The Religion in Canada Institute (RCI) is an interdisciplinary research centre and intellectual community of scholars at Trinity Western University committed to understanding the multifaceted role of religion in Canada for culture, individuals, and social institutions.
RCI Members: Michael Wilkinson, Robert Burkinshaw, John Dyck, Janet Epp Buckingham, Bruce Guenther, Robynne Healey, Joanne Pepper, Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham, Paul Rowe, Jens Zimmermann
"Why Canadians aren’t Going to Church and What that Means for Evangelical Churches in Canada."
Weekly church attendance in Canada has dropped from roughly 50% in 1960 to about 10% now. What social changes help explain this drastic decline in institutional religiosity? Has this decline affected evangelical churches too? We know that evangelical churches have shown greater vitality than mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, but there are many reasons to be concerned about the future of evangelicalism, and a few reasons for hope. I will also explain what I consider the most important religious change in the last fifty years, which partially accounts for declining institutional religiosity.
Leading sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby has argued in his most recent book that Canada is becoming increasingly polarized religiously. There is a growing number of Canadians who reject religion, even while there is a fairly stable number of religiously committed Canadians. The gap between them seems to be growing. However, I will argue that the available evidence is more consistent with continued religious decline than with polarization.
Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson’s A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada is an excellent book that should be read by sociologists of religion, divinity school teachers, pastors, and lay people who are interested in Canada’s religious landscape and its future. Reimer and Wilkinson start with the observation that despite declining church memberships and Christian affiliation across Canada, evangelical denominations have managed to keep their “share” of the national population. The question is how did they do this and will they continue to do so? Through looking at local congregations via national surveys and extensive interviews with pastors, Reimer and Wilkinson demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of evangelical congregations and provide readers with a detailed, data rich understanding of the challenges evangelical congregations will face in the future. Their research focuses on congregations in five major denominations: The Baptist conventions (e.g., Atlantic Baptists, Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec), Christian and Missionary Alliance, Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Brethren, and Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and excludes independent evangelical churches. This focus is still sufficient to give us a detailed picture of evangelical life in Canada and each of the book’s 10 chapters covers a range of topics from a cross-cultural evangelical subculture (which is shared across Canada’s geographic regions and with evangelicals in the United States) to investigations into topics that are relevant to local congregations including demographics, local priorities, leadership and pastoral well-being, children and youth, and financing congregations.
At A Culture of Faith’s heart is the question of what local congregations can do to meet their members’ needs and prepare for the challenges ahead—although Reimer and Wilkinson do not offer any specific strategies for the latter point. For example, the demographic picture in Canada shows a declining population with more new Canadians coming from immigration rather than birth. Yet, readers will not find any active strategies in this book for reaching these new Canadians. Reimer and Wilkinson leave it to the local congregations to determine their futures. Discerning readers with an interest in bolstering congregations will find a great deal to think about in the chapters on leadership and pastoral well-being, children and youth, and financing congregations. Specifically, pastors are aging, their jobs are more precarious with an increase in part-time positions, and their replacements are not forthcoming. Children’s programs are successful at keeping children present in churches (although parental religiosity is the major factor in passing religiosity on to children), but there are some concerns about keeping young adults in the pews. Finally, Canadian congregations are facing an uncertain financial future—especially if their youth do not stay in the churches and give generously. Reimer and Wilkinson do an excellent job of even-handedly outlining the data for these concerns and anybody serving in a leadership capacity (lay or pastoral) in an evangelical congregation should read from chapter three to book’s conclusion to get a detailed sense of what is in store for them. Sociologists of religion should take a long look at the data in A Culture of Faith and ask themselves if they think evangelical congregations will be able to endure the cultural shifts happening around them and what will be the social outcomes if the churches cannot survive in a more secular climate.
Clearly, I think this book is worth reading and recommending. The detailed charts and clear writing make it accessible and the topic is timely. Yet, there are some criticisms to be made. First, Reimer and Wilkinson could have used more comparative data with Mainline and Catholic denominations in Canada and all denominations in the United States. There are a few chapters that use this comparative data, most noticeably the chapters on youth and financing congregations, which were co-authored by James Penner and Rick Heimstra, respectively, and use data that the co-authors had gathered for other projects. This contextualizing information is few and far between, however, and novice readers in Canadian sociology of religion will have to go to other sources to get the larger demographic picture of Canadian religiosity within which to contextualize A Culture of Faith’s findings. This is a book about evangelical congregations, however, and this lack of additional data is a minor issue compared to the benefits to be gained from the new findings presented within.
