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John G. Stackhouse, Jr

The Renaissance of Religion in Canada

They're not dropping out. They're dropping in.

They aren't dropping out. They're dropping in."

No, not Marshall McLuhan, though it mimics one of his gnomic sayings. This is another Canadian, sociologist and pollster Reginald Bibby, neatly summing up the powerful challenge his work poses to at least two important theories of contemporary religion in North America. This challenge, drawing on more than two decades of research, is the central thrust of Bibby's new book, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada.

The "Bibby thesis" joins the sociological throng now dispensing with the idea that secularization necessarily accompanies modernity, sweeping away all traditional religion. (Even Peter Berger, among the foremost of his generation's prophets of secularization, has tendered a well-publicized recantation.) But Bibby also challenges Rodney Stark's influential account of religious adherence and identity in North America, which portrays a wide-open "marketplace" of religious options competing for the allegiance of individuals disembedded from traditional loyalties.

Since the mid-1970s, Bibby has conducted polls of increasing size and complexity across Canada from his base at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. The data show, he avers, that the Canadian religious marketplace is not nearly as open as Stark perceives it to be. Despite the much-publicized growth of New Religious Movements and the oft-remarked decline of mainline Christianity, Bibby finds simply this: Most Canadians believe in God in some distinctly Christian sense; most Canadians still call themselves Christians; and most Canadians continue to identify themselves with the particular Christian denomination of their parents.

Yes, church attendance in Canada has declined precipitously in just a generation or two. In the years following World War II, far more Canadians per capita (more than 60 percent) told pollsters that they were attending church weekly than did Americans (about 40 percent). Nowadays, the Canadian number has dropped to about 25 percent versus a continuing American average in the 40s.

Yet however much Canadians are losing touch with their churches, they have maintained a sort of allegiance to them. Canadians today essentially belong to four major groups, three of them Christian: Roman Catholic at 42 percent of the national population; Mainline Protestants (United, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian) at 19 percent; Conservative Protestant (Bibby's term for uniformly evangelical denominations) at 8 percent; and "No Religion" at 20 percent. Thus more than 70 percent of Canadians claim to be Christians (roughly 5 percent of the national total are some sort of Protestant that doesn't fit in the larger categories); about 20 percent claim to have no religion; and all of the other religions divide up the remaining 6 percent.

Furthermore, Bibby writes: "Some 90% of Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, along with close to 85% of Conservative Protestants, had the same religious identification in 1995 as they did in 1975." Among Bibby's most striking statistics (and his work is notable among popular sociologists of religion in being full of numbers that are intelligible to nonspecialists) is his finding that the vast majority of Canadians—upwards of three-quarters—continue to identify with the denomination of their parents. As Canadian Anglican Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy observed a decade ago, "It was not that they were leaving—it was just that they were not coming."

So much, then, for both the theory of massive secularization accompanying modernity and the more recent theory of Stark and others that the contemporary religious marketplace is thronged with seekers looking for something importantly different. In Canada, at least, people rarely switch: They are either Catholic or ex-Catholic, say, but rarely "once-Catholic-and-now Protestant" or even "once-Anglican-and-now-Baptist."

It is also apparent that many Canadians practice "religion à la carte," as Bibby puts it, mixing and matching ingredients from several religious traditions in the quest for a personally satisfying spirituality. Yet most Canadians' overarching allegiance is to the Christian tradition, however distant they might currently be from its institutional expressions (congregations, creeds, pastors, and the like).

Bibby notes that evangelicals in particular have worked hard "just to stay where they are" as a proportion of the national population. Evangelicals, Bibby finds, have done a good job of retaining both their youth and those who move to other towns. These Christians are the most vital, the most orthodox, and the most successful in reaching outsiders. Yet the evangelical record of attracting fellow Canadians who lack an evangelical heritage is sufficiently modest to confirm Bibby's thesis: Canadians tend to attend churches with which they have long identified.

Bibby's advice to churches, then, is quite straightforward. Indeed, it bears a curious resemblance to the "homogeneous unit principle" of the Church Growth Movement: "They must find their affiliates, explore their interests and needs, and minister to them as possible." Churches will grow, he says, if they offer better versions of themselves to their natural constituencies—those many Canadians who continue to call themselves by the name of one or another denomination while rarely attending church.

The problem is not on the "demand" side, he maintains. Canadians tell his polling teams that they continue to be interested in spiritual matters, continue to want concrete and practical advice about everything from child-rearing to politics from their preachers, and continue to see the church as an important institution in society. The problem is on the "supply side." Canadian churches are not meeting those needs.

