Analyzing the state of the Canadian church
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By Jim Coggins

Over the past two months, BC Christian News has developed a comprehensive analysis of the state of the church in Canada, based on phone interviews, published research and an email survey of church leaders from across Canada. The first article was published in the January issue. In this issue, we summarize six more articles.

The full text of all seven articles, and the interviews, are available on our website, CanadianChristianity.com.

THE starting point for our analysis rests in data that weekly church attendance has dropped from 70 percent of the Canadian population in the 1950s to about 20 percent today.

People with ‘no religion’ have risen to almost 20 percent of the population, including about seven percent of the population who claim to be atheists.

However, some two-thirds of the population still claim to be Christian and attend church at least annually.

The resulting picture is of a committed Christian core of 20 percent of the population, a secular core a little larger at the other extreme and half the population with a looser attachment to Christianity in the middle.

Shifting traditions

The largest denomination in Canada is and always has been the Roman Catholic Church, making up 43 percent of the population, a proportion virtually unchanged for a century, although only about 27 percent of Catholics, 3.5 million people, attend church regularly.

Protestants have declined from 56 percent of the population in 1901 to 29 percent in 2001. However, most of that decline occurred before 1981.

At one time, most Protestants belonged to three ‘mainline’ denominations: Anglican, Presbyterian and United. However, since 1981, there has been a massive shift within Protestantism. Attendance in mainline churches has dropped rapidly, while attendance at evangelical churches rose 50 percent between 1981 and 2001.

More than 1.1 million people attend evangelical churches each week, many more than the 750,000 who attend mainline churches. Evangelical dominance is even higher in B.C.

Further, pollster Andrew Grenville pointed out that “a high proportion of mainline attenders are evangelicals.”

Evangelical growth

The growth of evangelicalism has largely gone unnoticed by mainstream society, partly because of the ways Statistics Canada categorizes statistics on religion, and partly because evangelicals are broken up into many small denominations.

Pentecostals and charismatics are growing faster than other evangelicals, rising from 20 percent of evangelicals in 1981 to 30 percent in 2001. A single denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, now has attendance almost as large as each of the big three ‘mainline’ Protestant churches (Anglican, Presbyterian and United).

Evangelical growth is evidenced by the growing prominence of umbrella organizations such as The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). Evangelicals are now being studied by centres such as Trinity Western University’s new Religion in Canada Institute and the EFC’s new Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelism (CRCE).

The latter has begun publishing an online journal called Church & Faith Trends.

Program manager Rick Hiemstra said the centre’s purpose is not just to stimulate and report academic research but to use it to help “ministry practitioners” make appropriate ministry decisions. The journal will serve as “a mirror for the evangelical community and a window for others.”

The CRCE’s advisory board is chaired by John Stackhouse of Regent College. He said the Centre could not have been started 20 years ago because, other than the pioneering work of people such as University of Lethbridge sociologist Reg Bibby, there was not yet “a critical mass of scholars interested in evangelicalism.”

The CRCE is symbolic of the growth not only of “an evangelical intellectual culture” but of evangelicalism generally.

Moral issues

In recent decades, two issues, abortion and homosexuality, have tended to dominate Christian interactions with Canadian society. Christians have fought losing battles against the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage.

These battles have been very divisive. Same-sex marriage has been the focal point for the recent schism in the Anglican Church. Mainline denominations have come to accept and often even support abortion and homosexual ‘rights.’

However, the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical leaders say they will continue to promote, in the words of the EFC’s director of public policy Doug Cryer, “the uniqueness and importance of marriage as a covenant between a woman and a man” and “protection for unborn children.”

Brian Stiller, former head of the EFC and now president of Tyndale University  College and Seminary, has called for reflection on how Christians conduct themselves.

While the battles over abortion and same-sex marriage had to be fought, he asked, “What did we gain by our battle?”

He suggested that the “angry, unchristlike chatter” some Christians engaged in hurt not only the immediate cause but the church generally.

Cameron Roxburgh, founding pastor of the multi-site Southside Community Church in Metro Vancouver, suggested that the church should take a more positive approach, offering “an alternative way to live. As we demonstrate the positive approach of adoption over abortion, and fidelity in marriage between wife and husband, we will proclaim the kingdom of God.”

There was also a consensus among the church leaders we surveyed that in the near future issues such as poverty and the environment might assume equal importance with abortion and homosexuality as Christian social issues.

While committed Christians have been at odds with society over abortion and homosexuality, Roxburgh suggested that Christian involvement in poverty and the environment might help the church once again “enjoy the favour of all the people.” Acts 2:47

Persecuted minority?

An Ipsos Reid survey found that 39 percent of weekly church attenders “strongly agree that there is a general bias against the viewpoints that are held by deeply committed Christians.”

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A number of court cases have aroused fears that a general persecution of Christians may be coming.

