadian population.

However, these evangelical numbers count only evangelicals in evangelical churches. Polls that measure theological beliefs peg evangelicals at closer to 12 percent of the Canadian population. Pollster Andrew Grenville told CC.com that "a high proportion of mainline attenders are evangelicals." That is, while only a small proportion of mainline attenders are evangelicals, those who are evangelicals tend to be the more committed ones who show up on Sunday morning.

Depending on how one frames the questions, a significant portion of Roman Catholics have also been deemed theologically "evangelical."

Outreach Canada, an evangelical ministry which has sponsored a number of church planting congresses, says its statistics show that the number of evangelical congregations increased from 9,152 in 1997 to 9,919 in 2003.

This suggests that the number of evangelical churches is growing slightly faster than the Canadian population. There is now one evangelical church for every 3,189 Canadians, a number that is inching closer to Outreach Canada's first goal of having one church for every 2,000 Canadians.

December 13/2007