The Fall of the Church’s Place in Canadian Society
It’s 1966. You’re standing in front of Canada’s Parliament building on a cold New Year’s Eve. You, and all the “important people” are there, ready to witness the lighting of the Centennial Flame celebrating Canada’s 100th birthday. What do you expect to hear?
An opening prayer is read: “Grant thy blessing upon the joyous celebrations of our centennial year … that with the flame of freedom in our souls and light of knowledge in our eyes, we may magnify thy Name among men, one country serving Thee.”
Snap back to 2019. Can you imagine such a prayer would be said at a such a high-profile public event today? Probably not. That was then. This is now.
Though the prayer uttered wasn’t explicitly Christian — Jesus Christ isn’t mentioned — it was clearly a prayer that most Canadians of the day would have assumed to be addressed to the Christian God. That was because most Canadians then self-identified as Christian.
According to a 2013 Pew study, in 1971 the Canadian population was 47% Catholic, 41% Protestant, 4% other religions, and 4% unaffiliated. That same study noted that in 2011, the fastest growing segment was the religiously unaffiliated (sometimes called these days the “Nones”) which had grown 600% to 24% of the population, while both Catholic and Protestants saw continuous drops.
What accounts for the radical shifts away from Christian affiliation in Canada in the last 50 years? How did the church move from a central position to where it is today marginal at best and dangerous at worst? Getting a grasp on what’s happened could certainly help us to understand how we should respond today.
FROM CENTRE TO MARGINS TO ALIEN TERRITORY
The story of the Church’s place in Canadian society over the last five decades is complex but let me suggest a very broad outline.
PHASE 1: “CHRISTIAN CANADA”
In 1967 the Canadian historian George Webster Grant remarked that “Canada grew under the tutelage of its church and the church exerted its influence in pulpit, school and press, serving as the keepers of the moral and spiritual foundations of nationhood and the conscience of the state.”
I don’t think Grant was claiming that Canada was a “Christian country”, if that meant it was explicitly founded and run according to Christian principles. But if Grant is right, Canada, until the late 60’s, still assumed the Christian church more or less represented its moral and spiritual interests.
But a number of events in the late 60’s and early 70’s brought rapid changes in the country’s national identity. At least three events should be noted.
THE QUIET REVOLUTION
The changes were manifest first in Quebec, when during the late 50’s through to the late 60’s, the so-called “Quiet Revolution” took place. During this time the Quebec government sought to bring public policy decisions out from under the heavy influence of the Catholic Church. This move effectively brought the Church’s authority into question to the point where Quebec experienced sharp drops in attendance in the Catholic Church: from 90% (!) in the late 50’s to 65% by the early 70’s. Today, some church officials estimate that only 2-4% of Montrealer’s attend Mass.
During the late 60’s the Canadian government first began pursuing the official federal program of multiculturalism. Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau launched the program designed to promote respect for the cultural diversity of Canada’s population, and to grant ethnic groups rights to preserve their own cultures within Canadian society. Multiculturalism also opened up immigration to countries outside the traditional European (and largely Christian) countries, including applicants from Asia where Christianity was not as well established.
RECOGNIZING INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
In the early 70’s, Canada rightly became aware of how it had unjustly handled its relationship to Indigenous peoples. As Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien proposed abolishing the Indian Act and dismantling of the established legal relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the state of Canada in favour of equality. It also opened the door to acknowledge the injustices experienced by Indigenous people who had suffered in the residential school system.
All of these factors were part of the underlying shifts in Canadian perspectives on the Christian church. Changes in the relationship to the once powerful Catholic Church in Quebec, the introduction of other religious perspectives from immigrants from non-European (read: “non-Christian”) countries, and the pains associated with Indigenous affairs all implicated the church at some level and introduced reasons for suspicion about its goodness in Canada.
PHASE 2: THE CHURCH AT THE MARGINS
In the 70’s to 90’s, Canada’s relationship to the church transformed even further. Although many major intellectual and cultural movements during this period undoubtedly contributed to everyday Canadian views of the church and Christianity, two factors are important to mention here.
THE ELECTRONIC MEDIA EXPLOSION
As a child of the late 60’s, I remember the first time a TV (black and white) appeared in our house. Those my age may also remember the break-neck development of media technology in those decades, including cable television, the first personal computers, video recorders, cellphones, and of course, the internet. All these electronic media exposed Canadians to broader perspectives of the world. Previously, discovering what others outside our immediate local communities thought or experienced would have been possible, but difficult and slow. With the explosion of electronic media, the world, its religious, political, and moral perspectives included, became broadly available. Suddenly Christian perspectives weren’t the only ones to be heard.
PLURALISM AND POSTMODERNITY
The new multiculturalism and greater openness in immigration policy were important moves in Canadian public policy, but they also meant that Canada was having to learn the difficult lessons of pluralism — that there are multiple perspectives on any given idea, and that the Christian perspective shouldn’t therefore automatically be given place of prominence.
An influential book commissioned for use in Quebec, The Postmodern Condition (1979) by Francis Lyotard, defined the term “postmodernity” as a cultural “incredulity towards metanarratives.” In short, Lyotard theorized that society was moving increasingly toward a place where multiple perspectives from multiple cultures and religions would result in an inability to believe that one overarching story — a metanarrative, Lyotard called it — could sufficiently serve an entire population in its attempt to understand all history and reality. Everyone’s interpretation of the world is incomplete and therefore, no one’s interpretation can be expected to stand in for everyone.
