It was impossible to include reaction to Leaving Christianity: Changing Alliances in Canada since 1945 by Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald in my Free Press column—my column was already 1,900 words, and I’ve got as many words here again!
After reading the book, I contacted academics who study religion in Canada. I wanted to know their reaction—what did they think of the book?
Here’s what they told me.
The overall response to the book was positive, including a sense of gratitude for the enormous amount of work done by the authors.
“This book is the most comprehensive account available of the relatively recent history of the changes we have seen in Canadian Christianity in the last 70 years,” says Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.
“Their systematic and sober description is so valuable for scholars of Canadian religion, history, and society.”
“I think they're clearly right about the unaffiliated being the new mainstream or dominant group in Canada,” says Kevin Flatt, professor of history at Redeemer University College.
“I think they're also right that Canada is a difficult environment for church recruitment and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.”
“This book is long overdue,” says Lori Beaman, a professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change.
She describes the book as a “detailed and realistic look at statistical data from a range of sources to analyze the present status of Christianity in Canada.”
Rise of the “Nones”
There was no disagreement about the rise of the “nones,” although some wondered if that is a fixed category—some people who are currently among the “nones” might decide to seek greater religious involvement in the future.
Reg Bibby, a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, agrees that the “no religion category has grown significantly,” but notes there is research to suggest it will level off over the next few decades—not keep growing as the authors suggest.
Plus, he says, “the pro-religious sector remains with us, and is being fueled and will continue to be fueled mightily by immigration, led by Catholics and Muslims.”
At the same time, being "low religious" doesn’t mean "no religious,” he says—Canadians continue to say they believe in God, or a higher power, and participate in religious activities such as prayer.
Impact on Society
Clarke and Macdonald suggest that decline in religion will have a significant on Canadian society—giving, volunteering, voting and other civic participation.
Nobody disagreed with that sentiment, but Beaman wonders if Canadians will come up with something to replace religion as a driver of civic engagement.
She asks: “Will new constellations of nonreligious service providers emerge, or will some religiously initiated and maintained services transform over time into nonreligious or non-affiliated services? Is that process already occurring?
“Are the social justice activities of Canadians being partially relocated to online action, amorphous communities and targeted strategic action that brings together issue-focused initiatives?
“Is the very nature of volunteering changing such that old measures do not adequately capture its new forms?”
She also wonders if the authors are too pessimistic about the state of Christianity in Canada—that Canada is now “post-Christian.”
“Christianity is woven through Canadian culture and society so tightly that it will be some time before the impact of reduced affiliation and limited Christian literacy are fully translated into public spaces and institutions,” she says.
She notes that God is referenced in the Charter, that “multiple Christian interveners regularly weigh in on issues like prostitution, assisted dying, and education that come before the Supreme Court of Canada,” and that Catholic hospitals and schools are still publicly funded.
Moreover, she says, Christian practices and symbols “are being rendered as ‘culture and heritage,’ which at least partially protects their presence in public spaces for the time being.”
But even if she doesn’t think Canada is now post-Christian, she agrees with the authors “we are well on our way.”
Conservative vs. Liberal
One of the strongest reactions came over how the decline in religion is impacting groups—and to how the authors seem to downplay the role of theological beliefs.
For Flatt, “I think it's clear from the evidence that churches' beliefs play some role, and specifically that more theologically conservative churches with definite beliefs tend to fare better than more liberal ones.”
It's not the only factor, he says, “not by a long shot.” But it is “an important one.”
The evidence is in, Flatt maintains: Mainline and liberal denominations that place a lower value on commitment are shrinking, while conservative denominations which have high commitment are growing or stable.
As a result, “I don't think it's crazy to argue that maybe the big theological differences between these two streams of Christianity play some role in their growth or decline,” he says.
He adds that “it turns out the growing churches are more theologically conservative, and that's one of the major factors explaining growth, even when controlling for lots of other things.”
At the same time, “churches of every stripe face strong ‘headwinds’ in contemporary Canada,” he says. “It's hard to grow a church here, period, no matter what your theology.”
Sam Reimer, a sociology professor at Crandall University, also feels that theological beliefs matter in terms of who comes and how long they say.
Conservative churches, he says, “tend to attract the more staunchly religious or most religiously committed,” people who are “slower to leave and less likely to be become 'nones'.”
He also notes that more conservative churches tend to place a high value on evangelism, “which boosts their numbers, if only slightly.”
