Our expectations will shape our actions
The Anglican Church of Canada heard a report recently that must have taken away its collective breath. The November report predicted there will be no "members, attenders or givers" belonging to that denomination by 2040.
The numbers may have been a shock, but those studying Anglican demographics (and those of the United Church of Canada) have seen this coming for a while now.
As sociologist Reginald Bibby likewise notes, "It’s as if a fire of secularization has devastated much of what, through the early 1960s, was a flourishing religious forest" (Resilient Gods: Being Pro-Religious, Low Religious, or No Religious in Canada, UBC Press, 2017).
In one generation – from roughly 1950 to 2000 – regular church attendance dropped from two in three to just one in four. And the trends have continued downward since then.
The news isn’t much better among Evangelicals and Catholics, the two remaining cohorts of Canadian Christianity doing relatively well.
University of Toronto historians Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald report that "smaller denominations, such as the Christian Reformed, the Pentecostals and the Salvation Army, have also lost members, especially since 1991" (Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945, McGill Queen’s, 2017).
"Nor is the Roman Catholic Church immune," write Clarke and Macdonald. "Regular attendance has fallen significantly in the rest of Canada. In Quebec decline can only be described as precipitous. And now there are signs – even among older Catholics – of disaffiliation."
Meanwhile, in the last 50 years or so, those claiming "no religion" went from 1 per cent of the population to fully one-quarter of it, a figure comparable to that found in France, Sweden and the U.K. – and significantly higher than in the U.S. and even Australia.
Sociologist Joel Thiessen of Ambrose University holds out little hope that disaffected or unaffiliated Canadians will join churches anytime soon. "Only a handful" of participants in a recent survey of his say it is "very likely that they will pursue greater involvement."
Thiessen even went so far in his survey as to point out to participants that some actual churches nearby do offer what they say they want. Their response? Nearly all confess "their desire for more involvement is not that great, and that they do not envision putting in the time and effort to change their religious activities."
Thiessen concludes, "The demand for greater religious involvement is not that strong" (The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age, McGill Queen’s, 2015).
We may pray for large-scale revival, but no signs are apparent. Immigration still brings many believers to Canada, yes, but second and third generations may well deviate to the norm and drift away. Here and there are growing churches, but most of this increase comes from believers trading up to what they perceive to be more vital congregations.
Few congregations are making a dent in the vast numbers of uninterested and unaffiliated Canadians.
Could Christianity actually disappear from Canada? There are other lands where it has mostly vanished – consider North Africa and the Middle East under the pressure of Islamic regimes, or many former communist countries.
In Canada political forces and other religions have not been the main challenges to Christian faith – instead the challenge here since the Second World War has been a continuous experience of prosperity and security. Yes, there are troubling signs Christian faith is increasingly unwelcome, but in a global context it really isn’t all that hard to be a Christian in Canada.
For most of our Canadian neighbours the question is: Why should we bother to be Christians at all?
In a country as comfortable, busy and secure as Canada is today, maybe the interest of one-tenth of the population is all evangelicalism can aspire to holding.
Maybe the key concern to keep in mind as we build churches and relationships is this: Are we positioning ourselves so that, when life’s sharp edges eventually do cut through people’s cocoons of comfort, we are clearly standing ready to offer something else, something more?
Along the way we need to honestly take stock to make sure the reason we are merely enduring, instead of thriving, is not the result of our failure to ask enough of our neighbours, nor offer enough to them.
For if that’s true, then maybe it doesn’t matter much if such a pale, thin "Christianity" does disappear after all.