Thank goodness this is a Canadian study! This is the common refrain our research team hears as we explore the factors that surround how and why some congregations flourish in Canada. But what do people mean? What is so different about the Canadian context for congregations? Here are several observations from our phase one interviews and focus groups – perceptions framed most often in contrast to the United States.
A Faith Community in Exile
There is a keen awareness of how secular Canada is, evident among other areas with the fast growing “religious none” population who now comprise 24% of Canadian adults and 32% of Canadian teens. Add to this the negative public image that many have toward Christianity, particularly evangelicals, and the marginalized place of religion in the political realm (for better or worse, depending on one’s perspective), and church leaders are attentive to a social context where Christian affinity, understanding, or appreciation cannot be taken for granted. While some American church leaders are just coming to grips with some of these realities, many we interviewed embrace this “exile” environment as an opportunity to take risks and experiment with new ministry initiatives – where anything goes with nothing to lose in a largely secular setting.
A Diverse, Inclusive, and Tolerant Nation
The Canadian self-narrative is rooted in diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance. Canadian church leaders generally welcome this aspiration, but some wonder if the Canadian attempt to be inclusive of all can and does result in an exclusive posture toward Christianity. That is, some Christian beliefs and values are set to the margins of Canadian social life for being too conservative (even “un-Canadian”) and offensive to other marginalized groups in society. As with the exile narrative some see this context less negatively, citing Jesus’ ministry on the margins of society rather than from a privileged position of power.
Cooperation versus Competition
Those we interviewed frequently talked about cooperating rather than competing with others, whether with other congregations in their denomination, congregations from other denominations, other faith groups, or secular agencies. For some partnerships arise out of pragmatic necessity, for others collaboration is interpreted as a theological mandate, and others see the benefits of cooperation as a public witness that Christians are not insular.
Local congregations benefit from Canada’s open borders – over 40% of immigrants today identify as Christian, with Catholics and evangelicals being the biggest beneficiaries. Aside from the obvious numerical benefits, interviewees note that recent immigrants from the global south and east are more conservative, committed, and countercultural in their faith versus Canadian-born Christians – and congregations would be wise to learn from and leverage some of these changing dynamics evident among immigrant Christians. As has always been true, the future of Christianity in Canada will likely rise and fall based on immigration.
Few Large Churches
The perception is that American churches are large and Canadian churches are small. There is some truth here, where approximately 150 Protestant churches in Canada have 1000+ weekly attendance versus over 7,000 congregations in the United States (note – Roman Catholics are the center of large churches in Canada, though exact figures are unclear). Interestingly, most leaders of large congregation in our study acknowledge that their growth is fuelled mainly by transfer growth, sometimes at the expense of smaller churches. Still, most churches across North America have fewer than 100 people.
Whether these observations are merely perceptions, realities, and/or aspirations among church leaders is not entirely clear so far. Stay tuned in later phases of our research for more on this topic, by signing up for our updates via our website, follow us on twitter, and like us on facebook.