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The rise and fall (and rise?) of evangelicalism in Canada

11 September 2017
Theme:

A quick tour from Confederation to today

By John G. Stackhouse, Jr. Reprinted with permission from Faith Today (Jul/Aug 2017).

Sunday morning at a typical Canadian evangelical church – about a hundred congregants, a building groaning with deferred maintenance, lots of grey hair, half the people not singing along with the familiar music. But also a preacher who knows, loves and teaches the Word. A small mob of vibrant children off to Sunday school. A youth group led by an earnest college student. And a monthly potluck lunch as full of kindness as it is calories.

Some say its doom is nigh. Others agitate for changes they believe will bring new life. Still others rejoice to see a faithful if imperfect remnant.

Then, out of the blue, a friend’s teenage daughter pipes up, "I love this church!"

Well, now.

Has evangelicalism been fading in Canada? Is it poised instead for new growth? Paradoxically, the answer to both questions is yes. As our country celebrates 150 years since Confederation, let’s take a quick tour from east to west to reflect on the past, present and future of evangelical Christianity.

THE CANADIAN BIBLE BELT

By 1867, the year of Confederation, evangelicalism was already long established out in the Maritimes. It came a century earlier, when colonists in the villages of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick felt cut off from their fellow Yankees in the Thirteen Colonies to the south, and from the colonial establishment in the city of Halifax.

Henry Alline, born in Rhode Island and raised in Nova Scotia, brought a radical form of the New Light gospel at the time of the American Revolution in the 1770s, a message of God’s favour upon those whom the world had ignored.

He helped increase the Baptist movement in the region, while Freeborn Garrison soon afterward enthused the Methodists and James McGregor inspired the Presbyterians.

Together their work sparked the Canadian version of the Great Awakening throughout the region.

This revival aimed at more than individual salvation as it sought to transform the little settlements of the hinterland into loving communions of worship, mutual edification and social service. The awakening grew so strong that it stamped Maritime culture to this day with evangelical orthodoxy, piety and social concern, and Baptists and Wesleyans still populate this region in much higher proportion than they do anywhere else in the country.

Up in Newfoundland and Labrador, revival fire and civic transformation arrived soon after Confederation. The Salvation Army and then the Pentecostals came to flourish far out of proportion – featuring even in the region’s distinctive denominational school system – before the province became Canada’s 10th in 1949.

UPRIVER FROM THE MARITIMES TO QUEBEC

Just up the St. Lawrence River, the huge province of Quebec has long stood as a fortress against evangelicalism. Until the 1960s, la belle province was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church to the extent public education was assigned to it by successive provincial governments.

Notorious laws were passed as recently as the mid-20th century that enabled priests and their Catholic partisans to incite both local mobs and law enforcement authorities to harass and even arrest Protestant evangelists in their communities. (Over in Anglo-Canadian society, of course, prejudice had long run the other way, against Catholicism. It took the charismatic and prolife movements of the 1970s to break down some of the barriers between Evangelicals and Catholics.)

What changed in Catholic Quebec in the 1960s? As late as 1957, almost nine in ten Quebecers attended church on a weekly basis. Today fewer than two in ten do so. This secularization, one of the most rapid in history, dates back to a wide range of radical 1960s social changes known collectively as the Quiet Revolution.

Today the challenge for the small number of evangelical churches in Quebec is not to evangelize a Catholic province, but convert an increasingly secular population that still thinks of Protestantism as an alien religion.

EROSION OF CULTURAL POWER SINCE THE 1960s

The major cultural changes of the 1960s weren’t limited to Quebec, of course, and most Western societies have seen an erosion of influence in their traditional institutions since that time.

The flower-power clothes, wild hair, love beads and groovy music have long since faded away, but many other effects of this era live on – the liberalization of divorce laws and sexual ethics, the increase of government-sponsored gambling, the secularization of public schools and universities, the availability of abortion virtually on demand, and the progressive dismantling of Lord’s Day legislation.

The century before, from the 1860s until the 1960s, had been an era when Protestantism commanded Canadian culture. Indeed, most Protestantism just was evangelicalism.

