recently I served on a panel at the University of Brit- ish Columbia on the future of Christianity in Canada. Predicting such a future seems like a waste of time.
Who will remember, let alone care, what we said on such a
panel? Yet such an exercise can have value as we plan our
next steps. Here’s a summary of what I said.
People practise religion for two main reasons. First, they
use religion to get something else they want. They go to
church to please their spouse or to find
one. They attend synagogue because their
ethnic community expects them to do so.
They go to the mosque to strengthen busi-
ness partnerships or shine up their public
image. And on a broader scale religion is
used as a rallying point for a political cause
(such as nationalism) or a legitimation for
a quite different motive (such as seizing
the lands and fortunes of enemies). So
religion is practised instrumentally – to get something else.
Second, religion is practised intrinsically. People want
what the religion itself offers: contact with God – or with
gods, bodhisattvas, magical forces or whatever. What is
available to them on the mundane plane of life isn’t suf-
ficient. Religion enriches their existence, explains it better
or provides comfort when normal coping patterns fail.
In Canada today the first motive for religion has almost
vanished. Perhaps you can gain a social good by religious
practice in some small towns in the Maritimes or some
southern Manitoba Mennonite communities – but almost
The main exception is in some immigrant commun-
ities where religion is still a badge of belonging and a cru-
cial sector of the social network. But the longer immigrants
live in Canada, the less religion plays these roles. The chil-
dren and grandchildren generally don’t stay in the faith.
What we have left in Canada is religion for its own sake.
The forms of Christianity that focused on activism, small-
scale charity, wholesome activities for the young people on
a Friday night, pleasant aesthetic experiences on a Sunday
morning, and so on have nearly disappeared, in the United
Church and other versions of social Christianity in particular.
What are left, and certainly what are thriving, are forms
of Christianity that offer a considerable God quotient, a
Will Canada be the
An academic perspective suggests religion may wither away.
spiritual experience that transcends the secular horizon,
teachings you can’t otherwise get from The Globe and Mail
or the CBC, and ethics sturdier than those purveyed by
E! or People.
People turn to religion only if they have a good reason. The instrumental reasons are gone with the wind. No
wonder in our panel discussion we noted how low church
attendance is in the one place in Canada most focused on
the here and now, on sensual pleasure and self-fulfillment
– Vancouver. No wonder church plants come and go here
with dismaying rapidity.
Yet it’s also interesting that the churches that thrive here
are full of people between 18 and 35. The older demographic ( 35–60) is much less in evidence. Those older ones
are the people who have somehow been able to succeed in
Vancouver’s punishing real estate market
and construct a lifestyle they like. They
don’t go to church. Why should they?
But the younger adults – those the
economy is not welcoming, who carry
debts they fear they can never pay off,
and who are searching for a meaningful life in a world that seems indifferent
to their aspirations – they’re in church.
Are we church leaders properly addressing their needs? Or just anesthetizing these hungry
searchers with an hour or so of lively music, group solidarity and undemanding sermonizing?
Canada has gone many decades now without a major
disruption – war, depression, natural disaster, plague. It’s
been easy for us to coast along and not think much about
the Big Stuff. No wonder our churches continue to shrink.
Scandinavia has some of the lowest church attendance in the world, and of course the peaceful, prosperous
“Norden miracle” nicely fits the pattern. Why should they
bother with religion? So they don’t.
The challenge for Canadian churches remains what it
has always been – to connect with the felt needs of our
neighbours. Are we giving people good enough reason to
attend worship instead of hitting the ski hill or attending
soccer practice? Good enough reason to commit time and
money to church life instead of some other perhaps more
enjoyable and rewarding society?
If we aren’t, then predicting the future of Christianity
in Canada isn’t hard to do – short of a surprising, and
shocking, work of God. FT
JOHn STaCKHOuSe teaches theology and culture
at regent College, Vancouver. Find more of these
columns at www.theEFC.ca/ChristAndCulture.
Christ&CultureInCanada n By JoHn G. s TACkHoUsE Jr.
It’s also interesting
that the churches
that thrive here
are full of people
between 18 and 35.