He agrees with Flatt that “conservative or liberalness is not the only important factor on church growth. Conservative churches are affected by many of the same broader forces of secularism as liberal churches, which promote general decline across the board.”
However, he notes, “conservative churches do a better job of resisting cultural influences and holding on to their own, often with strong youth programs, which means they are more protected against secularism.”
For John Stackhouse, a professor of religious studies at Crandall, beliefs are also important, but not just because conservative churches tend to require higher commitment from their members.
What makes the difference for him is not just theology, but “the piety that goes with it: a genuine sense of interaction with the biblical God, with Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit, versus “God-as-you-conceive-the-Divine-to-Be” and spirituality on your own terms.”
Impact of Immigration
The one area where almost everyone thought the authors didn’t give enough attention in the book was to immigration.
It’s true that changing immigration patterns have changed over the decades, which is one of the reason why groups like the Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans have seen declines—their pipeline of European co-religionists was severed.
But that doesn’t mean Christians aren’t still coming to Canada, as many of the people I interviewed noted.
In fact, 48% of all immigrants between 2006 and 2011 were Christians.
With an estimated 1 million immigrants expected over the next three years, if that figure holds it means as many as 500,000 new Christians coming to Canada.
That won’t replace all the losses, of course. But it isn’t insignificant, either—especially when you consider these immigrants tend to be more devout than people born in Canada.
It was suggested that the groups that will benefit most from this influx of new believers will likely be more conservative groups, since Christians in the developing world tend to be more conservative and morally conservative.
As a result, “immigration is going to play a huge role in the future of Christianity in Canada," says Flatt.
Bibby agrees, noting that the global explosion of Catholicism and projected increases in immigration numbers for Canada over the next several decades means that immigration will potentially have a significant impact on the Canadian religious landscape.
Says Bibby: “Immigration has always shaped religion in Canada; in my mind, it is the key to understanding where things will be in the future.”
Rick Hiemstra, director of research for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, adds that these waves of Christians “from outside Canada could come and revitalize us.”
What this means for Canadian Christians, he says, is they “should welcome increased immigration.”
But Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose University, adds a word of caution; the unknown, he says, is “what will happen to second and third generation. Will the boost stand?”
Clarke and Macdonald are clear that the book isn’t meant to provide answers for how to respond.
But others have some ideas.
For Stackhouse, there’s something about conservative theology. But as importantly, is the need for churches—all of them—to do better when reaching out to Canadians.
“Studies have been showing how underfunded, poorly led, and otherwise weak are so many churches in Canada today,” he says.
Put another way, “if churches were all functioning as they should and these trends were still as they are, then, yes, the churches are doomed. But when churches manifestly are not doing even basic things well—good preaching, well conducted worship, strong Christian education, vital community life, effective mission—then one mustn’t over-interpret the statistics.”
Maybe, he says, “churches can improve how they cater to the market and thus reverse at least some of these trends.”
Thiessen, who also helps lead the Flourishing Congregations Institute, identifies at least three things church could do better.
First, be welcoming to immigrants. With so many of them being Christians, churches need to “examine how open they are to other ethnic groups, especially those already have an affinity for your group.”
This includes taking a look at leadership in a church; is it all white?
Second, they need to focus on leadership development.
Churches, he says, need to “create space for new generation of leaders, including them in decision-making now, enabling them to have ownership of the vision.”
This will not always be easy, since younger Christians will see things differently, and hold different beliefs on some issues—such as LGBTQ* inclusion.
The older generation, he says, has to be prepared to “ask what cost they are willing to pay to hand things over to younger leaders,” who might not see things the same way they do.
At the same time, Thiessen cautions, it’s not a one-way street.
The next generation “also needs to learn from the older generation,” he says. “It’s not all about them.”
Third, churches need to be actively involved in their communities.
“How active and present in the community is your church?” he asks.
Involvement in the community conveys to neighbours that a church “doesn’t exist only for itself,” he says.
This includes partnering with other groups, and using that as a “gateway for connection.”
This doesn’t mean “people will flood into churches,” he adds, but it could “change the perception of the church, that it’s just for someone else.”
Finally, Hiemstra cautions that nothing about the future of the church in Canada is certain.
“History shows things can change in surprising ways,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think that we are seeing the end of the church in Canada.
The “form of Christianity is changing,” he acknowledges, and some denominations may not survive.
“Different expressions of faith will come and go,” he says, adding that “Christ never guaranteed denominations would endure. He said the church would survive.”