In his recent article in the Post-Christendom Studies journal, Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby says that describing Canada as “post-Christian” is a mistake. He draws from his recent research, which indicates that Christianity is growing in many parts of the world and, through immigration patterns into Canada, suggests that Christianity will retain a strong future in the years ahead, particularly among certain ethnic communities. He argues also that this bodes well for the nation as a whole as these new immigrants integrate into national life and bring their influence to bear on the culture as a whole.
At the conclusion of his article, Dr. Bibby asks a number of questions about the origins and goals of the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies and offers a comment on its direction. These all deserve a response. This blog is a response to Dr. Bibby’s questions and comments, and will provide some reflection on his article as a whole.
What precisely do the founders of the Centre for Post-Christendom studies mean by post-Christendom?
The Centre uses the term both to capture the relative numerical decline of Christianity in recent decades, which Dr. Bibby also recognizes, and the decline of its place and role in Canadian public life. In this respect, “post-Christendom” better characterizes the latter phenomenon. Further, in response to the article’s idea that Canada is still largely a “Christian” country (70% of the population still identify as such), we see a parallel with the way Søren Kierkegaard (19th century Danish philosopher-theologian) saw Denmark—many people identify with Christianity, even say they believe it, but they do not live in a manner that consciously reflects that identity in any meaningful way in their daily routines.1 We would say that this is increasingly true in Canadian society, and Dr. Bibby’s earlier research would tell us that among younger generations even identification with Christianity (even religion as a whole) is waning.2
Is the Centre focusing on what is no longer with us versus Christianity’s possible nature and place in Canada and elsewhere today and tomorrow?
While we agree with Dr. Bibby that secularization does not characterize the Canadian populace as a whole, we do think that its influence in cultural practices, political life, and media outlets is pronounced and influences the wider fabric of public Canadian life perhaps to a greater degree than the relative percentage of its adherents within the population. Is there any major Canadian public institution that advocates anything other than a secular and multicultural ethos? At the very least, they assiduously avoid a religious identity in general and a Christian one in particular. That said, we hope to play a constructive role in encouraging and equipping the church in Canada, and the Western world as a whole, in relating effectively to its current cultural context.
Is attention being given to global developments which through immigration and communication have the potential to have enormous impact on Christianity in Canada?
This is an important point and one that deserves attention. This is an area for the Centre to be attentive to in the years ahead. However, the question faced by immigrants coming to Canada who profess Christian faith has increasingly become, “will the second and third generation continue to embrace the faith?” Many within Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other ethnic churches are facing some of the realities of Caucasian churches in terms of how their younger people are leaving the faith or practicing it in very different ways from their elders. The question of how Canadian culture affects those who grow up in that culture is a live one for immigrants of all religious stripes. Does immigration assure that the church will remain strong for generations to come? Only time will tell. Current trends among second and third generation immigrants, however, indicate that there are definite challenges. In terms of predictions about the future, using some of the same data, Joel Thiessen (also showcased in this volume of the journal) draws different conclusions than Dr. Bibby.
Of central importance, the focus should not be on demise but rather ongoing life.
This comment is most helpful and captures what we hope will be the prevailing spirit of the Centre. As already mentioned, our goal is to be constructive and hopeful about the life and future of the church in Western culture today. To that end, I suggest, in keeping with the tone of Dr. Bibby’s article, that there are at least two things that church leaders and scholars need to think about (and ultimately act upon) in terms of moving into the future in light of the realities of immigration in Canada (and perhaps also other Western countries where similar trends are present). First, established churches need to engage immigrant populations by planting new churches that welcome and reach out to these populations. What would it be like if established churches that are primarily Caucasian, or multi-ethnic, began to allot resources into ministries that focused on new Canadians. If Dr. Bibby’s research is correct (and I don’t dispute the data he shares), then investing in new Canadians, both Christian and non, is a key way forward in cultivating the Christian faith in Canada today. Second, the church needs to do a better job of developing and empowering immigrant leaders within established congregations. If we neglect the work of leadership development among new Canadians who arrive in our church or if we make them wait until they have adapted to our way of doing things, we will run the risk of losing out on their enthusiasm and wisdom for contributing to the future of the church in Canada. Making room for new immigrants in roles of leadership will help the church reflect the changing nature of our country as well as capitalize on what these people have to offer to us in terms of doing ministry in the cultural realities of our time.
Much more can be said about all of these things. Dr. Bibby’s article provides excellent food for thought and leaves us all with questions and challenges as to how to understand and respond to our ever changing world. As always, his contribution is important reading for all church leaders and academics.
[Editor’s note: If you wish to read more on this topic and others, the first issue of Post-Christendom Studies is available now, online and in print.]
1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View. Trans. Walter Lowrie. London: Oxford University Press, 1939. 38.
2. Bibby reports that 47% of millennials “never” attend religious services. Reginald Bibby. The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice. Lethbridge, AB: Project Canada Books, 2009. 185.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*