Another line of inquiry to be raised with A Culture of Faith is the question of what role Canadian churches play in keeping the country’s social fabric together. Reimer and Wilkinson hint at the importance that religious institutions play in terms of cultivating volunteers and charitable givers, but they do not spell out the importance that congregations—evangelical, mainline, and Catholic alike—play in keeping the charitable fabric of Canada intact. The roles evangelical Christians play in Canadian civic life and their larger importance is underdeveloped, which is a shame because a quantitative analysis of congregational charitable contributions would help policy makers understand and appreciate the role that religious institutions play in their communities. Shining a light on charitable giving within the larger discussion of the challenges facing Canadian churches could help far-sighted community leaders to anticipate the changing landscape of social service providers in the coming decades.
A Culture of Faith is a welcome addition to the sociology of religion in Canada and congregational studies canons. Reimer and Wilkinson’s work should be read broadly and discussed in classrooms in universities, seminaries, and church meetings. While this book is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it offers a wide variety of useful data points that will enable critical thinkers to understand how evangelical churches operate, the challenges facing them, and the contributions they make to their communities. These questions are worth asking and A Culture of Faith is an excellent place to start such inquiry.
David Feltmate, Ph.D.
College of Public Policy and Justice
Auburn University at Montgomery
On any given weekend, an estimated 300,000
people across Canada participate in the kind of church that draws 1,000 or more
in weekly attendance. That’s about 1 of 8 people who went to a Protestant
church. Even in cities where sizable portions of the population check “no
religion” on their household surveys, these predominantly evangelical
congregations are growing, reaching out, and focused on serving children and
These breakthrough discoveries come from a
first-ever effort to conduct a national study of the country’s
largest-attendance churches, an initiative sponsored by a large coalition of
Canadian scholars and evangelical ministries, along with the U.S.-based
Leadership Network, which does similar research in its country.
The 12-page, illustrated executive summary
is available to download free at leadnet.org/Canada courtesy of two sponsors,
D.L. Deeks Insurance Services, Inc. (deeksinsurance.ca) and Pushpay (pushpay.com).
Major findings include:
• Canada’s largest Protestant churches
range from 1,000 to almost 10,000 in weekly worship attendance.
• The vast majority (79%) report that they
have grown over the last 5 years.
• Church leaders say that almost a third (29%)
of the growth comes either as new to the Christian faith (16%) or renewed in
faith (13%) as they have returned to Christian belief/involvement after
dropping away from a childhood or earlier-in-life participation in
• Just over half (55%) have birthed or
planted another separate congregation in the last 10 years, and another 16% are
• Four out of 10 (40%) respondents describe
their church as multisite, meaning that they are one church but in two or more
different geographic locations.
• These congregations are also racially
diverse. In terms of ethnicity, if multiethnic is defined as a church with no
more than 80% of one race, then 62% of large Canadian churches are multiethnic.
• When asked what they see as the primary
advantage of large churches, survey participants selected most the “ability to
provide an enhanced quality of ministry.” This choice was followed by “opportunity
to minister to a diverse range of people” and “ability to offer diverse forms
• When asked what has led to such growth in
these large churches, many (55%) include “children’s and/or youth ministry” as
a factor in growth, with just over half (51%) affirming “a strong vision and
mission” often personified by “the passion and personality of our senior
leader/pastor” (43%). Another commonly noted factor (35%) is an “emphasis on
• A large percent (83%) say they are
“somewhat” or “very” effective in carrying out evangelism, as people invite
others to consider faith in Jesus Christ.
• The top-named strategies for evangelism
begin with “children’s/family/youth ministries that positively impact the
parents.” This is followed by “Alpha Course,” a discussion-based approach to
core questions about practical topics like faith, the after-life, suffering,
and the Holy Spirit.
“The team of co-researchers acted as a true
partnership,” says Dr. Warren Bird, lead researcher. “Each person suggested
churches we might contact, contributed survey questions and critiqued drafts of
the survey and report. Many will be writing follow-up specific-topic reports
based on further analysis of the findings.”