To be sure, Bibby doesn't offer data to support this contention, in terms of actually studying churches and what they do or don't do to reach their affiliates. The exhortation to churches comes as an inference from his study of the "demand" side: Canadians want these things from their churches and yet aren't going to church, so it must be the churches' fault. And this is where Bibby is both partly right and partly wrong.

As a longtime observer of the Canadian church, I entirely agree with Bibby that many of our congregations do not offer what we ought to offer to our neighbors. Clear, sound, and practical preaching; lively and nourishing Christian education; vital and serious worship; empathetic and useful fellowship; effective and compassionate assistance to the needy—these are all in shorter supply than they should be. Any denominational leader, any Christian pundit, any longtime pew-sitter will agree that the Canadian church needs to improve. Bibby is right: If we build the church better, more will come.

Yet Christians must always look askance at any construal of church life that measures success in terms of attendance figures. Following as we do a leader who was wildly popular one weekend, only to be popularly executed the next, we properly hesitate over any diagnosis of ecclesiastical life that takes popularity as its most important measure.

Could it be, instead, that the great "sorting out" of Canadian religion that has been going on since the 1960s is itself a blessing? Could it be that it is providentially for the best that, as Bibby himself observes, fewer people are attending church, but those who do attend show increasing loyalty, fervency, and involvement—across denominational lines? One alternative explanation for these trends is that the Canadian churches have not been doing a worse job in the last generation than they did in the generation before, but many more Canadians in our day simply don't want what orthodox, institutional Christianity has to offer. And the church in some ways is the better for this sorting.

Furthermore, Bibby's findings are much too generic to be useful here. When Canadians tell him that they want more "meaning" in their lives, or more "significance" or "involvement" or "direction," we want to know precisely which meaning and what significance, involvement, or direction the respondents are prepared to consider.

Bibby's own statistics bear out this contention. He finds the vast majority of Canadians—even a startlingly high proportion of weekly churchgoers—ranking the values of "freedom," "family life," "being loved," and "friendship" above either "religion" or "spirituality." (He thinks it is good news that the latter two categories rank as high as they do. I don't.)

Moreover, Bibby finds fully half of the Canadian population harboring distinctly "unconventional" ideas about religious matters, such as "spirituality" being defined as simply a "greater power" or a "matter relating only to your inner self or soul"; or religious knowledge being defined as "a knowledge of all living things seen and unseen"; or religious behavior being defined as "being accepting of others and one's self" while "nurturing the needs of the soul."

If this is the sort of thing half of the Canadian population is looking for, then no amount of improvement is going to get them into a Mennonite or Pentecostal or Presbyterian church on Sunday morning. And to the extent that churches cater to such values and ideas, they will be departing from Christianity.

Thus the Bibby thesis actually presents a dilemma rather than a solution. Bibby himself recognizes that the most vital Christian group (Conservative Protestant) is also, because of its orthodoxy, the least inclined to meet the expectations of this unconventional half of the population. I simply add that this dilemma applies equally to every authentically Christian church in Canada.

Which brings us to history and the Holy Spirit. Colonial Canadians in the early 19th century weren't regular churchgoers either, as a rule. But with the enthusiasm and industry of several denominations (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist) motivated by broadly evangelical principles, Canada became a country of churchgoers by the time of Confederation in 1867. And the pattern of participation thus established was maintained in Canada for almost a century. Indeed, the residual pattern of adherence continues, as Bibby shows, to the present.

The blessed irony here is that those 19th-century churches did what Reginald Bibby says churches should do today: Be good churches. So how did they succeed in enfolding a population that was likely as spiritually confused and as religiously indifferent as so many Canadians are today? If the churches weren't offering what many Canadians apparently wanted, why did they nonetheless succeed in embracing and shaping an entire culture?

The theologian is free to conclude what the sociologist is not: It was the work of the Holy Spirit of God in concert with the earnest prayers and efforts of dedicated Christians. The theologian thus suggests what the sociologist cannot: It is on that work that North American churches ought to rely today. We should do our part to make our churches the best they can be. But it is the Holy Spirit alone who can bridge the chasm between what even good churches offer and what so many Canadians currently say they want from the spiritual marketplace. For it is the Holy Spirit's special work to transform the desires of the heart so that we want what we ought to want.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, and author of two new books: Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day(Baker Academic) and Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford Univ. Press).

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