The social action group Equipping Christians for the Public Square warns: “The public square has become a hostile arena for social-conservative Christians . . . Militant secularism seeks to eliminate our culture’s acknowledgement of the Divine.”

However, a 2006 survey found 63 percent of Canadians would be willing to vote for an evangelical (down from 80 percent a decade earlier); and 68 percent would be willing to vote for an atheist (down from 72 percent).

In other words, while the secular core might want to silence Christians, the half of Canadians in the middle seem willing to tolerate both extremes, as long as neither extreme tries to impose its views on society as a whole.

Further, with the decline in church attendance leveling off somewhat, Stiller, suggested, “The pendulum of secularism has swung as far as it can.”

Immigration

The majority of immigrants to Canada before 1971 came from ‘Christian’ Europe. In 1971, over 60 percent of immigrants came from Europe and 12 percent from Asia and the Middle East. Those figures have now been reversed.

Immigration has helped maintain Roman Catholic numbers. Roman Catholics made up 43 percent of immigrants in the 1960s and 23 percent of immigrants as late as the 1990s.

However, immigration has contributed to the Protestant decline. Protestants made up 39 percent of immigrants before 1961 but only 11 percent of immigrants in the 1990s.

Immigration almost doubled the numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists in Canada in the 1990s. Muslims now make up about two percent of Canadians, and the others about one percent each.

Immigration has also increased the number of people with ‘no religion,’ as 20 percent of immigrants fall into this category.

The impact of immigration has been mixed for the Christian church. There is some encouraging evidence that the church is becoming multicultural. While Christians have won few converts among people from the Middle East, there are vibrant Christian churches among immigrant groups such as the Chinese.

In Quebec, the number of “allophone” churches has almost doubled in the last decade, spurred by rapid growth of often independent evangelical Congolese, Haitian and Latin American congregations.

These churches will soon outnumber English-speaking Protestant churches and maybe even rival French-speaking Protestant churches in that province.

Further, immigrant congregations are often very vibrant and active. Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College and Seminary, said, “In Toronto, the newly arrived ethnic communities tend to be the spark plugs for evangelism.”

David Macfarlane, director of national initiatives for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, concluded, “Growing churches of the future, in the large cities, will be either multiethnic or intercultural.”

Strengths & weaknesses

Some of those surveyed suggested that there is so much variety in the Canadian church that it does not make sense to talk about “a Canadian church.”

Nevertheless, they could draw some general conclusions. Observed strengths of the Canadian church included stability, an emphasis on prayer, innovative approaches to evangelism and a holistic understanding of the intellectual, social and physical dimensions of the gospel.

However, responders questioned the ability of the church to adapt to a post-Christian society or to Canada’s urban environment.

Roxburgh expressed concern about a consumerist approach by churches that has “reduced the gospel to a personal and private salvation.”

Political scientist John H. Redekop suggested the real problem is “a weakening among Christians . . . of the sense that unbelievers are eternally lost.”

David Macfarlane stated, “The main challenge facing the local churches is that they need to regain their sense of mission.”

Summing up the strengths and weaknesses, Stackhouse suggested that the Canadian church demonstrates “a kind of amateurish complacency.”

University of Manitoba historian Gerry Bowler suggested that the Canadian church demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian society as a whole: “Except in hockey, Canadians do not value excellence or fevered enthusiasm in public enterprises. Our motto is ‘Go for the bronze!’ Toleration and a pleasant mediocrity are our watchwords . . . Some of our churches are doing fine; many are withering on the vine; the shrinkage in attendance nationally is slow but inexorable. We are not experiencing a vigorous efflorescence of faith as in, for example, Brazil or Korea or much of the United States, but neither are we a museum piece like Western European Christianity.”


Participants in BCCN’s ‘State of the Canadian Church’ survey:

Gerry Bowler, cultural historian, University of Manitoba;
Bruce Clemenger, president, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada;
Doug Cryer, director of public policy, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada;
Tim Day, senior pastor, The Meeting House, Oakville, Ontario;
David Harris, editor, The Presbyterian Record;
Rick Hiemstra, program manager, Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism;
David Macfarlane, director of national initiatives, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada;
Lloyd Mackey, veteran Christian journalist and political commentator, Ottawa;
Damian Macpherson, director for interfaith affairs, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto;
Willard Metzger, director of church relations, World Vision Canada;
John Redekop, veteran political science professor and author, Abbotsford;
Cameron Roxburgh, founder of Southside Community Church, Metro Vancouver;
Glenn Smith, director-general, Christian Direction, Montreal;
John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture, Regent College, Vancouver;
Brian Stiller, president, Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto.
We also relied on the extensive research of: Reginald Bibby, sociologist, University of Lethbridge; and Andrew Grenville, chief research officer, Angus Reid Strategies.

February 2008