Free webinar (space limited) with live Q&A available on October
21, 2015, with recorded version available after that date. See leadnet.org/canada
To dialogue with the research team, contact
any of the people involved: Warren Bird,
Ph.D., Leadership Network, email@example.com, 845-368-4379 (Lead
Researcher); also Reginald W. Bibby,
Ph.D., University of Lethbridge, firstname.lastname@example.org, 403-329-2558;Peter
Beyer, Ph.D., University of Ottawa, email@example.com, 613-562-5800 (1178);
Mark Chapman, Ph.D., Tyndale
University College & Seminary, firstname.lastname@example.org, 416-226-6620 ext. 2208;
Rick Hiemstra, The Evangelical
Fellowship of Canada, email@example.com, 613-233-9868 x332; Lorne Hunter, Outreach Canada
Ministries, firstname.lastname@example.org, 604-952-0050 ext. 300; Stephen McMullin, Ph.D., Acadia University,
email@example.com, 902-585-2210; Sam
Reimer, Ph.D., Crandall University, Sam.Reimer@crandallu.ca, 506-858-8970
Thiessen, Ph.D., Ambrose University, firstname.lastname@example.org, 403-410-2000
ext.2979; Peter Schuurman, Ph.D.
candidate, University of Waterloo, email@example.com, 519-822-7177; Shaila Visser, Alpha Ministries Canada,
firstname.lastname@example.org, 604 304 2082 ext. 123; and Michael Wilkinson, Ph.D., Trinity Western University,
email@example.com, 604-888-7511 ext 3832.
Leadership Network: Based in Dallas, Texas,
Leadership Network is a nonprofit public charity that fosters innovation
movements that activate the church to greater impact through a variety of
programs and resources. For more on Leadership Network, see www.leadnet.org.
Trinity Western University, Fosmark Building (Graduate Student's Lounge)
October 29, 2015
Fewer Canadians identify with a religion, believe in a god, or attend weekly religious services than in past decades. What explains higher and lower levels of religiosity? Is secularization a myth or reality? What impact does religiosity or secularity have on a society’s social and civil fabric? Drawing on material from my forthcoming book (November 2015), I turn to interview data with those who attend religious services weekly, those who attend services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage, and those who do not identify with any religious group and never attend religious services. My central argument is that the “demand” for religion is waning regardless of what religious groups do to their “supply” of religion, and that secularization theory remains a useful way to describe and explain the current and future state of religion in Canada.
Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta. The focus of his research is religion and culture in Canada, including secularization, religious nones, nominal and regular church attenders, religious and secular socialization, and congregations. He is author of two books, The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (co-author with Lorne L. Dawson, Oxford University Press) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press), along with a range of articles. For more information see www.joelthiessen.ca.
Review:Religion in the Public Sphere:Canadian Case Studies.Edited by Solange Lefebvre & Lori G.
Beaman.University of Toronto Press,
Reviewed by Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham, PhD RN,
School of Nursing, Religion in Canada Institute, Trinity Western University.
This collection of case studies on the
expression of religion in the public sphere, insightfully bookended by
introduction and conclusion chapters by Lefebvre and Beaman, bring a uniquely
Canadian angle to what is a relevant social concern in many countries.The collection evidences the complex
relations of the public and private nature of religion in Canada.One of the many contributions of this volume
is the editors’ problematization of the binaries such as public/private and sacred/secular
that have been constructed around religion. The book also challenges any
conventional image of a singular Canada, and gives a sense of the “range of
issues and geographies that intersect with the theme of religion and the public
sphere” (p.9). Essays from researchers across Canada, from research-intensive
and small universities, and from established and emerging scholars (e.g.,
University of Ottawa (Beyer), Université de Montréal (Cohen), University of New
Brunswick (Nason-Clark), Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Nayar)) address a
variety of public stages on which religion plays out.Reflecting the diversity of Canada, religion
and immigration are the foci of chapters on Haitian migrants (Mooney), Maghrebi
Jewish migrations (Cohen and Scioldo-Zűrcher), Islamic identity (Ramji), and
Sikh youth (Nayar).
My review focuses on these three
points: the book’s problematization of
dualisms; its distinctly Canadian take; and its analysis of religion alongside
other intersecting social realities. I also
take up application of its insights into two fields of immediate relevance to
my scholarship: healthcare and higher
Binaries and Dialectics. A binary can be employed as a useful device
in making an argument or in analyzing a complex situation. However, too often the contrasts created are
not absolute, but are better understood as dialectics that operate in tension,
as both/and rather than either/or. In
the cases expounded in this collection, the dualisms that are explored most
closely are those of public/private and sacred/secular, and “how and under what
circumstances the boundaries between them are constructed” (p. 11). The editors effectively leverage the
public/private dialectic to organize the four parts of the book, although some
might find the categorization of chapters somewhat forced, especially since
feminists debunked the public/personal dichotomy decades ago. For those of us who approach this book as
source of new insights, we do well to employ the dialectic method of reflexive
philosophical thinking from our specific historical situatedness. To practice
dialectic well, one has to be open to contradiction and emergence, dialogue and
hopefulness (Kovel, 1998). I return to
this idea in my applications below.
