It was good, last night, to meet with leader colleagues from other Alliance churches in the Saskatoon area to hear a presentation, arranged for by the Canadian Midwest District leadership, on the current state of Christian identity and church involvement in Canada. The presentation was made by Joel Thiessen, an associate professor of sociology at Ambrose University College in Calgary. Joel has an MA and PhD in his field of study from the University of Waterloo.
According to the research he presented (based on 2011 stats) 67% of Canadians currently identify themselves with Christianity in some way. But this is down from 77% more than a decade earlier. Immigrants to Canada, remarkably, have a higher identity with Christianity than we assume. Though the number has risen slightly from a decade ago, only 8.2 % claim to be non-Christian.
Here are a few other interesting statistics regarding the state of Christianity in Canada:
- “Nones” (those who claim no Christian religious identity) have grown from 16% in 2001 to 24% in 2011.
- Weekly attendance in Christian churches has decreased from 31% in 1975 to 21% in 2008
- Theists (believers in God) have decreased from 61% in 1975 to 37% in 2008 (the flip side is that the number of atheists has risen from 6 % to 16 % in the same period). Perhaps this statistic is partly due to the current tendency of people’s willingness to be more forthright about their beliefs along this line.
- Regionally, generally speaking, participation in Christian activity tends to grow more sparse as one moves from east to west (Atlantic Canada has the highest participation rate while British Columbia has the lowest). Quebec, however is almost as secular as BC, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba are next to the Atlantic provinces in terms of frequency of participation in worship. Interestingly, Ontario tends to be more conservative than Alberta in this regard.
Our own denominational statistics (C&MA, Canada) also reflect some degree of decline in the number of people in church on Sunday, especially between 2004 and 2010 (though since then the number of participants has risen again). In the Canadian Midwest, participation has declined significantly by about 2000 people in an eleven year period ending in 2012.
There may be variables not considered in these statistics respecting reporting techniques or other factors such as general population mobility. But in general, it is apparent that church growth in Canada has not kept pace with population growth otherwise. Dr. Thiessen offered the following explanations based on our surrounding societal changes:
- the tendency toward greater individualism — a more privatized view of spirituality and religion.
- the rejection of any claims that an expression of faith makes toward exclusivity (i.e. the biblical claim of Jesus as the “only way” to heaven / God).
- the destabilization of Canadian society through the prevalence of divorce, mobility, economic necessity, etc.
- the fact that young people, even as teenagers and younger, have more freedom respecting their decision to go to church.
- the fact that, for most Canadians, life has become more intense, busier, more demanding and fast-paced.
- the proliferation of views regarding the lack of genuineness among those of faith — scandals, hypocrisy, interpersonal tensions within the church, and intellectual integrity (especially regarding matters of science and faith).
But the question remains how those who are Christians, and concerned about the building of Christ’s kingdom in our land, might counter these trends. After-all, Jesus’ mandate to the church to go and make disciples, in the way that he and the New Testament writers spoke of this, hasn’t changed. Why does Canadian Christianity appear to be losing ground in the battle against unbelief and the evils of idolatry in our land?
Thiessen suggests that Christians shouldn’t be too hard on themselves — that these trends are simply due to the fact of a changing culture, a more secularized one. But he does suggest some practical measures of how these trends may be turned around. Rightly, I believe, he speaks of a fuller understanding and appreciation of the need for, and role of, the Holy Spirit so that Christians are more bold concerning their faith, and the gospel itself. He suggests that Christians need to become more outwardly focussed, building genuine relationships with people outside the church while also demonstrating healthy relationships within the church. Speaking practically, he thinks Christians would gain more credibility by their greater involvement in issues surrounding social justice. And churches would be more attractive to outsiders if there was a strong sense of community within the church and if people in the church were given opportunities for leadership sooner than later.
For my part, I consider all of these suggestions quite helpful. But I wonder if there isn’t a more fundamental theological issue affecting the lack of progress in the work of Christ’s kingdom in Canadian society. Could it be, in the midst of the complexities of our times, that we have somehow lost sight of the simplicity and very power of the gospel of Jesus Christ itself? Is it possible that we tend to be more occupied with methodologies for church life and ministry than we are with the very Person who is central to our faith? If we really believe that Jesus is our very life, shouldn’t his presence within us and among us have a more salutary effect upon the world around us?
It seems to me that if we Christians were more genuine in our relationships with others, flowing out of a consciousness of Christ’s presence within and around us, God’s love and truth would spill over everywhere and we would see people wanting to come and participate in the life of Christ’s church. I guess I would argue for the fact that Christians everywhere need to become less dogmatic and more authentic concerning their faith — that they need to know and show the relevance of the Christian message in their speech and actions with one another and their daily associates. Gone are the days, quite frankly (and thankfully), when evangelism is merely a program of the church. It’s really a question of how telling-the-good news, is a life-style. As God gives me the privilege of pastoring his people in these days, I think this is the emphasis that I would want to bring in every aspect of the life and ministry of the church.
I’m hopeful, despite the trend, that Canadian Christians will yet prevail in seeing significant progress in the building of Christ’s kingdom in our land. But I think in order for this to happen, it will take a revival of focus, understanding, and experience of the very nature of the good news of Jesus itself, in our time. I pray, amidst all the evangelical religious hype otherwise, this will yet happen — sooner than later.