But all these 1960s developments spelled the end of that era – none more obvious than the rapid exodus of Canadians from the pews. In 1946 almost seven out of ten Canadians attended church weekly. Just one generation later, that number had slipped to just over two in ten. Today about two-thirds of Canadians maintain a nominal allegiance to the Christian faith, but most know little and practise less of historic Christianity.

Meanwhile, despite contrary developments south of the border, Canada never developed a modern Religious Right to speak of, whether Catholic or Protestant. Evangelicals generally have distributed their votes across the Canadian political spectrum.

For the last dozen years, however, we’ve seen stronger support among Evangelicals for the Conservative Party, following the championing of same-sex marriage by the Liberal and New Democratic parties and the vote in Parliament of 2005.

Widespread disillusionment with the Conservative regime of Stephen Harper in the 2015 election, however, spread out the evangelical vote once more. Yet many Evangelicals have drawn back from the Liberal Party once Prime Minister Trudeau began requiring allegiance to abortion rights from all new Liberal candidates.

Those Evangelicals who do call for a return to a Christian Canada, like the tiny Christian Heritage Party, sound off from the sidelines. For at least two generations, it has been eccentric in Canada to link religion and nation in a way that continues to be second nature for many Americans.

The task for Canadian Evangelicals is to fully accept their loss of cultural privilege, and gear themselves to reach a once predominantly Christian country that now only shows a trace of its history.

DOWN THE HIGHWAY TO ONTARIO

It’s a long day’s drive – over 1,000 km – from Quebec City to Windsor, at the southwestern tip of Ontario. Yet 60 per cent of the Canadian population lives along this corridor. Canadians outside the region like to tease Southern Ontarians about their sense of being Canada’s centre, but it remains true the nation’s capital is in Ontario, and the financial and demographic focus of Canadian power is clearly here too, as the Greater Toronto Area has become the fifth largest city in the Americas, producing 20 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

In the 19th century evangelical Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists dominated Ontarian culture, as they did most of the rest of Anglophone Canada. They founded a wide range of benevolent organizations, from hospitals to orphanages, from universities to missionary societies, and from homeless shelters to youth ministries.

In fact, Toronto mayor W. H. Howland referred to his city as "Toronto the Good," and the epithet was fairly apt.

Evangelical church spires from that era still loom over the province’s downtowns, as they do in most cities and towns across Canada. Most of them, whether Anglican or Baptist, were fashioned in the neo-Gothic style that proclaims, "We belong here in the centre. This is our country."

The skyscrapers of the banks, though, came to loom higher still. Evangelicals, and Christians in general, now no longer run the show in the Greater Toronto Area or across the country as Evangelicals number less than 10 per cent of the population.

Ontario yet is the home – or at least headquarters – of many evangelical institutions. Most denominations have their main offices there. Two of the few Christian universities in the nation are there (Redeemer and Tyndale), as is Canada’s largest evangelical seminary (Tyndale again).

Mission organizations such as SIM International – a few decades ago the largest faith mission in the world under its former name of Sudan Interior Mission – have their central offices there, as do Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, World Vision and other well-known special purpose groups.

And Ontario is also home to The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which links most important evangelical institutions across the country and represents the national evangelical community to the country’s legislatures, courts and media.

GATEWAY TO THE WEST

The three large provinces to Ontario’s west have long welcomed immigrants from all over the world to tend their fields and mine their ores. Evangelicalism on the Prairies has been influenced deeply by these immigrants, and by no group more than the Mennonites.

In Winnipeg, a city of 700,000 known as the gateway to the West, the three largest denominations in the nation are represented in order – Roman Catholics, United Church and Anglican. But equal with the Anglicans in Winnipeg are the Mennonites.

Southern Manitoba, in fact, is the demographic Mennonite capital of the world.

But all across the Prairies, as well as in southwestern Ontario, Mennonites shape society, and especially evangelicalism. They have supported benevolent societies such as the Mennonite Central Committee and the interdenominational Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Many are active in transdenominational evangelical groups, and much of the strength of evangelicalism in Western Canada is due to the number of people of Mennonite background who have migrated to a whole range of other churches, such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Baptist, Pentecostal and independent.

