As a sociologist of religion in Canada, I regularly consult with church groups across the country seeking to bridge sociological, theological, and practical discussions for Christian ministry in the 21st century. We have found four trends in the Canadian religious landscape that are worth paying attention.  Let us ask questions and consider how these trends have practical implications for church engagement and growth.

Secularization

Empirical trends show that Canada is progressing along a secularization trajectory. Religious identification, church attendance, and belief in God continue to decline, while those who do not identify with any religion, never attend religious services, and do not believe in God are increasing. These trends are especially noticeable among teens (if you want to project future religiosity in a nation, look to the current state of religiosity among its young people). Moreover, those who are not actively involved in a religious group do not generally show a strong inclination toward greater involvement.  The implications here should impact what ministry looks like going forward in an increasingly secular context.

Religious Nones

Religious nones – those who say they have no religion – are the fastest growing “religious” group in Canada and the modern Western world. One in four Canadian adults say they have no religion, and 32% of Canadian teens claim no religion. These figures are rising. Some religious nones adopt an array of spiritual beliefs and practices while others identify as agnostics or atheists. Why the increase? Explanations range from the reduced cultural stigma associated with not being religious in Canada, the aversion to exclusiveness – real or imagined – connected with most organized religious groups, diminished religious socialization in the home, and pervasive cultural values of individualism that defy external religious authorities. Recent survey data in Canada show that religious nones and Christians (evangelicals in particular) are not fond of each other. The Christian Church in Canada will need to consider how to approach the emerging social and cultural milieu as well as the theological and practical implications that will naturally develop.

Christian Identification 

Christianity continues to be the dominant religion in Canada, but Christianity’s hold is waning. The 2011 Canadian Census reveals that 67.3% of Canadians identify as Christian, down from 76.6% one decade earlier and upwards of 90% a half-century earlier. This means that Christianity no longer holds the place that it once did in Canadian society.  Consider the impact, if any, this trend will have on the individual Christian, the local church, or Canadian society.   This reality will shape where the Church in Canada is heading in the coming years.

Immigration and Religion

Most assume that because of immigration, Canada is increasingly religiously diverse. In reality, only 8.2% of Canadians identify with a non-Christian religious tradition (e.g., Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh), up from 6% in 2001 – and these figures are growing. Still, around 40% of immigrants to Canada arrive as Christians. Christian affiliation, belief, and involvement would decline more rapidly in Canada if it were not for immigration, and all indications suggest that the future of Christianity in Canada depends on immigration. In response, local churches will need to be mindful of this demographic shift and consider how these changes influence mono-cultural or multicultural congregational settings and what the theological imperatives may be.

Note from the editor:
The U.S. has some similar trends to acknowledge as we move forward in planting churches and understanding our cultural context.  The American religious landscape is undergoing tremendous shifts in identity and diversity. According to Pew Research, “Religious ‘nones’ are not only growing as a share of the U.S. population, but they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures, a fact that also is helping to make the U.S. public overall somewhat less religious, according to surveys done as part of our Religious Landscape Study.”[1] In regard to immigration of peoples and refugees into the U.S., the numbers show that 74% are Christians. [2] The impact of the diversity of Christian peoples upon our religious landscape is still unfolding and will paint a new portrait of church planting and growth in America.

[1] Pew Research: “Religious Nones are Not Only Growing They’re Becoming More Secular.”
[2] Pew Research: “Faith on the Move – The Religious Affiliation of International Migrants: Appendix A: Destination Spotlight United States.

For more on these and other trends, see Joel’s book, The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). My website is:  www.joelthiessen.ca.   Also, to learn about congregations that are flourishing in Canada, see www.flourishingcongregations.org

Joel Thiessen
Author

Dr. Joel Thiessen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University, in Calgary, Alberta. In addition to publishing several articles, he has written two books: The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective (co-authored with Lorne L. Dawson) (Oxford University Press, 2014) and The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). More information can be located on his website, www.joelthiessen.ca.

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