Church and Faith Trends - October 2007 / Volume 1 / Issue 1

01 October 2007

Complete research article can be read as a PDF Download.

Counting Canadian Evangelicals

by Rick Hiemstra, Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism

Say What?

A survey by Maclean’s magazine in 2004 found “almost one-third of Canadians defined themselves as born-agains or evangelicals.” In 2006 Maclean’s reported that 31% of Canadians “feel uneasy around born-again Christians." Then in 2007 Maclean’s reported that Evangelicals form the Canadian religious group most satisfied with their sex lives. Are one-third of Canadians uneasy around another third of Canadians who are satisfied with their sex lives? Where do these numbers come from? Who are the “Evangelicals” that Maclean’s is finding? How are they finding them and why are they interested? What are we to make of these numbers? For that matter, why should churches or governments care about how many Canadian Evangelicals there are?

Evangelicals and the Public Square

Interest in Canadian Evangelicals has been growing in the last few decades with their return to prominence in the public square. Preston Manning founded the Reform Party in the early 1990s and then led it to become the official Opposition in the Canadian House of Commons. The Reform Party boasted a significant number of evangelical Members of Parliament, and Evangelicals were active in the party’s rank and file. Manning was succeeded as leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, a new incarnation of the Reform Party, by Stockwell Day, who is also an Evangelical. Then in the early part of this decade, during debate over the legalization of same-sex marriages in Canada, evangelical Christians played a vocal and prominent role. Now the country was paying attention.

Other Reasons to Take a Look

Statistics Canada tracks religious affiliation in its decennial censuses. A 1971 document described the government interest in religious affiliation this way:

The data are used by governments as a basis for determining denominational school grants. It is used extensively by religious and educational organizations, such as the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, to assess the need to construct churches and schools for various religious groups in areas where there are concentrations of people of a particular denomination. Studies of family size and fertility rates among different religious groups are also carried out by social researchers because these data are available. The data are also used by Members of Parliament in assessing the importance of different religious groups in their constituencies.

The reasons for taking a look at Evangelicals have changed over the years. Today the government uses religious affiliation data to better understand immigration, race, charitable giving and volunteering, and marriage and family data. Government interest is still focused on gauging influence and aiding in the administration of government programs. Evangelicals themselves are interested to know how many of us there are for some of the same reasons, but we also want to understand who we are and where we are. We want to know where there is the greatest need for church planting, and we want to understand how we can best cooperate for relief projects and partner together in common mission. In order to do this, we have to understand who we are and how many of us there are. We have to count.

How Many Evangelicals Are There?

George Rawlyk would have estimated “between five and ten per cent of Canadians were evangelicals in the early 1990s.” Reginald Bibby reports in Fragmented Gods (1987) that “Conservative Protestants,” which he uses fairly interchangeably with “evangelical Christians,” represent about 7% of the Canadian population.

In 2004 Bibby’s report on the 2001 census data states that Conservative Protestant groups still represent only about 8% of the Canadian population.8 Rawlyk by contrast asserted in 1996 that, using the Christian Evangelical Scale (CES) developed by Andrew Grenville, he found 11% of Canadians were Protestant Evangelicals. Ipsos-Reid used a modified form of the CES in 2003 and found 12% of Canadians to be Protestant Evangelicals. What is to account for the significant discrepancies?

The spread between Bibby and Rawlyk/ Grenville is just three to four percentage points. But throw in the Maclean’s statistic that finds a third of Canadians are Evangelicals and the discrepancy grows to a quarter of the Canadian population. So where do these numbers come from? What are the strengths and weaknesses of their counting methods? How should we use these numbers?

Operationalizing Canadian Evangelicals

Good counts begin with good definitions. The better we define Evangelicals, the more likely we are to find them when we go looking. The way that we count is more difficult than it may at first appear. Counting is an expensive business. When it comes to tracking religious affiliation, even Statistics Canada economizes by polling just 20% of the population. Researchers therefore look for tools that maximize both accuracy and economy when they set out to find Evangelicals. Sociologists call these tools for finding a population accurately and economically operationalizations.

The Bible contains an operationalization that is helpful for understanding the concept. In Judges 12:1-7 the tribe of Ephraim picked a quarrel with Jephthah over a perceived snub. A battle ensued, and Jephthah and his forces gained the upper hand over the Ephraimites. The following verses record what happened next.

And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. ( Judges 12:5-6, ESV)

The Shibboleth question operationalized the Ephraimites. This one question did not describe their culture. It did not provide an exhaustive definition of Ephraim. It simply homed in on a question that would separate out an Ephraimite from anyone else, and it did it without an elaborate interview or background check. It was an operationalization. The operationalizations we are looking at do not have the same sinister intent, but they do carry the same goals of economy and accuracy.

It is important to maintain a distinction between a definition and an operationalization. A good definition is the basis for an operationalization, but an operationalization will find a group that only approximates the definition. In our biblical example this simple question could have been improved upon by asking an additional question such as, “Who is your father?” or even by asking the potential Ephraimite to repeat his answer or pronounce other words with distinct pronunciations. Further questions can help reduce error but only at the expense of economy. Evaluating an operationalization is done by checking the people it finds against the original definition. Error cannot be eliminated. What researchers have to do is decide what level of error they are comfortable with. To put the question another way, researchers have to decide how much they are willing to pay to eliminate more of the error.

Where This Paper Is Going

This paper briefly surveys three non-ecclesial ways that Canadian Evangelicals have been operationalized. The first operationalization we will look at is self-identification, asking the question “Are you an evangelical Christian?” Next we will look at the Christian Evangelical Scale (CES), which has been used by George Rawlyk and The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, among others. Third we will look at the religious affiliation question that Statistics Canada asks as part of the decennial census. I hope that this paper will sensitize us to the meaning of various counts and foster responsible handling of data on Canadian Evangelicals. Finally I intend to suggest how operationalizations may be improved.

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