Qualified Christian private elementary and secondary schools receive some provincial funding in most of Western Canada, and several free-standing evangelical colleges have received charters to grant BAs, including Providence University College in Manitoba and both The King’s University and Ambrose University in Alberta.

But historically Bible school education was long the dominant form of postsecondary education in the country, and many continue to operate and even thrive on the Prairies.

OVER THE ROCKIES

Two apparently contradictory trends come together graphically in Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia. Most people there are immigrants and have left more than their previous residence – most have also left organized religion.

Who wants to go to church when you can walk in breathtaking parks, ski in the mountains or windsurf on the ocean? The polls show the leading religious choice among British Columbians is "no religion."

Yet the second-most-popular religious option in B.C. is evangelical Christianity.

Part of this can be accounted for by looking in the lower Fraser Valley and up the Okanagan Valley, both heavily populated by immigrants from the Prairies. Here grow Mennonite Brethren, Alliance, Christian Reformed, Pentecostal and other churches seating hundreds and even thousands.

That’s remarkable in a country with virtually no megachurches and in which fully 90 per cent of the churches have fewer than 250 people in attendance on a Sunday morning.

So it’s no surprise the Fraser Valley is home to Canada’s largest Christian university, Trinity Western.

Part of evangelicalism’s strength comes also from immigrants from the other direction, from the Pacific Rim. Virtually every urban centre in Canada is being reshaped by this immigration, and Canadian evangelicalism is changing likewise as Chinese and Korean churches lean toward more conservative forms of evangelical worship and piety.

It remains to be seen, however, whether second-generation Asian Canadians will continue to attend these churches that have also functioned as cultural social centres, providing their immigrant parents with a welcome place to speak the mother tongue and remember the old ways. Or will these young people eventually succumb to the allure of consumerist capitalism that functions nowadays as Canada’s de facto national religion?

This relative strength of evangelicalism in British Columbia reflects a national reality. Most Canadians continue to identify with a small number of Christian denominations. The Roman Catholic, United and Anglican churches claim the nominal allegiance of about three-quarters of the population. Lutherans, Orthodox and Baptists of various sorts make up much of the rest.

But allegiance isn’t the same as observance. Look inside churches on Sunday morning to see who’s actually there. Ask Canadians who among them prays, reads the Bible regularly, and contributes money and time to Christian causes.

The answer to all those questions is the same – Evangelicals. Both within the formerly mainline Protestant denominations and in uniformly evangelical ones, evangelicalism is once again the dominant orientation in Canadian Protestantism.

This relative predominance, however, has come only at the expense of the decline of active membership among the mainline denominations and in the face of the rapid secularization of the country. And Canadian evangelicalism also faces challenges within.

CHALLENGES WITHIN

The majority of inhabitants of the vast North remain nominally Christian, as do Indigenous people in the provinces as well, bolstered by some evangelistic success among Pentecostals, Baptists and others who carry on the tradition of missions established largely by Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

Leaders among Indigenous peoples, Pacific Rim immigrants and French Canadians, however, remain virtually invisible at the regional and national levels of evangelicalism. It remains to be seen how much these various Christian communities will assimilate into the prevailing Anglo-Canadian styles of evangelicalism, and how much instead they will transform – or depart from – the national fellowship.

And despite Evangelicals experiencing a steady rise in socioeconomic status over the last 150 years, most of their institutions still cope with significant financial stress, from local churches to nationally prominent schools, missions and other organizations. Evangelicals still don’t come close to giving even 10 per cent of their income to charity, and it shows.

Meanwhile, what about leadership? In Canadian history there have been few Egerton Ryersons, A. B. Simpsons, Tommy Douglases, or Aimee Semple McPhersons, not to mention those with more mixed records such as William Aberhart and T. T. Shields.

