Sunday, January 28, 2018

Canadian Evangelicals Bucking National Trends, But Warning Signs Ahead

The story of Christianity in Canada over the past 60 years or so is well known—a story of numerical decline.

But one group of Christians has managed to weather the storm—Evangelicals.

Over the past number of decades, while other denominations have seen their memberships drop, the Evangelical portion of the Canadian population has remained steady.

What’s their secret?

That’s what Sam Reimer, a professor of sociology at Crandall University in New Brunswick, and  Michael Wilkinson, professor of sociology and director of the Religion in Canada Institute at Trinity Western University, decided to find out.

Based on national research and interviews with over 500 pastors, they show that while many denominations are in trouble in Canada today, Evangelical groups are showing greater resiliency—although there are warning signs ahead.

I spoke to Reimer about their findings. Why, I asked, are Evangelicals doing better than other groups?

“Members of Evangelical churches are more likely to be committed and involved in their congregations,” he says, adding that for many their church is a “hub” for religious and social activity.

At the same time, members go to church more often than is the case for other church groups, and are more likely to volunteer for church programs—something that is important if church going to experience vitality.

But while things are going better for Evangelicals than for other denominations, his research shows trouble on the horizon.

One challenge is leadership. “All Evangelical denominations report that fewer people are going to seminary,” he says.

As many boomers get set to retire as clergy, this is a challenges since there are “fewer leaders to replace them.”

Another challenge is retaining youth.

Although Evangelicals do a much better job of keeping their young people than mainstream denominations, research shows that about a third leave the church by the time they enter their 20s, he says.

Then there is the general lack of interest in religion in Canada.

“Few people go to church regularly, and being religious no longer a normative choice for many,” he notes, adding that this is especially true for younger people.

What about evangelism? If there’s any one thing that characterizes Evangelicals, it’s a commitment to sharing their faith. Will that help them keep up their numbers?

Reimer says no. His research shows that only one out of ten newcomers comes from a non-church background, or from another faith.

According to Reimer, seven out of ten newcomers come from other churches—the so-called “circulation of the saints”—while two out of ten are people who grew up in a congregation.

Evangelism, he says “is not a big conduit for growth,” adding the research shows that evangelical churches might hope to add one to two real converts per year—at most.

And yet, he explains, “evangelism is fundamental to who they are. Even the rare convert can re-vitalize a church.”

Another challenging issue, Reimer shares, is whether Evangelicals should be more welcoming of LGBTQ* Canadians.

“Without a doubt this is a major source of tension” in Evangelical churches, he says.

“Younger Evangelicals have more lenient views than older members on this issue.”

It’s also going to be a growing source of tension between evangelical churches and the larger society, he adds.

“It’s very hard for churches to maintain any sort of positive public presence when they are perceived to be anti-LGBTQ*,” he says.

“It’s hard win new converts if a church is seen as intolerant and bigoted.”

Based on the research, it’s “very likely” Evangelicals will “decline in future,” he concludes, although the decline will be slower than what happened to mainline denominations.

“They are at the top of the hill now, or the bubble, just starting to go downhill.”

When Reimer talks to denominational leaders, he says they aren’t surprised at his findings.

“Not a lot say they can’t believe it,” he says.

Reimer, who attends an Evangelical church, is quick to add that his analysis is through the eyes of a sociologist.

“What I am saying is descriptive, not proscriptive. I’m just identifying the trends, where we are now and where we are going.”

Through the eyes of faith, he states, “God can do things we don’t expect.” 

From the Jan. 27, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

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