Navigating The Religious Culture In Canada

By Dr. Joel Thiessen (Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute, Ambrose University)

 I am a sociologist of religion. My research centers on religion in Canada (www.joelthiessen.ca). I regularly consult with church groups across the country, seeking to bridge sociological, theological, and practical discussions for Christian ministry in Canada in the 21st century. Below are four trends in the Canadian religious landscape that are worth paying attention to. Along the way I raise questions aimed to help one consider the practical implications.

Secularization

Empirical trends show that Canada is progressing along a secularization trajectory. Religious identification, church attendance, and belief in God continue to decline, while those who do not identify with any religion, never attend religious services, and do not believe in God are increasing. These trends are especially noticeable among teens (if you want to project future religiosity in a nation, look to the current state of religiosity among its young people). Moreover, those who are not actively involved in a religious group do not generally show a strong inclination toward greater involvement. What does ministry in Canada look like in an increasingly secular context? What impact might secularization have on Canadian society?

 Religious Nones 

Religious nones – those who say they have no religion – are the fastest growing “religious” group in Canada and the modern Western world. One in four Canadian adults say they have no religion, and 32% of Canadian teens claim no religion. These figures are rising. Some religious nones adopt an array of spiritual beliefs and practices while others identify as agnostics or atheists. Why the increase? Explanations range from the reduced cultural stigma associated with not being religious in Canada, the aversion to exclusiveness – real or imagined – connected with most organized religious groups, diminished religious socialization in the home, and pervasive cultural values of individualism that defy external religious authorities. Recent survey data in Canada show that religious nones and Christians (evangelicals in particular) are not fond of each other. How should the Christian Church in Canada approach this emerging social and cultural milieu? What are the theological and practical implications?

 Christian Identification

 Christianity continues to be the dominant religion in Canada, but Christianity’s hold is waning. The 2011 Canadian Census reveals that 67.3% of Canadians identify as Christian, down from 76.6% one decade earlier and upwards of 90% a half-century earlier. This means that Christianity no longer holds the place that it once did in Canadian society. What impact, if any, does this have on the individual Christian, the local church, or Canadian society? How does this reality shape where the Church in Canada is heading in the coming years?

Immigration and Religion

Most assume that because of immigration, Canada is increasingly religiously diverse. In reality, only 8.2% of Canadians identify with a non-Christian religious tradition (e.g., Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh), up from 6% in 2001 – and these figures are growing. Still, around 40% of immigrants to Canada arrive as Christians. Christian affiliation, belief, and involvement would decline more rapidly in Canada if it were not for immigration, and all indications suggest that the future of Christianity in Canada depends on immigration. How are local churches mindful of and responding to this demographic shift? Do these changes yield primarily mono-cultural or multicultural congregational settings? On this latter question, is there a theological imperative?

For more on these and other trends, see my book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). Also, to learn about congregations that are flourishing in Canada, see www.flourishingcongregations.org.