So it’s not unusual, and perhaps not even problematic, that today no evangelical pastors, authors, scholars or ministry leaders are widely known or get routinely consulted by major media. The flagship organizations – from the EFC to Regent College to Tyndale to Briercrest to IVCF to World Vision – go about their work on the quiet margins of the larger culture.

Trinity Western, to be sure, is the exception to that rule as it is currently notorious from coast to coast because of its attempt to found a law school that would require, among other things, orthodox Christian sexual behaviour from its members.

TWU might be, however, not the exception but merely the first of many as LGBTQ+ activism drives a wedge into Canadian culture at large and particularly into evangelical denominations, congregations and other organizations.

Indeed, the promises made by politicians a decade ago guaranteeing the religious freedom to demur on such matters seems very quickly to have become endangered just as Canadian society registers increasing alarm about religious freedoms given to Muslims and other immigrants whose customs vary from traditional norms – or from new, liberal expectations.

Meanwhile, Evangelicals in the medical world are fighting to retain their freedom to conscientiously object to practices they see harmful to unborn children or patients vulnerable to euthanasia.

On the 150th anniversary of Confederation – our country’s great experiment in co-operation between English and French, and Protestant and Catholic – it is not at all clear whether most Canadians have retained a spirit of accommodation of difference.

Evangelicals, who ran the cultural show for a century in Canada and did not rack up a stellar record in that regard, might now have to endure a season on the receiving end of an overbearing cultural consensus.

SEEING THE FUTURE IN VANCOUVER AND MONTREAL

Two generations of sociologists – from the venerable Reginald Bibby to younger evangelical scholars Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson – have brought further bad news. They have warned Evangelicals their growth has plateaued, and they will do well merely to retain most of their young people and gain a small boost from immigration.

The future for evangelicalism toward Canada’s bicentennial therefore looks modest, if not dim.

And yet. Twenty years ago downtown Vancouver – one of the least churchgoing places in the country – was home to only a small evangelical witness as the likes of First Baptist and Fairview Presbyterian kept the fire lit. The big churches were all out in the Fraser Valley.

Today, however, downtown Vancouver is home to more than a handful of thriving churches. They generally feature informal services with lively preaching framed by lots of Tomlin and Crowder music sung by enthusiastic, ethnically diverse congregations.

Meanwhile innovative evangelical ministry is happening in other regions of Vancouver, particularly among desperate people on the frightful Downtown Eastside and the funky crowd on Commercial Drive.

Vying with Vancouver for "least promising place in Canada to expect evangelical vitality" would be, of course, urban Quebec. Yet here too are green shoots of promise, as both English- and French-speaking churches have sprung up in Montreal to serve hundreds of worshippers each weekend, many of them coming from unchurched or nominally Christian backgrounds.

Meanwhile, as you consider the training of future pastors in the light of the struggling, but still fruitful, work of evangelical seminaries, who would have guessed even a decade ago Evangelicals would appear on the faculties of the Atlantic and Vancouver schools of theology? And that an Evangelical would be named principal of Knox Theological College in Toronto? Would anyone have predicted Presbyterianism might be poised to regain its place as a vital force in Canadian evangelicalism, and beyond?

Again, there is no Billy Graham or Tim Keller or John Stott or Nicky Gumbel spurring any of these developments. In typical Canadian evangelical fashion, there are instead hardworking leaders and faithful coworkers doing what they are supposed to and thanking God for good results.

Furthermore, the very ebbing of evangelical cultural power across Canada, the way it has already ebbed in Vancouver and Montreal, allows more and more people to encounter the gospel without prejudice and previous disappointments.

That means a new day for effective evangelism, alongside the formula of "retention of youth + enfolding of immigrants" – much like the situation Evangelicals faced when they welcomed into the faith so much of the country in the decades surrounding Confederation.

On the sesquicentennial of the nation, it is far too soon to sign off on the story of evangelicalism in Canada.

John Stackhouse is the Samuel J. Mikolaski professor of religious studies (and dean of faculty development) at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. Read more articles like these with a subscription to the EFC magazine Faith Today.


Author: John G. Stackhouse, Jr.


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