Of course, societal incredulity extended to the Church and its “metanarrative”: that God was the Creator of heaven and earth, that humans are sinful, that Jesus is the way to salvation, and that all people everyone needed Jesus to take care of their brokenness.
The broad sentiments and tenets of postmodernity — including the relegation of Christianity to one narrative amongst others — were quickly swept up in the university curriculum where future generations of leaders were being formed. During the 90s and early 2000s, the church’s leadership sought to situate itself within this new “postmodern situation” — a situation which undercut the church’s claims to divine revelation and to the universality of its message. Consequently, the church in Canada had lost its pre-eminent position at the centre of society and took its place at the margins of society.
PHASE 3: THE DANGEROUS CHURCH
Canada’s relationship with the church continued to change during the watershed moment in the mid 2000’s with the legalization of same-sex marriage. This was a tumultuous time when many (though certainly not all — and this didn’t help) voices in the Canadian church sought to resist the radical shift.
But as we know, the Judeo-Christian (and indeed, the perspective of most of the world’s religions) gave way to the new “enlightened” views that marriage needed to be modernized and brought into the twenty-first century.
Add to this the mind-boggling pace of discussion on matters of gender, sexuality, life issues (e.g., Medically assisted suicide), ecology, etc. and it quickly became apparent that many of the church’s historic views on these issues were out of step with current cultural and political mindsets.
To be fair, the church hasn’t been banished from our country, and we undoubtedly still enjoy some of the greatest religious freedoms in the world. However, Christians are starting to experience the feeling of what it is like to be not only old fashioned and out of date, but sometimes, what it is like to be a target of suspicion. Indeed, some today are even speculating publicly about the dangers of the church (and religion broadly) in a modern secular society.
HOW SHOULD THE CHURCH THEN LIVE?
The evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer once wrote a book entitled, How Should we Then Live? That’s a great question we should be asking today. How then should we
live and respond in Canada today as followers of Jesus in view of these changes? Much could be said here, but let me suggest two very basic, but I believe, vitally important considerations that will help us think our way forward.
First, the measure of the Christian Church’s is not its influence, but its faithfulness to God and his Gospel.
Throughout Christian history, the church around the world has sometimes had greater and lesser cultural, national and political influence. Sometimes this influence has been good—such as the leading role the church played in the abolishment of the African slave trade. Other times, well, we know the church hasn’t always “played nice.”
Now let me say this: Having cultural influence isn’t inherently bad. Indeed, as the Gospel of Jesus is embraced, we should expect major cultural changes and the betterment of society for all. We should always hope, pray and work toward a better and more peaceful world for all. However, we need continually to recall that the church is the community of Jesus followers, called upon to give witness in word and action to the coming Kingdom of God and enabled by the Holy Spirit. The divine genius of the Church is that its work continues, regardless of the extent to which a society is, or isn’t, functioning according to God’s good creational and kingdom purposes.
Consequently, we, the church, shouldn’t despair when we see such changes as I’ve outlined above taking place. God’s mission, and the church’s task, hasn’t nor will change, no matter the tectonic cultural shifts taking place. We worship God, we care for his creation, we go and make disciples, we baptize, we teach, and we care for one another and for our needy neighbours.
Second, the Christian Church needs to commit afresh to faithful service where it serves best — locally and interpersonally.
Sociologists constantly debate whether major cultural and indeed spiritual change takes place best from bottom up, or from top down. I believe that Scripture testifies broadly to the fact that the Spirit turns the world and cultures upside down when local congregations of Jesus followers are committed to living out love for God and love for neighbour right where they are found.
The book of Acts tells stories of how the Gospel spread mightily and quickly by the Spirit of Jesus — and how sometimes the church rested and sometimes the church suffered in the midst. It also mentions how the Gospel sometimes upset cultural and religious apple-carts, and how sometimes it had to face the political powers. But through it all, the Church worked quietly and steadily on in whatever locale followers of Jesus sprang up in the power of the Spirit.
I am all for seeking cultural, educational, legal, and political influence for the sake of the Gospel. But as noted above, it is not power or influence per se that we seek. Rather, it is transformed people, who have the assurance of the forgiveness of sin, who have the power to break chains of addictions and the spiritual knowledge to nourish healthy relationships and families. It is these whom will eventually be launched into positions of influence.
But let us learn well that individuals of Gospel influence will fail to launch unless they are first fueled by the Gospel by fellow Gospel servants. Such servants are found in local congregations and small groups and men’s breakfasts and construction sites and committees and boards and health clinics and soccer teams and … well, you get the idea. We are not held responsible to turn a massive societal train around; but we can be involved in building future engineers and track-layers committed to Jesus’ ways.
So, don’t be discouraged if you see the Christian church being pushed to the margins, or even being identified as public enemies. This is not a new thing in the church’s history. Instead, keep serving, keep praying, keep loving your spouse, keep worshipping God, keep mentoring, and by all means, keep your heart and mind pure while focusing on the one thing that matters — that Jesus is Lord of our nation, even when many are increasingly far from him.