A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada

Written by Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson Reviewed By Taylor James Murray

The secularization thesis that religion has been steadily declining in North America has been at work for many years. In Canada in particular, this was coupled with compelling data that showed stagnated attendance figures in many Mainline Protestant Churches. More recently, however, Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby has clarified this trend as the gradual polarization between religious and non-religious. In A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada, Sam Reimer (Crandall University) and Michael Wilkinson (Trinity Western University) provide an important analysis of evangelicalism within the paradigm of Canada’s changing religious landscape.

The authors, who both come from the evangelical tradition, argue that in order for one to understand the larger trends within the collective evangelical subculture one must assess the programs and identities of the individual congregations. Central to their methodology, Reimer and Wilkinson define “evangelical” through British historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral. Their research sample of “evangelical” congregations, entitled the “Canadian Evangelical Churches Study,” consists of surveys of 478 lead pastors and 100 pastors for children or youth from congregations within one of five major evangelical traditions in Canada: (1) the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, (2) the Christian Reformed Church, (3) the Mennonite Brethren, (4) the Christian Missionary Alliance, and (5) the mainline Baptist conventions. Those evangelical churches included in their sample are conservative Protestant congregations associated with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (p. 11).

While the number of Mainline Protestants in Canada has declined steadily since 1931, evangelicals have shown a surprising resilience. The authors propose that central to the relative success of evangelicalism in Canada is the ability to facilitate a communal—yet somehow personal—alternative to our individualistic and religiously plural society. Moreover, where evangelical churches are not bound by tradition in the way that they conduct themselves, each church is able to appeal to its surrounding community as it sees fit—usually in church-aesthetics, worship style, and sermon content. This is further enhanced by the natural tendency of evangelicals to focus on youth and children’s ministry (p. 62). According to the authors, these things have allowed evangelicals to fair “comparatively well” (p. 88).

Juxtaposed to the comparative resilience that evangelicalism has demonstrated, however, the authors show cause for concern, and in fact, do not reflect Bibby’s optimism. Much of the evangelical sustainability within the last half-century has related to their ability to maintain a relatively high birth rate. In recent years this has declined and, at best, has leveled with the national average. Further, immigration—specifically of those from other religious traditions—has challenged the numerical growth of Canadian Christianity in general. While evangelism and church relevance have sustained evangelical figures over the past decades, it appears as though these figures have ultimately “plateaued,” and that a shift in cultural demographics may indicate future difficulty for evangelical congregations.

While evangelical churches seek to stave off a decline in congregants, simultaneously they are struggling to retain their clergy. This is also a battle against demographics: as the baby-boomers retire, the number of young people interested in entering pastoral leadership is declining. The six largest evangelical seminaries in Canada reported a decline of roughly 20% in their student bodies (p. 138). Additionally, those individuals who do enter the ministry are prone to “burnouts” and high levels of stress. The authors suggest that this may lead to a shortage of evangelical clergy in Canada in the coming years.

In addition to these staffing difficulties, churches have indicated lower levels of financial support. Within their study, the authors found that evangelicals were consistently giving well-below the 10% “tithe.” Where this coincides with a decline in congregants, again there is cause for concern: churches are receiving much less from fewer sources. These internal difficulties enhance the continual struggle to find sustainability on a larger scale.

Evangelicals have partially combated this uphill battle against demographics with their natural impulse toward evangelism. This has been coupled with a general understanding that Canada has entered a post-Christian era and that it is necessary for churches to rethink the way they engage society. This has produced a number of interesting results, including the “Missional” and “Emergent” church models. Many of their evangelistic efforts have focused on children and youth. As a result, as many as 64.6% of young adults who were raised in an evangelical culture continued to regularly attend church services (p. 178). These ministries have proven to be relatively successful.

The relative vitality of evangelical congregations in Canada may surprise some who support a secularization hypothesis, but it is clear that evangelicalism is not entirely above this decline. Over the last half-century, the evangelical posture toward the ministry, in addition to various demographics, has insulated it from the same numerical decline that has been prevalent among other Christian factions. The operative word within this study is that evangelicals are doing comparatively well. While evangelicalism has been notably resilient to the comparative declines of the last half-century, the authors of A Culture of Faith indicate that it is now in a precarious position. Because of this, it is difficult to overstate the value of this volume for evangelicals in Canada.

This study is mutually beneficial for both “town and gown.” Firstly, it enlightens the evangelical context in Canada in a way that is useful for sociologists and historians alike. From an academic perspective, it challenges the assumption that all Christian Protestantism in Canada has been in decline since the early to middle of the twentieth-century. The shockingly resilient evangelicals appear to be the exception to the rule. Secondly, on a broader scale, it makes recent trends accessible to pastors and laypeople. While it is important for evangelical leaders to view this study as an account of what has happened rather than as an advice column for their future ministry (see pp. 208–10), this volume does raise a host of questions that should inspire reflection among evangelical leadership. For instance: How can the evangelical church more effectively engage the current culture? What does it mean to be “missional” in twenty-first century Canada? With the changing demographics, this study shows that if evangelical churches wish to continue their comparative success, they must reflect upon the manner with which they interact with society. This important sociological study, therefore, finds value for scholars, ministers, and laypeople interested in studying the Christian Church in Canada within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Taylor James Murray

Taylor James Murray
Acadia Divinity College
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada

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