“Shifting Stats, Shaking the Church.” The overall topic was the church in Canada today. Looking at recent research and attempts to respond, the event sought to assess “the pulse of the Canadian church.” The main purpose of the event was to “spark awareness, start conversations, and stimulate thinking.” Speakers included Dr. Don Moore (World Vision National Church Ambassador) and Bruxy Cavey (Teaching Pastor at the Meeting House)
The event began with Dr. Moore giving an overview of recent research on religion in Canada. Drawing from census data and sociologists’ studies, Dr. Moore outlined the continuing trend of decline in church attendance and affiliation in Canada. Having read much of Reginald Bibby’s work and followed the general tone of religion in Canadian culture, I didn’t find anything particularly new or insightful with the data itself. It was helpful, however, how Dr. Moore presented the data. He focused the data around three categories: immigrants, families/youth, and finances/time/technology.
Immigrants: There are approximately 200 different ethnicities in Canada and thus multiculturalism remains a strong Canadian value and reality that the church cannot ignore. With continued immigration, along with higher religious affiliation among immigrants over native-born Canadians, Moore challenged the church to address this reality. How does the church incorporate and engage immigrants? To what degree are churches really willing to open their doors? I suggested the Life Centre (Abbotsford) as an example.
Families/youth: The main emphases here were on shifts in family dynamics (e.g. divorce, delayed/no marriage) and declines in religious affiliation among young adults and youth (younger = less affiliated). In both areas, the church must not remain static in how they understand what “normal” Canadian life looks like. With less and less families engaged in churches, less and less common knowledge about Christianity and church exist. To ignore this is to become (or remain) irrelevant.
Finances/time/technology: On finances, Dr. Moore highlighted astronomical debt as a major challenge the church cannot ignore, both for pastoral reasons but also in terms of institutional sustainability – “there is only so much pie to go around.” Collaboration among churches and ministries, then, will be vital for healthy churches. I found this line particularly insightful and challenging: “Too often [churches] look at the bottom line more in dollars than social good.” Additionally, in a culture that remains as busy as ever, churches need to simplify ministry rather than just make people’s live busier – we are beyond the point to decrying dual-income families. In terms of technology, statistics seem to suggest that churches who embrace technological change see some sort of positive impact (e.g. regular online giving). Adaptation to technology will be required so long as churches can “stay true to themselves” in the process.
Like I mentioned, I didn’t find the statistics particularly surprising or new. Canada has been on this trajectory for quite some time. Whenever I hear such statistics, however, I often wonder what an appropriate response is, especially towards declining numbers. Fear? Lament? Celebration? Hunker down and get on with the business of re-Christianizing Canada (or “transforming” or “redeeming” or whatever other word you prefer)?
I don’t think the response should be fear or lament. Pining for the “good ole’ days” won’t change anything. In fact, it’s such an approach that has led to many of the absurd conflicts amongst Christians in recent decades that turns so many people off from church (e.g. worship wars).
I also don’t think the response should be to sound the rally cry and make bold statements about us somehow reclaiming Canada for Christ. First, as Christians, we believe that all of creation is already under the lordship of Christ (Col 1:17). Changing statistics don’t change that reality. Second, the task of the church is to witness to God’s presence not enforce it. God redeems, not us. The church participates in the presence of God through our love of neighbor and ongoing experience of life together.
I appreciated Dr. Moore’s conclusion. He asked, “Where do we begin now?” For many, the declining role of the church is cause for uncertainty and anxiety. In light of this, his response was simple, but right on: listen, learn, and lead. The church needs to pay attention to Canadian culture, learning from the people we share cities and neighborhoods with. Only then can we lead the way in responding to these realities rather than only acting in reactionary ways.
How this looks will no doubt vary. But a posture of listening and learning is critical in a time when religion – Christianity in particular – has a declining public influence. This is the type of Christian leadership we need in Canada today.
Next up: Bruxy Cavey’s response.