Canadian, definitively Global. While reviewing the book, I was in England, at a conference on
religion hosted by the British Study Group on the Sociology of Religion (SOCREL
Conference Foundations and Futures, July 7 – 9th, High Leigh
Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, UK), which offered a unique opportunity to think
about what are shared global concerns, and what are national specifics. Two strong themes in the UK context were
those of the forms secularism is taking in that society, and the integration of
Muslim communities generally, and in the academy more specifically. These themes also take form in Canada, but in
uniquely Canadian ways. Canada is
different than the UK and EU in not having the influence of the state
church. Our heritage of Indigenous,
Anglican, and Catholic presences has meant shared religious space from the
beginning, without one hegemonic state church to be overthrown to rid society
of institutional control. The Canadian
exception is that of Quebec, where the Catholic church has until recent years
had a strong institutionalized role. The
Canadian story is also different from our American neighbours, in that religion
has not been as politicized. Bowlby, in
the chapter entitled “Canadian social imaginaries: Re-examining religion and
secularization”, explores how a Victorian Christian imaginary has given way to
a secular imaginary in Canada, and how both of these imaginaries are challenged
by ethnic and religious diversity, particularly as brought about by
migration. Beaman, in her chapter,
“Between the public and the private:
Governing religious expression”, also examines an “imagined” secular
Canada by considering contests over religion in the public sphere that evidence
a postsecular multiplicity of religious voices in the public sphere, with a
concurrent retrenchment that suggests that not all religious voices may be
welcome. Beaman’s and other
contributors’ willingness to explore social relations of power vis-à-vis
religion makes this a welcome collection.
Intersectionality: More than religion. Canada has long
been a nation of newcomers and has been described as one of the few nations
where multiculturalism as public policy has had sustained success (although not
without its critics). This history of
negotiating diversity is important in giving us a certain collective repertoire as we now navigate diversity
that falls along various social lines:
religion takes different forms as it is crossed with ethnicity, gender,
sexual orientation, class, and so forth.
Social difference can bring richness and texture to our shared
existence; it can also be contested when it becomes a source of inequity or
marginalization, or when it becomes fodder for a politics of resistance (see
Nayar re: Sikh youth in B.C.). An
intersectional lens is also evident in Nason-Clark’s analysis of how religious
faith and domestic violence are co-mingled.
As Lefebvre and Beaman conclude, “Women’s bodies have been
disproportionately targeted for regulation by a patriarchy (often
religiously-informed patriarchy) that operates to shape the nature of the
public sphere” (p.313). Taken as a
whole, the collection illustrates how religion can become an axis for or site
of marginalization and exclusion, often in tandem with other social realities,
and why critical intersectional analyses that consider the myriad of social
dynamics at play are vital to understanding the expression of religion in the
entrée to the collection was twofold: as a researcher studying diversity and religion’s
presence in Canadian healthcare services, and as a professor at a university at
the centre of much public debate on the role of religion in higher
education.The book left me wishing for
robust discussion of these two case studies.Religious diversity in the day-to-day delivery and organization of
healthcare services plays out in various ways, but has not been well studied,
in part because of a presumed secularity of healthcare.Our recently funded research on the
expression of prayer in healthcare is evidencing just how delicate and
contested the field can be (Sharma, Reimer-Kirkham & Cochrane, 2013).Likewise, creating a hospitable environment
for same sex attracted youth at our faith-based, creedal university requires a
less polarized and more dialectic consideration marked by dialogue and
hopefulness.While these topics are not
directly addressed by the writers in this collection, their approach—of problematizing
binaries and leveraging intersectional analyses to illuminate complex relations
between public and private spheres, and striving to look beyond any
conventional image of a singular Canada—can be applied widely.
At the end of the day, any good book review
entails description and evaluation. I
hope this review has provided sufficient detail to commend the book to you, and
enough evaluative comments to stimulate deeper dialogue and analysis.
Kovel J. (1998). Dialectic as praxis. Science & Society, 62(3), 474-482.
