The State of the Canadian Church -- Part VII: Strengths, weaknesses and challenges

By Jim Coggins

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

IN PREPARING this series, we conducted a number of phone interviews, consulted a number of published studies, and did an e-mail survey of a variety of church leaders from across Canada. In this article, we look at what these leaders had to say about the Canadian church as a whole.

One of the issues that emerged is whether it is even possible to talk about the Canadian church as a whole. Many of those surveyed observed that some churches are doing well and others are not, and there is no clear pattern for this. Tim Day, senior pastor of The Meeting House, a contemporary church movement in Oakville, Ontario, noted, "I know postmodern church plants that are failing. I know mainline churches that are growing."

University of Manitoba historian Gerry Bowler stated bluntly, "There is no 'Canadian' church."

Damian Macpherson, director for ecumenical and interfaith affairs for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, agreed: "I am not sure there is such a thing as 'the Canadian church.'"

Nevertheless, those surveyed were able to make some general statements about the Canadian church.


Macpherson pointed out that one strength of Canadian churches is their well-established polities and stable ministries.

David Macfarlane, director of national initiatives for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), suggested that the Canadian church is "financially rich" and "highly educated" -- and, unlike some other countries, "we have religious freedom and access to a Bible."


The downside of stability, Macpherson warned, can be a tendency to "stifle innovation." However, several of those surveyed saw some encouraging signs of innovation -- postmodern churches, multi-site churches, reproducing missional churches, churches built on meeting the needs of their communities.

Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College and Seminary, stated, "Churches insensitive to change or unwilling to be innovative will die."

Day talked about the need to "hit the reset button and be released to do all we can to live Jesus' message in a new way."


Even in a period of church decline, churches are still engaging in evangelism. Several responders were encouraged by what Stiller called "the multi-level activity of witness going on across the country," using everything from "the arts to helping the poor."

Cameron Roxburgh, founding pastor of the multi-site Southside Community Church in British Columbia, expressed excitement that "the Church Planting Canada movement continues to grow," reaching across "most denominations and many generations."


Some responders also mentioned an increase in prayer. Stiller said, "Never in my 45 years of public ministry in Canada have I seen this interest and unquenchable thirst for prayer."


While Day suggested that to some extent Canadian Christians "still live in shadow of the United States" and look to American models and leaders, this appears to be changing. John G. Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at Regent College, said it is encouraging that increasing numbers of leaders "do not reflexively look to America for all wisdom, but have grasped that Canada is different, and its regions are different from each other."

This is seen as a generally positive development. Political scientist John H. Redekop commended the Canadian church for being "less militant, less nationalistic and less partisan than most US churches."

Stiller was pleased that the Canadian church has a better sense that the gospel touches the intellectual, social and physical dimensions of life, as well as the spiritual. The church is thus more "sensitive to the social needs of the poor and dispossessed."

Numerical Decline

As for weaknesses, all the leaders from whom we received feedback were aware of the decline in church attendance, analyzed in the first article in this series.

"The church no longer is in the centre of the culture," said Roxburgh. EFC president Bruce Clemenger stated: "We are living in a post-Christendom society." Glenn Smith, general director of Christian Direction, talked about the "increasing marginalization of the social significance" of Christianity and "the ensuing privatization of faith."

Several responders suggested that the Canadian church is struggling to adjust to the new reality.

"I think the fact that people are doing surveys like this is an encouraging trend," said Day. "You can't get help until you know you have a problem." However, he suggested that the new reality and the openness to change is not all bad since this is "an environment where many revivals actually occur."

Urban Weakness

One of the greatest challenges to the church is the increasing urbanization of Canada's population and the difficulty in reaching inner cities filled with immigrants, the poor and the marginalized.

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"One of the biggest problems mainline churches are facing is coping with closing small, unsustainable churches in rural areas" and replacing them with new urban churches, said David Harris, editor of the Presbyterian Record. "This change is taking place far too slowly."

Stiller stated: "Over the last 40 years, evangelicals have systematically moved out of the downtown urban areas, building churches in the suburbs and . . . small towns." He suggested the evangelical church is geared to reaching "the suburban family" and it will take a strategic rethinking to reach the city.