Sharma, S., Reimer-Kirkham, S. &
Cochrane, M.(2013).Prayer as transgression:Stories from healthcare.In G.Giordan & L.Woodhead (eds.) Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion
Just over a
year ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected to govern India with a
majority government. Founded over thirty years ago, the BJP brought
together conservative nationalists opposed to the big tent nationalism
represented by the Indian National Congress. BJP ideology was built on
the foundation of Hindutva, which called for the embrace of a Hindu
identity as a unifying principle in India. Hindutva nationalists
sought a Hindu rashtra (state) which would not bow to minority demands but
instead privilege the majority religious impulses of Hinduism. Building
on the erosion of support for the Congress Party, the BJP has gradually taken
centre stage as a dominant political movement. In 1998 it formed a
coalition government, which was later defeated by Congress and its allies in
2004. Last year, the BJP won an outright majority in the Indian federal
elections, the first party other than Congress to do so.
The BJP won
the 2014 election in an atmosphere in which people were demanding far-reaching
change in Indian politics. The party’s charismatic leader, Narendra Modi,
was carried along by a wave of demands for an end to official corruption, an
embrace of neoliberal reforms, and a vision for the future of the
country. Voters supported the BJP as the agent of change even though Mr.
Modi has been publicly criticized for his weak leadership (at best) or
complicity (at worst) during deadly riots against Muslims in 2002 in his home
state of Gujarat. The ambiguity surrounding his role at the time and his
vaunted success in running the state of Gujarat propelled Mr. Modi and the BJP
wanted good government, better economic management, and a vision for the Indian
future. “Development” was the mantra of the party campaign. While
the BJP may well deliver on some of these promises, religious minorities are
concerned that the government’s outright majority has emboldened the more radical
of its supporters in the family of Hindu nationalist movements known as the sangh
parivar. In recent years, radicals associated with the movement have
engaged in vigilante-style attacks on religious minorities and organized
campaigns to confront “proselytization”. Representatives of minority
Muslim and Christian communities complain that the existence of a BJP
government gives these radicals a feeling of impunity. Weak policing in
response to the bullying of religious minorities only strengthens the hands of
the attackers. A spate of fires at churches in the area of Delhi in
December and January led to public criticisms that the BJP was not taking
seriously the spike in such incidents.
India’s Republic Day, visiting President Barack Obama pointedly observed that
“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of
religious faith -- so long as it's not splintered along any lines -- and is
unified as one nation.”
last two weeks of June, I was privileged to be a part of a group of professors
from various institutions across North America who studied economic and social
development in India from the perspective of the Christian minority, organized
by the Nagel Institute for Global Christianity at Calvin College (https://www.calvin.edu/nagel/india/).
Seminar leaders included Timothy and Rebecca Samuel Shah (Georgetown
University), Vinay Samuel (Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life), and
Robert Woodberry (National University of Singapore), as well as the Nagel
Institute Director Joel Carpenter.
Bengaluru (Bangalore), we got to meet the recipients of micro-credit
initiatives spearheaded by faith-based organizations. In Chennai, we
spoke to the leaders of a major international development organization.
In Delhi, we visited the headquarters of the governing BJP. Along the
way, we heard from prominent academics about the influence of faith in
empowering the poor, in fostering liberal democratic principles, and in
establishing cutting-edge educational institutions.
We saw much
that provided hope for India’s future among its entrepreneurs, its leaders, and
its faith traditions. But there were also alarming reports of religious
intolerance. Visits to vibrant non-governmental organizations involved in
empowering the poor were punctuated by tales of persecution and a trip to a
burned-out church, one the many attacked in Delhi a few months previously.
positive impact of religious institutions on public life in India is mirrored
elsewhere, but perhaps it is most notable in this land of contrasts.
India’s official secularism, much like the disestablishment clause in the
United States, has combined with a neutral attitude toward religion that has
allowed religion to thrive. The increasingly intolerant tone set by
anti-conversion laws and religious bigotry will serve only to undermine these
crucial pillars of India’s success. The air of change that BJP rule has
brought to India is thrilling. But if it continues to conceal intolerant
efforts to limit religious freedom, the benefits of political reform will be
eclipsed by rising injustice.
Christian community “punches above its weight” by shaping the social and
educational sectors in Indian society. There are many lessons that
Canadians can learn from the challenges and opportunities that Indian
Christians face today, from dealing with changing attitudes toward the nature
of public secularism to the need to recommit to public service that benefits
the whole of society. It is my hope that this seminar is just the first
step in building greater awareness on both sides of the world.