Day summed up: "For the most part, the Christian church is still white, middle class, rural or suburban."


Many of those surveyed saw the lack of unity in the Canadian church as a serious problem. They noted struggles within individual congregations over leadership styles, worship styles and generational preferences. They also referred to theological differences.

It was widely observed that denominational loyalty and institutional commitment are declining, while responders were mixed on whether they thought this was being replaced by inter-church cooperation in the local community.

"There is no meaningful expression of the concept of Christendom," said Bowler, "and as a result Christians cannot confront the challenges they face in the expectation of the support or even tolerant understanding of their coreligionists.

"We do not have Christian colleges; we have small, struggling Catholic or Protestant colleges. We do not have Christian television; we have a myriad of low-budget entrepreneurs competing for niches in the religious-media marketplace," he added.

"Do we have any journals that speak for, or to, Canadian Christianity (as opposed to a splinter of it)? Whom can one identify as the intellectual voices of Canadian Christianity? What institutions or parachurch bodies can we say speak for a majority Canadian Christians?"


While leadership is seen as a key to the future of the church, there is some disagreement over the level of leadership in the Canadian church. There was certainly affirmation of the competence and training of many Canadian church leaders.

However, Brian Stiller talked of the need to raise up more Christian leaders in both the church and the secular professions.

Harris stated: "Visionary leadership is key (and largely lacking)."

Redekop observed: "Because denominational leadership has all too often lacked vision, much dynamic Christian energy and zeal is now expressed through parachurch agencies, which, in some instances, lack accountability."

Stackhouse stated: "The Canadian church largely acts as if good intentions will suffice to lead . . . the church in the future. We do not prize a highly educated clergy who can discern the times and bring a rich knowledge of church tradition and practice to bear on our challenges. Instead, we put pressure on seminaries to cut back on the requirements for the standard M. Div. degree -- as if pastoral work has somehow become less challenging than it was a generation ago -- or we happily choose pastors who seem charismatic and speak well, but whose exciting personalities are rooted in very thin soil. We continue to pay pastors badly as a rule, so that they . . . have to seek the cheapest, rather than best, theological education."

He added: "We do not prize a well-educated and dedicated laity to share leadership and ministry with pastors. Instead, any well-meaning person can be eligible for the senior decision-making bodies in our congregations, regardless of actual aptitude for this kind of leadership."

Redekop added that there are many highly qualified lay leaders in congregations, who are not being used by the churches as a result of the churches' preoccupation with paid clergy.


While there are some encouraging signs of prayer, Canadian church leaders are also concerned about the spiritual health of even regular attenders.

"We have reduced the gospel to an easy believism that preaches a cheap grace," said Roxburgh. "For far too long we have been producing consumers that are shaped far more by culture than by the kingdom. . . . We have reduced the gospel to a personal and private salvation which has contributed to the ineffective manner in which we live in local neighbourhoods."

Redekop expressed concern about churches which have "come to rely on entertainment and novelty to build and hold a congregation." He said the real problem is "a weakening among Christians . . . of the sense that unbelievers are eternally lost."

Macfarlane stated: "The main challenge facing the local churches is that they need to regain their sense of mission."

A pleasant mediocrity

While there is certainly much variety in the Canadian church, on the whole, the consensus of the leaders we consulted was that the Canadian church is solid and competent but not very dynamic.

While Canadian churches have avoided some of the excesses of the US church, said Day, "we are probably weaker in areas of pioneering new visions or of raising up new communicators and leaders. We are probably stronger in the typical Canadian values -- trying to be liked by everyone."

Stackhouse observed: "In all of this, we demonstrate a kind of amateurish complacency that would be intolerable in business or the professions. One is reminded of Malachi thundering at the Israelites for presenting to God what they would never think of offering up to their secular governor."

When asked how the Canadian church is doing, Bowler commented, "The answer to that is the same answer one can give to questions about the state of almost anything Canadian: so-so. 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."

He added: "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 USA, but neither are we a museum piece like Western European Christianity." is extremely grateful to the many researchers who are giving us new understanding of the Canadian church and to the many busy church leaders who graciously provided us with thoughtful responses to our survey.

January 24/2008